Cunningham v. Hamilton County, Ohio

527 U.S. 198 (1999)


Cunningham (P) represented Darwin Lee Starcher in a federal civil rights suit filed against Hamilton (D) and other defendants. Starcher brought the suit after his son, Casey, committed suicide while an inmate at the Hamilton County Justice Center. The theory was that Ds willfully ignored their duty to care for Casey despite his known history of suicide attempts. P was served with a request for interrogatories and documents; responses were due within 30 days after service. That deadline, however, passed without compliance. The Magistrate Judge ordered P to make full and complete responses to Ds' requests for interrogatories and documents and further ordered that four witnesses be deposed on July 25, 1996. P did not produce the requested documents, gave incomplete responses to several of the interrogatories, and objected to several others. P then noticed the deposition of one of the parties on July 22, 1996, not July 25, and then refused to withdraw this notice despite reminders from Ds' counsel. D then filed motions for sanctions against P. The Magistrate Judge granted the motions for sanctions finding P’s conduct “egregious.” P was ordered to pay the Hamilton County treasurer $1,494, representing costs and fees incurred by the Hamilton County prosecuting attorney as counsel for respondent and one individual defendant. The District Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge's sanctions order. The District Court also granted motions to disqualify P as counsel for plaintiff due to the fact that she was a material witness in the case. With proceedings in the District Court ongoing, P immediately appealed the District Court's order affirming the Magistrate Judge's sanctions award to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. It considered whether the sanctions order was immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine, which provides that certain orders may be appealed, notwithstanding the absence of final judgment, but only when they “are conclusive, . . . resolve important questions separate from the merits, and . . . are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action.” Swint v. Chambers County Comm'n, 514 U.S. 35, 42 (1995). In the Sixth Circuit's view, these conditions were not satisfied because the issues involved in petitioner's appeal were not “completely separate” from the merits. The court held that “a non-participating attorney, like a participating attorney, ordinarily must wait until final disposition of the underlying case before filing an appeal.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari.