Supreme Court Overrules Court of Appeals on Finality Doctrine

Anyone who follows appellate decisions in Arkansas has observed the particular affinity the Arkansas Court of Appeals has for the finality doctrine. Stated simply, absent some specific exception, there must be a final order as to all claims and all parties before an appeal can be heard. The oft-repeated reason is that the appellate courts want to decide a case on appeal once, and avoid piece-meal appeals.   See, e.g., Moore v. Moore, 2015 Ark. App. 115; Youngblood v. Youngblood, 2015 Ark. App. 121; and Burton v. Templeman, 2015 Ark. App. 101.   Some (including me) would argue that the Court of Appeals is applying finality too rigidly.   A case today suggests the Arkansas Supreme Court might agree.

In Bank of the Ozarks v. Cossey, 2015 Ark. 367, the Arkansas Supreme Court took on review a case that had been previously decided by the Arkansas Court of Appeals.   The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal for lack of a final order.   Their reasoning was:

“In the present case, the circuit court declared the Bank to be trustee of the Hamilton Living Trust and ordered the Bank to provide Cossey with an accounting. The accounting has yet to be performed and will necessarily involve future actions by the Bank, as well as future oversight and rulings by the circuit judge. The court’s order therefore contemplates further action by a party or the court and is not final and appealable.”

Bank of the Ozarks v. Cossey, 2014 Ark. App. 581, 3, 446 S.W.3d 214, 216 (2014), reh’g denied (Dec. 10, 2014) overruled by 2015 Ark. 367.

The Arkansas Supreme Court disagreed:

“The circuit court’s order was appealable as a final judgment or decree. See Ark. R. App. P.–Civ. 2(a)(1) (2014). For a judgment to be final, it must dismiss the parties from the court, discharge them from the action, or conclude their rights to the subject matter in controversy; thus, the order must put the trial court’s directive into execution, ending the litigation, or a separable branch of it. Smith v. Smith, 337 Ark. 583, 990 S.W.2d 550 (1999). Such is the case here. A single petitioner (Cossey) brought a single claim (accounting) against a single respondent (the Bank). After a hearing, the circuit court granted the petition and ordered the Bank to perform an accounting. Thus, the parties were dismissed from the court, the action was discharged, and the rights to the subject matter were concluded.”

Bank of the Ozarks v. Cossey, 2015 Ark. 367 at note 1.  Here is a link to the full decision:

http://opinions.aoc.arkansas.gov/WebLink8/0/doc/335626/Electronic.aspx

Many cases leave ministerial acts or future obligations open, even after the disputed issues in the case are fully decided.   Finality should not be an impediment to an appeal when the issues central to the case have been decided.   I’m encouraged that the Supreme Court agrees.

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