In the last batch of SCV opinions, we got a special treat: another foray into the Lovecraftian depths of appellate jurisdiction, Rutter v. Oakwood Living Centers of Virginia, Inc.

I would have written something earlier, but I’ve had a busy few weeks–two arguments in Richmond, and the birth of our daughter, Catherine Roberts.

Obligatory baby picture after the jump.

Anywho, back to the madness. Here is how Chief Justice Kinser begins her summary of Rutter‘s holding:

In exercising jurisdiction to determine our own jurisdiction and thereby analyzing the merits of the issue presented on appeal, we conclude that Code Section 8.01-335(B) does not allow the prospective discontinuance or dismissal of an action.

Don’t stare at that sentence too long. You will go insane. Instead, let’s take this one a step at a time:

Rutter brought a wrongful death suit against four defendants: Oakwood, an assisted living facility; one of its contractors, Prism, and two of Prism’s officers, Dixon and Knowlton.

In 2000, Prism filed for bankruptcy. Dixon and Prism filed a notice of bankruptcy, alerting the circuit court that the suit against them was automatically stayed. Reasonable enough.

In response, the circuit court entered an order removing the case from its docket, and purporting to discontinue it if, after three years, there had been no further proceeding under Code Section 8.01-335(B).

In other words, it attempted to enter a self-executing order prospectively discontinuing a case for lack of activity.

Which, you know, sounds like one of those weird things a court shouldn’t be able to do. For ease of reference, we’ll call this ruling the “2000 Order.”

Odder still, Rutter continued with discovery against Oakwood, the circuit court’s order notwithstanding.

Oakwood and Knowlton filed motions reminding the circuit court of the bankruptcy stay.

And then, nothing much happened for a few years.

In June 2005, Rutter tried to set a trial date. She told the circuit court that the bankruptcy stay had been lifted in April 2002.

And then, nothing much happened for another few years.

In April 2009, Oakwood filed a plea of the statute of limitations and/or motion to dismiss, arguing that the 2000 Order had effectively discontinued Rutter’s action in 2003. Because Rutter had neither refiled nor reinstated her action in a timely manner, it argued, she was barred from pursuing it.

The circuit court agreed. It found that the 2000 Order had discontinued Rutter’s case and removed it from the docket as of 2003, and therefore dismissed her “Complaint against Oakwood” with prejudice. We’ll call this ruling the “2009 Order.” And pay attention to that “against Oakwood language–it’s going to come back.

Rutter appealed. The Supreme Court had little trouble determining that that 8.01-335(B) does not allow a trial court to prospectively discontinue actions. By its terms, the statute plainly requires a case to be active for three years before it can be dismissed. That comports with the statute’s purpose, which is to allow courts to manage their dockets by removing cases that have no reasonable prospect of proceeding to trial. A circuit court prospectively entering a discontinuance order has no way of knowing whether, in three years, a case will have any reasonable prospect of making it to trial.

The SCV noted that, in other contexts, its allows trial courts to enter prospective, self-executing orders. Specifically, a circuit court can sustain a demurrer and dismiss an action, but grant the plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint by a specific date. In those cases, the order does not become final until after the time provided for amendment has expired. But the Court distinguished those situations, because the circuit court’s authority to discontinue a case is statutory, and the statute does not contemplate prospective, self-executing discontinuance orders.

The Court thus concluded that the 2000 Order merely removed Rutter’s action from the docket, but did not dismiss or discontinue the action. As a result, the 2000 Order never became final.

That, however, raised a thornier issue: Was the 2009 Order a final, appealable order? After all, it only dismissed the complaint against Oakwood, not the other three defendants.

Turns out it was not. The Court began its analysis by noting that a court always has jurisdiction to determine its own jurisdiction, even if doing so requires it to analyze the merits first. It explained that, by statute, it has jurisdiction to hear appeals from persons aggrieved by final judgments in civil cases.

A final order, of course, is one that disposes of the whole subject, gives all of the relief contemplated, and leaves nothing left to be done by the trial court–except, perhaps, to attend ministerially to the execution of the order.

An order that does not dispose of all defendants generally is not final. The Court noted one exception, the so-called “severable-interests” rule, but determined that it did not apply. A second exception, Rule 5:8A (which arguably does away with the severable-interests rule), was not in effect in 2009.

Thus, the Court had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal, which it dismissed without prejudice.

Usually, I try to end these posts with a series of lessons learned. But after Rutter, I’m stuck with some outstanding questions, like:

  • So . . .now what? The SCV explained that the circuit court was wrong, but then dismissed the appeal. So that leaves Rutter . . . back in the trial court? I’d say that I’m very curious to see what the mandate says, but I’m not even sure a mandate issues when an appeal is dismissed. Very odd. Perhaps even stranger still . . .
  • How did this case linger for so long in the circuit court without anything happening? Particularly with the judge’s order looming, it seems like somebody would file something–if only to tee things up for appeal.

Bottom line: the SCV gets to the right result, but the bizarre posture of the case requires it to take a painfully tortured route to get there.