Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co.

486 U. S. 196

May 23, 1988

In May of 1984, a federal court in Colorado issued final judgment on everything but attorneys fees. The attorneys fees issue received final judgment in August. Following this, an appeal was lodged on the merits, but this appeal was dismissed because the time limit for appeal had started running in May, and had expired. The plaintiff then contended that, under a Colorado state law, the clock did not start running on appeals until the question of attorneys fees got settled, and that this state law should be applied by the federal court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled otherwise. Scalia said that prior cases had largely assumed that judgment was final and ripe for appeal prior to determination of attorneys fees. Since the fees are not a part of the underlying merits, it does not make sense to wait for them to be settled before starting the appeals clock. Furthermore, because uniformity and bright line rules are much to be desired in the realm of federal litigation, Scalia declined the suggestion that federal courts be forced to follow state laws defining when judgments become final. Scalia also brushed aside a last ditch contention that all this was a change in the rules which should be only applied prospectively, and not to the instant case.

This is one of those strange unanimous cases where you fully expect a Brennan/Marshall dissent, but it’s not there. Eventually, you get so used to them backing the ‘little guy,’ no matter what, that a case where it doesn’t happen seems downright shocking.

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