Watkins v. City of Paragould, 2013 Ark. App. 539, involves a long-running dispute (dating back to 2006) between landowners and a city that wanted to trim trees near the landowners’ property. As a result of a problem with a Rule 54(b) certificate in the case, it looks like the dispute will last at least a little bit longer.
The case began when the City filed a petition in the Greene County Circuit Court claiming that the City was entitled to an easement over the landowners’ property, and seeking an injunction to prohibit the landowners from interfering with the City’s maintenance of its electrical lines. The landowners filed a counterclaim (with 27 counts) against the City. Many of the counts were dismissed, and others were set for trial (separately from the City’s request for an injunction).
On May 10, 2012, after a multi-day hearing, the trial court entered an injunction prohibiting the landowners from interfering with the maintenance of the City’s electrical lines. The order did not address the landowner’s counterclaims which, as mentioned above, were set for a separate trial. Nevertheless, the landowners filed a notice of appeal, purporting to appeal from the order granting the injunction, as well as several other orders. The City moved to strike the notice of appeal for lack of a final order (because of the pending counterclaims). A subsequent hearing was held, and the landowners requested a Rule 54(b) certificate. The court was open to the idea, but rather than attach the certificate to the original order, the trial court prefered to enter a separate order. Therefore, on August 7, 2012, the trial court entered a nunc pro tunc “Addendum,” which contained a Rule 54(b) certificate. The landowners filed additional notices of appeal, but did not reference the Addendum.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals refused to hear the case, dismissing the case without prejudice. The Court based its holding on the language of Rule 54(b), which provides that the certificate “shall appear immediately after the court’s signature on the judgment . . . .” Ark. R. Civ. P. 54(b)(1). The Court also noted that it was important to have the certificate appear within the order itself because doing so: (1) grants finality to the order; (2) establishes the identity of the order appealed from; and (3) establishes the date from which to calculate the deadline for the notice of appeal.
There are a couple of items to note with respect to this opinion. First, the Court noted that the “Addendum” entered by the trial court on August 7, 2012 “was not attached to the court’s May 10, 2012 order; nor did it reiterate the findings and conclusions of law from the order, or incorporate or replicate the order in any way.” From this, it seems at least possible that the Court of Appeals might have heard the appeal had the trial court taken one of these steps.
Second, in a footnote, the Court of Appeals pointed out the the landowners’ notice of appeal did not include a statement abandoning all pending but unresolved claims, which is required in most notices of appeal. Ark. R. App. P.–Civ. 3(e)(vi). It appears that the Court of Appeals pointed this out simply to make 100% clear that the order from which the landowners had appealed was not a final order (had the landowners included the language, the order would have been a final order, because the landowners would have been abandoning the pending but unresolved counterclaims). Please note that the abandonment language in Rule 3(e)(vi) is not required in cases involving a Rule 54(b) certificate. In fact, doing so defeats the purpose of the Rule 54(b) certificate, because in many cases the abandonment language would make the order with the Rule 54(b) certificate a final order.