Cunningham v. Hamilton County
527 U.S. 198 (1999)

  • Cunningham was an attorney representing Starcher in a civil rights lawsuit.
    • Starcher’s son died in prison, and he was suing Hamilton County.
  • Cunningham was served with a request for interrogatories as part of the discovery process. However, she willfully refused to provide the information requested. Hamilton County made a motion to sanction Cunningham.
  • The Trial Judge found Cunningham’s conduct egregious and imposed sanctions under Rule 37(a)(4), and fined her $1500.
  • Cunningham immediately appealed the sanctions.
    • Cunningham was dismissed from the case.
    • The case between Starcher and Hamilton County was still ongoing…
  • The Appellate Court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Cunningham appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, a Federal Appellate Court does not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal until the original trial has reached a final decision.
    • In a dissent, it was argued that sanctions order was immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine.
      • To be eligible, the issue being appealed must meet three criteria:
        • The Trial Court’s decision was conclusive.
        • It resolves important questions separate from the merits of the case.
        • The decision is effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that a Rule 37(a)(4) sanction is not a final decision as required for an appeal.
    • The Court agreed that the Trial Court’s decision was conclusive.
    • Basically, the Court didn’t feel that the issue was separate from the merits of the underlying case.
      • An evaluation of the appropriateness of the sanctions may require the reviewing court to inquire into the importance of the information sought or the adequacy or truthfulness of a response.
    • Cunningham unsuccessfully argued that since she was not a party to the case, she had no standing to appeal.
    • The Court felt that Cunningham was sanctioned for delaying the case by not providing information. To award such behavior by allowing an immediate appeal to delay the case even further was not in the interests of justice.