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U.S. Supreme Court

Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord, 449 U.S. 368 (1981)

Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord

No. 79-1420

Argued November 12, 1980

Decided January 13, 1981

449 U.S. 368


Respondent is lead counsel for the plaintiffs in four consolidated product liability suits in Federal District Court against petitioner and other manufacturers. Petitioner moved to disqualify respondent from further representation of the plaintiffs because of an alleged conflict of interest arising from the fact that petitioner's liability insurer was also an occasional client of respondent's law firm. Petitioner argued that respondent's representation of the insurer would give him an incentive to structure the plaintiffs' claims for relief so as to enable the insurer to avoid any liability, thus increasing petitioner's own potential liability. In accordance with the District Court's order, respondent obtained the consent of both the plaintiffs and the insurer to his continuing representation, and the court then allowed him to continue his representation of the plaintiffs. Petitioner filed a notice of appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, which vests the courts of appeals with "jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts . . . except where a direct review may be had in the Supreme Court." The Court of Appeals held that district court orders denying disqualification motions were not immediately appealable under § 1291, but, because it was overruling prior cases, the court made its decision prospective only and, on the merits, affirmed the District Court's order permitting respondent to continue representing the plaintiffs.


1. Orders denying motions to disqualify the opposing party's counsel in a civil case are not appealable final decisions under § 1291. Such an order does not fall within the "collateral order" exception of Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U. S. 541, to the requirement that all appeals under § 1291 must await final judgment on the merits in the underlying litigation. Petitioner has made no showing, as required under the Cohen doctrine of immediately appealable "collateral orders," that an order denying disqualification is effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment on the merits. The propriety of a district court's denial of a disqualification motion will often be difficult to assess until its impact on the underlying litigation may be evaluated, which is normally after final judgment, and should the court of appeals conclude chanrobles.com-red

Page 449 U. S. 369

after the trial has ended that permitting continuing representation was prejudicial error, it would retain its usual authority to vacate the judgment appealed from and order a new trial. Pp. 449 U. S. 373-378.

2. The Court of Appeals, after properly concluding that the District Court's order was not immediately appealable under § 1291, erred in reaching the merits of the District Court's order. The finality requirement of § 1291 is jurisdictional in nature. If an appellate court finds that the order from which a party seeks to appeal does not fall within the statute, its inquiry is over. A court lacks discretion to consider the merits of a case over which it is without jurisdiction, and thus a jurisdictional ruling may never be made prospective only. Pp. 449 U. S. 379-380.

612 F.2d 377, vacated and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 449 U. S. 380.


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