August 19th, 2022

Fourth Circuit Announces New Bright-Line Rule for Appealability of Dismissals Without Prejudice, Holding Such Cases Are Appealable Unless District Court Expressly Grants Leave to Amend

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a welcome jurisdictional opinion Wednesday clarifying when it may and may not hear appeals of cases dismissed without prejudice where the district court is silent regarding whether a plaintiff has leave to amend a defective complaint. The Court held that dismissals without prejudice will now be considered final (and thus appealable) unless the district court expressly grants leave to amend. Where the district court does expressly grant leave to amend, a dismissal is not appealable unless the district court issues a further order dismissing the case without leave to amend. The decision abandons the Court’s previous case-by-case approach, which required the Court to scrutinize each such dismissal to discern whether a defective complaint could be cured by amendment.

Sitting en banc in Britt v. DeJoy, Case No. 20-1620 (4th Cir. Aug. 17, 2022), the Court sought to remedy the “confusion in [its] jurisdiction” caused by its previous case-by-case approach. The newly adopted approach now places “all questions regarding finality [of district court decisions] squarely in the hands best equipped to solve them: the district court.”

The Court acknowledged that “new sources of confusion” may arise from the new rule, and provided specific guidance about three such situations:

Running of Appeals Clock Where Plaintiff Wants to Amend Complaint Despite District Court Failure to Grant Leave to Amend

The Court cautioned that a plaintiff’s time to appeal begins to run immediately upon entry of the district court’s dismissal order. However, a plaintiff who wants to amend its complaint despite the district court’s failure to grant leave to amend may pause the appeals clock by filing a motion to reopen or to vacate the judgment under Rules 59 or 60 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If a party timely files such a motion, its time to appeal restarts after the district court rules on the motion.

Appealability of Dismissal That Includes Leave to Amend Where Plaintiff Wants to Stand on Its Initial Complaint

The Court also raised the possibility that a plaintiff may wish to immediately appeal a dismissal without prejudice instead of attempting to amend its complaint. If the district court has granted leave to amend, however, a plaintiff must affirmatively waive its right to amend by requesting that the district court enter a final decision dismissing the case without leave to amend. The dismissal becomes appealable only when the district court issues that new decision.

Effect of Deadline for Amendment of Complaint

Finally, the Court noted potential confusion where the district court either (1) provides the plaintiff with a specified number of days to seek to amend or (2) states that the plaintiff can seek to amend but does not provide a deadline to do so. In either case, the Court clarified, a plaintiff must now obtain an additional, final decision from the district court before it may appeal.

Grammata Law Firm is well equipped to help clients navigate these and other jurisdictional issues. For more information, contact Grammata at 202-937-0458 or .