US Supreme Court Clarifies Appellate Rights in Multi-District Litigation Proceedings

Published on: 2/20/2015

In Gelboim v. Bank of America, the Supreme Court of the Cullen Seltzer
United States clarified the appellate rights of litigants in Multi-District Litigation.  The Court's ruling in January expands the availability of appeal as an option to Multi-District plaintiffs.  While not derailing the ability of MDL courts to manage litigation, the expanded appellate rights of some plaintiffs may complicate transferee courts' work.

In 1968, Congress created a vehicle for multiple cases involving "common questions of fact," but filed in different District Courts around the country, to be consolidated for pre-trial purposes in a single transferee court.  That vehicle is the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation.  It is comprised of judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  The MDL Panel, on request or on its own motion, can consolidate cases of a particular type, from transferor courts, and transfer them to a single District Court, the transferee court, for coordinated pre-trial proceedings. 

It's easy to see why such a process would be helpful.  In complex cases, it's far better to have a single judge decide pre-trial issues, rather than risk different, inconsistent, rulings in proceedings around the country.  It also helps conserve judicial resources by requiring only a single judge to become expert in a particularly complex piece of litigation, rather than requiring sometimes hundreds of judges around the country to all get up to speed on what is essentially the same case.

When pre-trial proceedings in the transferee court are complete, cases can then be sent back to their home transferor courts for trial.  As a practical matter, though, many MDL transferee judges will rule on pre-trial issues that are dispositive of cases.  Thus, once a case is transferred to the transferee court, they may never return home.  For example, cases, or groups of cases, may be selected for settlement administered by the transferee court.  Or, a case may be dismissed on the pleadings, pursuant to Rule 12, or at summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 56.

In Gelboim, the transferee MDL court was confronted with three different sorts of claims stemming from allegations that banks rigged the way the LIBOR interest rate was set.  For one of these three sorts of claims, a Sherman Act anti-trust claim, the transferee court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss.  Some plaintiffs in that category of claim sought to appeal from the transferee court to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Second Circuit dismissed the appeal.  That court reasoned that because there were still transferred cases in the transferee court, the consolidated and coordinated MDL proceedings were not over.  Thus, the Second Circuit concluded, there was no final order for the dismissed plaintiffs to appeal.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous Court, disagreed.  The Supreme Court held that once a plaintiff's suit was dismissed, even in consolidated MDL proceedings, 28 U.S.C. 1292 vested the Second Circuit with the jurisdiction to hear the appeal.  All of plaintiff's claims had been resolved.  With regard to that particular plaintiff, no further proceedings in the transferee District Court would change plaintiff's result - his case had been dismissed.

That conclusion seems pretty reasonable.  The countervailing concern, though, is that the MDL transferee court still has plenty of work to do with the remaining claims.  The transferee court must still hear related claims.  How the Court of Appeals resolves pending issues may have consequences for the transferee court's ongoing work.  Should the transferee court stay its proceedings, or some of them, while the dismissed plaintiffs wind their way through an appeal?  Maybe or maybe not, depending on what the pending issues are and how they will implicate the transferee court's ongoing work.  What if, in mid-stream, the appellate court hands down a ruling that up-ends procedures the MDL transferee court has underway and which the parties have invested time and money following?  Those considerations are certainly some impediment to the MDL statute's intended purpose - the efficient coordination and consolidation of all cases arising from a common set of facts. 

In the end, the Supreme Court's ruling in Gelboim likely struck the balance between these competing procedural goals correctly.  It will be cumbersome for transferee courts to simultaneously manage an ongoing consolidated docket while looking over one shoulder wondering if the appellate court will tinker with its work.  On the other hand, the plaintiff whose lawsuit has been dismissed ought to have some appellate remedy and waiting till the MDL transferee proceedings are over could take years.  Justice generally ought not wait that long, particularly for a litigant whose wait is filled with literally doing nothing in his case. 

As for transferee Courts worrying the appellate court will disrupt its work with an unanticipated ruling?  That's a hazard all trial judges confront in every case.