Plaintiffs Waited Too Long to Appeal Post-Judgment Formula for Calculating Interest, Holds Second Circuit

In Amara v. Cigna Corp., No. 20-202 (2d Cir. Nov. 10, 2022), reviewing post-judgment orders in a long-running class action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Second Circuit holds that it has no jurisdiction over the plaintiff-class’s challenge to the district court’s orders setting the formula for calculating interest because the notice of appeal was filed too late.

The finality of post-judgment orders under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 – granting appellate jurisdiction over a “final decision” – for purposes of triggering the timing of an appeal under Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(1)(A) and 28 U.S.C. § 2107(a) is one of the most vexing and pit-trap-prone standards in the field of federal courts. It is always clear that the entry of a final judgment is appealable within 30 days of docketing but deciding when a post-judgment order becomes final is fraught with guesswork.

In this case, since winning a judgment in an ERISA case challenging the conversion of a traditional defined benefit pension plans into a defined contribution plan, the plaintiffs have engaged in a lengthy post-judgment phase to remedy the losses to the participants. Part of the remedial phase even went to the U.S. Supreme Court (Cigna Corp. v. Amara, 563 U.S. 421 (2011)).

Previously, the Second Circuit had “affirmed the district court’s final judgment ordering Cigna to reform its pension plan to pay greater benefits to Plaintiffs under Parts A and B of Cigna’s pension plan (‘A+B’ remedy). On remand, the parties disputed how Cigna would calculate A+B benefits. The district court resolved those disputes in four orders . . . . The Methodology Orders established how Cigna would calculate the dates from which sums were due under Part A or Part B, the dates from which prejudgment interest should be paid, and the prejudgment interest rate, among other issues.”

After the district court’s Methodolgy Orders in 2017, there then ensued litigation of the class counsel’s fees and a debate about how to value the settlement for common-fund calculation purpose. “Cigna disputed Plaintiffs’ common-fund calculation, so the district court convened a status conference to address that issue in July 2018. At that conference, Plaintiffs attempted to raise issues concerning the Methodology Orders. But the district court rebuffed Plaintiffs’ attempt, instructing the parties in no uncertain terms that the time for litigating those issues had come and gone. See Joint App’x in No. 20-202, at 646 (‘[W]e’re not going to relitigate methodology; and to the extent there are issues that could have been brought up in the motions related to methodology and weren’t, it’s really too late.’). The district court declined to ‘act[] in response to what appears to be the Plaintiffs’ invitation for the relitigation of settled methodology disputes or perhaps new methodology disputes[.]’ Id. at 671; see also id. at 652 (‘I don’t see that at this point we can or should be relitigating any of the methodology.’).”

“In April 2019—almost six months after the district court awarded attorney’s fees and over a year after the last Methodology Order—Plaintiffs moved to enforce the Methodology Orders and to hold Cigna in contempt and impose sanctions. They contended that Cigna had not complied with the final judgment or the Methodology Orders in calculating the A+B relief. The district court denied that motion.”   

The Second Circuit holds that the plaintiffs’ 2020 appeal of the 2017 Methodology Orders came too late, and thus there was no appellate jurisdiction.

“Often, determining whether a district court’s order is final is simple enough . . . . But not always. The Supreme Court has long recognized that ‘[n]o self-enforcing formula defining when a judgment is ‘final’ can be devised.’ Republic Nat. Gas Co. v. Oklahoma, 334 U.S. 62, 67 (1948)[.]” The panel observes that the Supreme Court in a string of decisions has eschewed any formula for deciding finality. At the same time, “the Court has also ‘expressly rejected efforts to reduce the finality requirement of § 1291 to a case-by-case determination,’ Richardson-Merrell, Inc. v. Koller, 472 U.S. 424, 439 (1985) . . . and practical construction is in no way inconsistent with the recognition of general rules.”

With respect to post-judgment orders, the water is murkier still. “Though we look to general finality principles to determine postjudgment finality, these principles apply differently in the postjudgment context . . . . [I]n assessing postjudgment finality, we give less weight to ‘the inconvenience and costs of piecemeal review’ and correspondingly greater weight to ‘the danger of denying justice by delay.’ . . . .  Mindful of these principles, we conclude that a district court’s postjudgment order is final when it ‘has finally disposed of [a] question, and there are no pend[1]ing proceedings raising related questions.’ [citing the Wright, Miller & Cooper treatise]. This rule ensures that ‘the trial court’s disposition of important questions that arise after a final judgment’ are subject to appellate review.”

The panel also assesses the question of when a post-judgment order constitutes a “decision” under § 1291. “Substantive orders” in the post-judgment setting are “decisions.”  By contrast, “ministerial orders” that do not alter the rights of the parties but simply enforce the prior decree do not qualify as “decisions” under § 1291, even if they are practically final.

The panel acknowledges confusion in the case law about this concept. “Although we have distinguished between ‘substantive’ and ‘ministerial’ postjudgment orders in the past, . . . we have used those terms imprecisely. We have referred to ‘post-judgment discovery orders’ as non-appealable ‘ministerial’ or ‘administrative’ orders . . . . But postjudgment discovery orders are often more than ‘ministerial’ because they typically ‘affect[] rights or create[] liabilities’ – for example, by requiring a party to turn over documents – ‘not previously resolved by the adjudication on the merits.’ . . . . Even so, postjudgment discovery orders are often not immediately appealable because, as in the prejudgment context, they are usually non-final ‘interlocutory decisions.’” Yet “when a district court denies a request for postjudgment discovery and does not contemplate further proceedings, that order is generally appealable.”

The panel then applies these principles to the Methodology Orders. “Plaintiffs contend that the Methodology Orders did not become final until the district court denied their motion to enforce and for other relief. We disagree. At the start, Cigna began paying benefits based on the Methodology Orders soon after the district court awarded attorney’s fees . . . . Cigna relied on the Methodology Orders to calculate those benefits. From a practical perspective, it was therefore essential for Plaintiffs (or Cigna, if it so chose) to appeal promptly.”

“Plaintiffs’ argument against finality is unpersuasive, moreover, because it implies that they could have challenged the Methodology Orders—and Cigna’s calculation of reformed pension benefits for more than 27,500 individuals—at ‘some nebulous time in the future’ when they decided to file a motion to enforce . . . . Indeed, Plaintiffs’ theory implies that the Methodology Orders were immune from appellate review (because they were non-final) unless Plaintiffs chose to move for further relief. But when the district court issued the Attorney’s Fees Order, ‘there [was] little prospect that further proceedings [would] occur to make [the Methodology Orders] final.’”

“In sum, Plaintiffs’ appeal from the Sanctions Order cannot ‘revive lost opportunities to appeal’ the Methodology Orders . . . . Because Plaintiffs did not timely appeal from the Methodology Orders, we lack jurisdiction to the extent Plaintiffs seek to challenge those orders.” (The panel also goes on to review the timely appeal by Plaintiffs of the denial of a sanctions order, which it affirms on the merits.)

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