“Final” Doesn’t Mean Last When It Comes to Court Orders
In Tennessee, a "final order" is not necessarily the last order that a court enters at the trial level, and that's an important point to know when considering whether a litigant has a right to appeal.
Generally in Tennessee, parties in civil trial matters are fortunate to have the absolute right to an appeal after the trial court issues its final order. Under Tenn. R. App. P. 4, the entry of the final order sets the 30-day clock running on the time to file an appeal. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to determine what constitutes a "final order."
Under Tenn. R. App. P. 3, any order that "adjudicates fewer that all the claims" among all the parties is not a final order. In common parlance, attorneys refer to this as an order leaving nothing to be done except execute on the judgment. Unfortunately, it is sometimes surprisingly difficult to determine when there is "nothing to be done." A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case illustrates this conundrum.
In Brooks v. Woody, a suit filed in 2012 was dismissed via an order signed February 24, 2017 and entered March 9, 2017. The order reserved the taxing of costs for a later date. In other words, the court waited to decide which parties had to pay court costs. The plaintiff did not file a notice of appeal within 30 days, and the right to appeal was lost. The Tennessee Court of Appeals explained matters this way:
The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that “when consecutive
‘final’ judgments are entered, a subsequent entry of judgment operates as
the final judgment only if the subsequent judgment affects the parties’
substantive rights or obligations settled by the first judgment.”
This is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that assessing court costs doesn't count as a claim between the parties that has to be decided before the matter is ripe for an appeal. (While the Court didn't mention it, it is important to note that if one party had to pay the other party's attorneys fees, that would "count" as a claim that has to be adjudicated before appeal.)
The lesson here is that it can be hard to know what counts as a final order and litigants should be mindful of details. More importantly, when in doubt, they should file the notice of appeal anyway and take advantage of Tenn. R. App. P. 4(d), which provides that if you file a notice of appeal before there is actually a final judgment, it will be deemed to be filed at the right time when a final judgment eventually occurs.