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Texas Supremes Support Breaking Lawsuit into Appealable Parts

by | Feb 24, 2024 | Civil Appellate Law

Sealy Emergency Room LLC v. Free Standing Emergency Room Managers of America, No. 22-0459  (Tex. Feb. 23, 2024), no cert. h.

In an ordinary civil lawsuit, plaintiffs’ lawyers ask for judgment for every different legal reason that they can think of (“causes of action”). They ask for judgment from everybody that it would be good to ask for relief from. In response, the defendants’ lawyers assert every defense and counterclaim that they can think of. Sometimes, they add new parties for the defendants to get relief from. The ordinary lawsuit begins with a bunch of causes of action and counterclaiming causes of action. The lawsuit is not supposed to be finished until every one of those causes of action, etc., are decided.

Sometimes some of the causes of action can be decided without a trial usually by summary judgment, other are harder to decide– there has to be a trial or at least some evidence needs to be taken. A trial court will often rule to decide the easy parts of a case first, and then sever– cut off–those claims from the rest of the suit. The trial court can declare those parts of the case final– that is, capable of being appealed– while the rest of the case waits for its turn in line for evidence.

In this case, the trial court decided part of the case and severed that part out. It said, as to that part, that one side owed the other side attorneys’ fees. One of the sides in the trial court appealed. They objected that the trial judge couldn’t separate the causes of action that it did from the others because the severed and non-severed causes of action were inextricably intertwined. They also said that attorneys’ fees couldn’t be awarded because it wasn’t clear who the winner of most of the case would be- the non-final part hadn’t been decided yet. The First Court of Appeals in Houston basically agreed. It declared that it wasn’t sure if the severed part was really final and dismissed the appeal.

The Supreme Court of Texas ruled that:

  • the severed part was final and appealable;
  • even if the causes of action had been improperly severed, appellate courts still had jurisdiction over the severed part; and
  • a court could award attorneys’ fees as to severed causes of action in a proper case, which this one was.

One of the weirdest things about appellate law is that there is no 100% certain way to know if a trial court judgment is final and, therefore, appealable. Trial courts make lots of little rulings about parts of cases. Practically all of the time, people can figure out if a judgment is final, but sometimes, as in this case, it might not be clear.