Rule 54(b) – A Primer

Adam Ellis–Las Vegas, Nevada appellate and business litigation attorney

Many civil cases involve multiple parties and multiple causes of action.  Frequently, however, just one or few causes of action are central to the dispute.  Others are either plead in the alternative or out of an abundance of caution.  How can a party appeal a decision as to just one cause of action, when others remain?  Shouldn’t an appeal only lie after the entire case proceeds through judgment? NRCP 54(b) provides the answers:

When an action presents more than one claim for relief — whether as a claim, counterclaim, crossclaim, or third-party claim — or when multiple parties are involved, the court may direct entry of a final judgment as to one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties only if the court expressly determines that there is no just reason for delay. Otherwise, any order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties and may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties’ rights and liabilities.

Though the text may appear a bit confusing at first glance, the Rule’s purpose informs us.  Rule 54(b) was designed to promote judicial economy by limiting piecemeal appellate review of issues within a case, while simultaneously imposing a standard to determine when appellate review is appropriate though the case has not proceeded to judgment.

Generally, appellate courts disfavor piecemeal review of issues within a case.  And for good reason; it takes time, effort, and resources to hear an appeal, and appellate courts do not wish to hear individual appeals related to each decision by the district court in a matter.  More importantly, the appellate court lacks jurisdiction to hear an appeal where there is no final judgment in the underlying litigation.

Rule 54(b) certification is a determination from the district court that although the order or judgment under appeal disposes of fewer than all claims in the case, it is otherwise final, and that no just reason for delay exists for the appellate court to review the order.  Absent 54(b) certification, the appellate court lacks jurisdiction to hear the appeal, and the appeal will be dismissed.  See First Western Sav. & Loan Ass’n v. Steinberg, 89 Nev. 582 (1973).

But how does one obtain 54(b) certification?  Like most things, a party must move in the district court for Rule 54(b) certification.  The district court cannot grant certification unless it is  warranted and meets the necessary requirements discussed below. See Taylor Const. Co. v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 100 Nev. 207 (1984).  “The district court does not have the power, even when a motion for certification is unopposed, to transform” an inappropriate interlocutory order “into a final judgment.” Id.

To obtain Rule 54(b) certification, the order or judgment must dispose of either an entire claim or all claims against one party.  For example, the denial of a motion for summary judgment is not capable of 54(b) certification because the denial neither disposes of an entire claim nor all claims against a single party.  See id.  An order granting a motion to dismiss is certifiable under NRCP 54(b), as it operates to dismiss an entire claim, but fewer than all claims in the action.  See State v. AAA Auto Leasing & Rental, Inc., 93 Nev. 483 (1977).

Next, the district court must “expressly determine[] that there is no just reason for delay.”  NRCP 54(b).  The court need not provide any findings of fact or reasoning to support its determination that there is no reason for delay. See Mallin v. Farmers Ins. Exchange, 106 Nev. 606 (1990).  Though this sentence seems rather conclusory, that is all that is required.

NRCP 54(b) serves as a buffer against appeals being taken from interlocutory orders, and imposes a requirement on the district court to certify that its order is final and reviewable.  Failure to seek 54(b) certification when claims or parties remain in the district court proceeding will certainly be fatal to your appeal.  Save yourself time, and your client’s money.  Apply NRCP 54(b) the next time you wish to appeal a district court’s order.