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Stuart v. Walker

October 28, 2010

PAMELA B. STUART, APPELLANT,
v.
BARBARA J. WALKER, APPELLEE, AND DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, INTERVENOR.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB7923-08) (Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge

Argued January 13, 2010

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, GLICKMAN, Associate Judge, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

Dissenting opinion by Senior Judge STEADMANat p. 9.

Appellant Pamela Stuart brought this suit in Superior Court to recover attorney's fees from her former client, appellee Barbara Walker. Walker moved to compel arbitration of the case pursuant to District of Columbia Bar Rule XIII ("Rule XIII"), which mandates binding arbitration of all attorney-client fee disputes in the District of Columbia. The Superior Court granted the motion and stayed the case pending an arbitral judgment. Stuart then filed this appeal, in which the District of Columbia intervened as a party, from the order granting compelled arbitration and now argues that Rule XIII is unconstitutional and beyond the District of Columbia Court of Appeals' authority to promulgate. We do not reach the merits of Stuart's argument, however, because we do not have jurisdiction to hear this appeal as it was taken from a non-final order and, in all ways relevant to this appeal, our jurisdiction is limited to review of final orders of the Superior Court. See D.C. Code § 11-721 (a)(1) (2001); and American Fed'n of Gov't Employees, AFL-CIO v. Koczak, 439 A.2d 478, 480 (D.C. 1981) ("An order to compel arbitration does not dispose of the entire case on the merits. Rather,... such an order is... unappealable."). Accordingly, we dismiss Stuart's appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

I.

Section 11-721 (a)(1) of the District of Columbia Court Reform and Procedure Act of 1970, Pub. L. 91-358, 84 Stat. 480 (1970), recodified D.C. Code § 11-721 (a), provides that the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over "all final orders and judgments of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia...."*fn1 In other words, our jurisdiction over matters emanating from the Superior Court generally is limited to the review of final orders of the Superior Court. See, e.g., Evans v. Dreyfuss Bros., Inc., 971 A.2d 179, 185 (D.C. 2009) (holding that we lacked jurisdiction to hear an appeal from an order effectively compelling arbitration because "any lack of finality is a bar to appellate review").

According to the Supreme Court, the "well-developed and long-standing" definition of a "final" order is "a decision that 'ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing more for the court to do but execute the judgment.'" Green Tree Fin. Corp. v. Randolph, 531 U.S. 79, 86 (2000) (concluding that an appeal from an order compelling arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act, when the underlying action is dismissed, is a final order). This court's case law is in agreement; we have held that, as a "general rule[,]... an order is final for purposes of appeal... [when] it disposes of the entire case on the merits." Crown Oil & Wax Co. of Delaware v. Safeco Ins. Co. of America 429 A.2d 1376, 1379 (D.C. 1981); see also Judith v. Graphic Comm'ns Int'l Union, 727 A.2d 890, 892 (D.C. 1999) (orders granting motions to compel arbitration are not final and appealable); Umana v. Swidler & Berlin, Chartered, 669 A.2d 717, 720 (D.C. 1995) (same); Koczak, supra, 439 A.2d at 480 (same). Accordingly, we have consistently held that "[a]n order to compel arbitration" is not a final appealable order because it "does not dispose of the entire case on the merits. Rather, the parties' rights and obligations are finally determined only after arbitration is had, or, if an arbitrator's award is challenged, after a court enters judgment upholding, modifying, or vacating an arbitrator's award." Koczak, supra, 439 A.2d at 480.

However, despite the fact that this court has consistently held that orders compelling arbitration are not final orders, Stuart and the District, relying on Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Randolph, supra, argue that such a conclusion is erroneous as a matter of law. They also contend that this court has jurisdiction to hear her appeal under D.C. Code § 16-4427 (a) (2009), a recently enacted and retroactively applicable amendment to the District of Columbia Uniform Arbitration Act, § 16-4401 et seq. (2009) ("DCUAA"), that purports to make orders granting compelled arbitration appealable.*fn2 Yet, unless we conclude that an order compelling arbitration is a final order, and we cannot, the D.C. Council's enactment amending the DCUAA to make such orders reviewable on appeal exceeds the D.C. Council's authority because it violates § 602 (a)(4) of the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Pub. L. 93-198, 87 Stat. 774 (1973) ("Home Rule Act"),*fn3 by unlawfully expanding our jurisdiction to hear appeals over non-final orders of the Superior Court.

A.

First, Stuart and the District's reliance on Green Tree Financial Corp., supra, for the proposition that orders granting compelled arbitration are final orders, is misplaced. In that case, the issue before the Supreme Court was whether the trial court's dismissal of a case with prejudice while also granting a motion to compel arbitration, as opposed to staying the case pending the outcome of the arbitration, was final for purposes of appellate review. Green Tree Fin. Corp., supra, 531 U.S. at 87. The Supreme Court concluded that because the order compelling arbitration also dismissed the underlying case, the order was a final appealable order in that case. However, the opinion also makes clear that "[h]ad the District Court entered a stay instead of a dismissal in th[at] case, that order would not be appealable." Id. at 87 n.2 (emphasis added).

Our own case law is in accord with the Supreme Court's opinion in Green Tree Financial Corp. For example, in Koczak, supra, we held that because "[a]n order to compel arbitration does not dispose of the entire case on the merits... such an order is... unappealable." 439 A.2d at 480. In fact, we have made it clear that it is only "where a trial court dismisse[s] a case with prejudice in addition to compelling arbitration... [that] such an order is unambiguously final [because]... the trial court has effectively prevented a plaintiff from litigating the issue in the future." Keeton v. Wells Fargo Corp., 987 A.2d 1118, 1121 (D.C. 2010) (footnotes omitted). Where a dismissal is ambiguous, however - e.g., is not with prejudice - we have treated that dismissal as a stay in order to prevent the entering of a final appealable judgment until after arbitration is completed. See Judith, supra, 727 A.2d at 892 (concluding that while the dismissal was a final order, it should be treated as a stay pending the outcome of arbitration so as to avoid authorizing piecemeal appeals). Cf. Green Tree Fin. Corp., supra, 531 U.S. at 87.

In this case, the Superior Court did not dismiss Stuart's lawsuit, but stayed the suit after granting Walker's motion to compel arbitration. Therefore, consistent with the Supreme Court's rationale in Green Tree Financial Corp., supra, and our opinions in the cases cited above, when, as here, the action is stayed pending the outcome of arbitration, there is no final order because no final judgment has been entered ...


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