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U.S. Supreme Court

Richardson-Merrell Inc. v. Koller, 472 U.S. 424 (1985)

Richardson-Merrell Inc. v. Koller

No. 84-127

Argued February 26, 1985

Decided June 17, 1985

472 U.S. 424


Respondent Anne Koller was born without normal arms or legs. She filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging that, during pregnancy, her mother had taken an antinausea drug manufactured by petitioner, and that this drug had caused respondent's birth defects. Respondent was initially represented by Miami and Washington law firms, but a Los Angeles law firm later took the lead in trial preparation. Before trial, the District Court disqualified the Los Angeles firm and revoked the appearances of two of its attorneys because of misconduct. Respondent appealed the disqualification to the Court of Appeals, which stayed all proceedings in the District Court pending the outcome of the appeal. The Court of Appeals thereafter held that 28 U.S.C. § 1291 -- which grants courts of appeals jurisdiction of appeals from all "final decisions of the district courts," except where a direct appeal lies to this Court -- confers jurisdiction over interlocutory appeals of orders disqualifying counsel in a civil case. The Court of Appeals then held that the disqualification in question was invalid.

Held: Orders disqualifying counsel in a civil case are not collateral orders subject to immediate appeal as "final judgments" within the meaning of § 1291, and hence the Court of Appeals lacked jurisdiction to entertain respondent's appeal. Pp. 472 U. S. 429-441.

(a) To fall within the "collateral order" exception to the "final judgment" rule, an order must "conclusively determine the disputed question," "resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action," and "be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment." Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U. S. 463, 437 U. S. 468. Pp. 472 U. S. 429-432.

(b) One purpose of the "final judgment" rule embodied in § 1291 is to avoid delay that inherently accompanies time-consuming interlocutory appeals. When an appellate court accepts jurisdiction of an order disqualifying counsel, the practical effect is to delay proceedings on the merits until the appeal is decided. A disqualified attorney's personal desire for vindication does not constitute an independent justification for a interlocutory appeal, but, as a matter of professional ethics, the decision to appeal should turn entirely on the client's interest. Nor does the

Page 472 U. S. 425

use of disqualification motions to harass opposing counsel constitute an independent justification for an immediate appeal of the disqualification order, since implicit in § 1291 is Congress' judgment that the district judge has primary responsibility to police litigants' prejudgment tactics. The possibility that a ruling may be erroneous and may impose additional litigation expense is not sufficient to set aside the finality requirement. Pp. 472 U. S. 433-436.

(c) Civil disqualification orders do not meet the requirements of the "collateral order" exception. If prejudice is not a prerequisite to reversal of a judgment following disqualification of counsel, the propriety of the disqualification order can be reviewed as effectively on appeal of a final judgment as on a interlocutory appeal. If prejudice is a prerequisite to reversal, disqualification orders are not sufficiently separate from the merits to qualify for interlocutory appeal. Flanagan v. United States, 465 U. S. 259. Even apart from Flanagan's analysis, civil disqualification orders are often inextricable from the merits of the litigation. Pp. 472 U. S. 436-440.

237 U.S.App.D.C. 333, 737 F.2d 1038, vacated and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 472 U. S. 441. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 472 U. S. 442. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

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