Stringfellow v. Concerned Neighbors
480 U.S. 370 (1987)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Stringfellow v. Concerned Neighbors, 480 U.S. 370 (1987)

Stringfellow v. Concerned Neighbors in Action

No. 85-184

Argued January 20, 1987

Decided March 9, 1987

480 U.S. 370

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent nonprofit organization, whose members live near a hazardous waste dumpsite, moved to intervene in a suit brought by the United States and the State of California against petitioners, who owned or operated the dumpsite, or who allegedly dumped waste there. The suit sought injunctive relief that would require petitioners to abate the release of harmful substances from the site, to take remedial steps to correct the unsafe conditions, and to reimburse the costs of bringing about the cleanup. The Federal District Court denied respondent's request to intervene as a matter of right, but granted its alternative application to become a permissive intervenor, subject to the conditions that it could not (1) assert any claim for relief not already requested by one of the original parties; (2) intervene in the cleanup costs claim; or (3) file motions or conduct its own discovery unless it first conferred with all the original parties and obtained the permission of one of them. Respondent filed an immediate appeal, protesting both the denial of intervention as of right and the restrictions imposed on permissive intervention. The Court of Appeals allowed the appeal, holding that the denial of intervention was a final appealable order within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1291, despite the grant of permissive intervention.

Held: A district court order granting permissive intervention but denying intervention as of right is not immediately appealable. Such an order is not "final" in the traditional sense, since it does not end the litigation. Furthermore, it does not fall within one of the narrow categories the Court has deemed final for review purposes. Pp. 480 U. S. 374-380.

(a) The District Court order is not covered by the "collateral order" exception to § 1291, because respondent's party status as a permissive intervenor will allow it to obtain effective review of its claims on appeal from the final judgment. Although, after a long and complex trial, it might be difficult for respondent to show that the harm from the intervention order is sufficiently great to overturn the final judgment, this has little bearing on whether respondent has the right to an interlocutory appeal under the collateral order doctrine. The complained-of difficulty is the same one faced by any party subject to an adverse pretrial order. Respondent has presented no compelling evidence why the

Page 480 U. S. 371

intervention order here should be treated differently than these other orders.

(b) The limitations placed on respondent's right to participate cannot be construed as a complete denial of intervention sufficient to render the District Court order immediately reviewable. Respondent is, in fact, a participant in the case. and has alternative means for challenging the order. It is significant that none of the limitations on permissive intervention interfere with respondent's ability to raise its claims on post-judgment appeal. Pp. 480 U. S. 377-378.

(c) The District Court order does not come within 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1), which authorizes interlocutory appeals from orders "refusing . . . injunctions." Even assuming the order had the effect of denying injunctions sought by respondent, such a denial is appealable under § 1292(a)(1) only if the order will have a serious, perhaps irreparable, consequence, and can be effectively challenged only by an immediate appeal. Respondent's right, during post-trial review, to challenge the limits on its participation renders § 1292(a)(1) inapplicable. Pp. 480 U. S. 378-379.

(d) Section 1291's finality rule protects a variety of interests that contribute to the efficiency of the legal system. The trial judge's ability to conduct efficient and orderly trials would be frustrated, rather than furthered, by piecemeal review. Pp. 480 U. S. 380.

755 F.2d 1383, vacated and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in all but Part II-B of which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 480 U. S. 380.

Page 480 U. S. 372

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question before us is whether a district court order granting permissive intervention but denying intervention as of right is immediately appealable.

I

This case is part of the ongoing litigation concerning the Stringfellow Acid Pits, an abandoned hazardous waste disposal site near Glen Avon, California. Petitioners are 28 individuals, companies, or entities who formerly owned or operated the Acid Pits, or who allegedly produced or transported the wastes that were dumped at the disposal site. In 1983, the United States and the State of California filed suit against petitioners, claiming that the Acid Pits created a substantial danger to the surrounding area. The Government plaintiffs sought injunctive relief that would require petitioners to abate the release of harmful substances from the site, and to take remedial steps to correct the unsafe conditions. Both the United States and California also requested reimbursement for the costs incurred in bringing about the cleanup.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, respondent Concerned Neighbors in Action (CNA), a nonprofit organization whose members live near the dumpsite, moved to intervene in the litigation. CNA claimed that it was entitled to intervene as a matter of right pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24(a), because it had a substantial interest in the suit that would not be represented adequately by the existing parties. [Footnote 1] CNA also asserted that the citizen suit provisions

Page 480 U. S. 373

of various environmental statutes allowed intervention as of right in these circumstances. [Footnote 2] Alternatively, CNA claimed that it should be allowed to intervene by permission pursuant to Rule 24(b).

The District Court denied the request to intervene as of right, but granted CNA's application to become a permissive intervenor. The court concluded, however, that CNA's right to participate should be subject to three conditions. First, it held that CNA could not assert any claim for relief that had not already been requested by one of the original parties. The court found that

"allowing applicants to assert their individualized damage and other claims would burden and expand an already complex litigation, and could jeopardize the possibility of settlement."

App. to Pet. for Cert. A-19. Second, CNA could not intervene in the Government plaintiffs' claim for recovery of the cleanup costs. Finally, in an effort to "minimize any delay and confusion involved in discovery," the District Court ruled that CNA could not file any motions or conduct its own discovery unless it first conferred with all the original parties, and then obtained permission to go forward from at least one of these litigants. Id. at A-20. The court emphasized, though, that CNA had the right to attend all depositions, to participate to the extent not duplicative of the original parties, and to receive copies of all discovery material produced by the other litigants.

Page 480 U. S. 374

CNA filed an immediate appeal, protesting both the denial of the application to intervene as of right and the restrictions imposed on permissive intervention. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit initially dismissed the appeal, finding that the District Court order was not a "final decision" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1291. [Footnote 3] The court's decision was largely based on the fact that CNA had been made a party to the litigation and could protect its interests fully during an appeal from the final judgment. The Ninth Circuit also noted that its decision was consistent with the results reached by other Courts of Appeals in similar cases. [Footnote 4] The court subsequently withdrew its opinion, however, concluding that the holding was inconsistent with Ninth Circuit precedent. Relying on California v. Block, 690 F.2d 753, 776 (1982), the court ruled that "[d]enial of intervention as of right is a final appealable order, despite the grant of permissive intervention." App. to Pet. for Cert. A-26. The court ordered further briefing on the merits of the intervention application, and ultimately held that CNA must be allowed to intervene as of right. United States v. Stringfellow, 755 F.2d 1383 (1985) (order). See also 783 F.2d 821 (1986) (opinion).

We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict among the Courts of Appeals as to whether this type of pretrial order is subject to immediate appeal. 476 U.S. 1157. We now vacate and remand.

II

CNA acknowledges that the District Court order in this case is not "final" in the traditional sense. The decision concerning

Page 480 U. S. 375

CNA's intervenor status clearly is not one that "ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment." See Catlin v. United States,324 U. S. 229, 324 U. S. 233 (1945). Instead, CNA argues that the order falls within one of the narrow categories of decisions that we have deemed final for purposes of review, even though the entire dispute has not yet been resolved.

A

CNA's primary argument is that the District Court ruling is covered by the "collateral order" exception to § 1291. This doctrine recognizes that a limited class of prejudgment orders is sufficiently important and sufficiently separate from the underlying dispute that immediate appeal should be available. Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp.,337 U. S. 541, 337 U. S. 546 (1949). To qualify as a collateral order, a decision must: (i) "conclusively determine the disputed question"; (ii) "resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action"; and (iii) "be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment." Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay,437 U. S. 463, 437 U. S. 468 (1978) (footnote omitted). See also Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord,449 U. S. 368, 449 U. S. 375 (1981).

Although a party seeking appeal must show that all three requirements are satisfied, we find it unnecessary to address each part of the test. We assume, arguendo, that the District Court order conclusively determined CNA's right to intervene, and that the intervention issue is completely separate from the merits of the underlying action. We nevertheless find that the order is not "collateral" within the meaning of Coopers & Lybrand. We conclude that, because CNA is now a party to the suit by virtue of its permissive intervention, it can obtain effective review of its claims on appeal from the final judgment.

An intervenor, whether by right or by permission, normally has the right to appeal an adverse final judgment by a

Page 480 U. S. 376

trial court. See Fishgold v. Sullivan Drydock & Repair Corp.,328 U. S. 275, 328 U. S. 280-283 (1946); Kartell v. Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Inc., 687 F.2d 543 (CA1 1982). See also 3B J. Moore & J. Kennedy, Moore's Federal Practice

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