Declining to Decide: Is a Federal Court's Decision to Send a Case Back to State Court in Deference to Ongoing State Proceedings Immediately Appealable?


Linda S Mullenix

5 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 224


This article previews the issues and arguments in Quackenbush v. Allstate Insurance Co., on the Supreme Court’s 1995-96 docket. The Court will address two primary issues: (1) Is a federal district court's remand order based on abstention grounds immediately appealable under the Cohen collateral order doctrine?, and (2) May a federal district court abstain in actions involving money damages, or is abstention appropriate only in equitable proceedings?

This spring the Supreme Court will hear its eleventh case in less than 10 years involving the immediate appeal of federal district court orders. Normally, litigants must await a final judgment before bringing an appeal to a higher court. However, the Court has articulated a "collateral order" doctrine that permits certain district court orders to be appealed immediately.

The appropriate application of the collateral order doctrine has been the repeated subject of Supreme Court litigation. Indeed, Quackenbush is the second case this Term concerning the doctrine. The Court's collateral order decisions have stretched with annual regularity through the past decade. In Quackenbush, the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether a federal district court's order a case back to state court on abstention grounds is immediately appealable to a federal appellate court under the collateral order doctrine, or whether an appeal of the remand order may only be made through a writ of mandamus procedure.

In general, remand orders based on jurisdictional defects are not immediately appealable. 28 U.S.C.§ 1447(d) (1988). However, the district court's remand order in Quackenbush was based on abstention grounds rather than jurisdictional grounds. It is also pertinent to note that earlier this Term the Court unanimously reaffirmed the general rule concerning the non-appealability of remand orders.

In addition to the issue of whether or not an abstention-based remand order is immediately appealable via the collateral order doctrine, the Court also has been asked to determine a fundamental question concerning the appropriate circumstances for applying the abstention doctrine: Is the doctrine available only in equitable cases or is it also available in cases at law for money damages?

The Quackenbush case is significant for at least three reasons. First, and most broadly, the sheer number of collateral order cases that the Supreme Court has reviewed during the last decade suggests doctrinal trouble, if not crisis. Perhaps, this is the reason the Court hears a collateral order case just about every Term. Despite the Court's earnest pronouncement that immediate review of district court orders is the exception not the rule, federal litigants continue to exploit the collateral order doctrine as a means to achieve immediate review. It seems certain that until the Supreme Court clarifies or refines the collateral order doctrine, Court watchers can expect the pattern of hearing one or more collateral order case each Term to continue.

Second, and more narrowly, the Court's decision on the immediate appealability of a federal court's remand order on non-jurisdictional grounds could have significant impact on the federal courts' workload: the so-called floodgate problem. State court defendants frequently avail themselves of their removal right to federal court, and the non-reviewability of remand orders is a rule intended to reduce litigation and delay in determining the appropriate forum for adjudication. If the Court now determines that remand orders based on such non-jurisdictional grounds as the abstention doctrine are immediately appealable as collateral orders, the Court conceivably opens the door to many such appeals, encouraging satellite litigation with the inevitable burdens of cost and delay.

Third, the Court has been asked a fundamental question about the merger of law and equity in federal courts and is poised to determine if the judicially created abstention doctrine in its many permutations applies only to equitable actions and not to legal actions involving money damages. Since the Court has never before made such an explicit distinction in its abstention decisions, it is of great moment whether the Court will now recognize such a distinction for the application of abstention doctrine. If the Court chooses to recognize that the abstention doctrine applies only in equitable actions, the proverbial Pandora's box may be opened because lower federal court judges, when faced with a request to abstain, will now be required initially to construe whether an action is legal or equitable.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Declining to Decide: Is a Federal Court's Decision to Send a Case Back to State Court in Deference to Ongoing State Proceedings Immediately Appealable?, 1995-96 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 224.