The Fourth Circuit issued an interesting, unpublished opinion on Tuesday in Kelly v. Conner  in which it sua sponte dismissed a party’s appeal for want of jurisdiction and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.  While this result alone is not remarkable, the underlying procedural history and the result of the remand makes the case somewhat unique. Kelly involved a multi-count complaint against 10 defendants.  The plaintiff was a security guard at a Charlotte nightclub and was arrested multiple times for violations of North Carolina statutes regulating private security personnel and possession of firearms.  After all criminal charges were dismissed, the plaintiff sued the defendants alleging, inter alia, federal civil rights violations, a multitude of state law claims such as malicious prosecution and abuse of process, and that he was entitled to a declaratory judgment regarding the application of the relevant North Carolina statutes to his situation.

All defendants moved for summary judgment as to all of the plaintiff’s claims. The plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on his two declaratory judgment requests.  The district court granted all of the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, denied the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, and ordered the plaintiff’s complaint to be dismissed with prejudice.  Plaintiff appealed from that order.

The Fourth Circuit, after full briefing of the merits and oral argument, determined that it did not have jurisdiction over the appeal because it was from an interlocutory order, not a final order resolving all claims as to all parties.  If you are following closely, you may be wondering how that could be possible; the district court ordered that the plaintiff’s complaint be dismissed, so how could that not be a final decision?  The answer is that it is the substance of the order, and not the form of the order, that governs the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction.  While the district court had, in form, dismissed all of the plaintiff’s claims, in substance the district court had failed to actually analyze and rule on the declaratory judgment claims. Thus, the Kelly court reasoned that what the district court had done substantively was enter a partial grant of summary judgment; the declaratory judgment claims remained to be adjudicated.  The plaintiff’s appeal was dismissed, and the case was remanded.  Although the Fourth Circuit did not say that the district court’s order was “reversed,” this decision effectively reverses the district court’s dismissal of the case.  The court must now proceed in some fashion on the two declaratory judgment claims

It’s not difficult to imagine that upon remand the district court will simply issue a new amended decision specifically addressing and dismissing the two declaratory judgment claims. Thereafter, the plaintiff will have the opportunity to appeal again, and the parties will have to repeat the same briefing process.  In light of that likely outcome, wouldn’t it have been more efficient for the Fourth Circuit to have adjudicated the merits of the case?  After all, it is well-settled that the Fourth Circuit “may affirm the grant of summary judgment on grounds other than those relied upon by the district court.” Egbuna v. Time-Life Libraries, Inc., 153 F.3d 184, 186 (4th Cir. 1998). The fundamental problem with this solution, though, is that in order to affirm a grant of summary judgment on alternative grounds, the court must first have proper jurisdiction over the case.  Having determined that it did not have jurisdiction, it presumably could not have proceeded to the merits.

–Patrick Kane