A Trap for the Unwary on Appeal : N.M. Rule 1-054(B) Claims Another Victim

The New Mexico Rules of Civil Procedure are usually identical to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  But Rule 1-054 is decidedly not identical to its federal counterpart, Rule 54, and a failure to appreciate the difference can be fatal to an appeal in state court.

In many lawsuits, multiple parties are involved as plaintiffs, defendants, or both.  When a trial court’s order resolves all issues as to one party, but other parties remain and continue litigating, can an immediate appeal be taken from the order resolving all issues as to the one party, or must that appeal wait until all issues involving all of the other parties are resolved?

Federal and New Mexico courts answer this question differently.  Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b), an order disposing of one party’s claims is not a final, appealable order until “entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties’ rights and liabilities.”  The federal court can direct entry of a final judgment as to a party if it “expressly determines that there is no just reason for delay,” but unless the court does so, then that party cannot appeal until the entire case is finished.

New Mexico takes the opposite approach.  Under Rule 1-054(B)(2), where a case involves multiple parties, an order dismissing all issues as to one party is immediately appealable, even if other parties remain in the case.  If that party wishes to appeal, it must do so within 30 days, unless the court “expressly provides otherwise and a provision to that effect is contained in the judgment.”

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Chavez, held that Rule 1-054(B)(2) means what it says.  In Santa Fe Pacific Trust, Inc. v City of Albuquerque, two parties, Santa Fe Pacific Trust (SFPT) and Bigbyte, each brought several claims against the City of Albuquerque.  After a certain point, the City obtained summary judgment against Bigbyte on all of its remaining claims, and against SFPT on all but one of its claims.  The trial court certified its November 2009 summary judgment order for interlocutory appeal, but the Court of Appeals declined to hear the case.

SFPT and the City litigated the single remaining claim until October 2010, when the trial court entered an order dismissing it because the parties had settled.  At that point, Bigbyte filed a notice of appeal.  The Court of Appeals dismissed Bigbyte’s appeal as untimely, and the Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the November 2009 order dismissing all of Bigbyte’s claims was a final order under Rule 1-054(B)(2) that triggered the deadline for Bigbyte to appeal.  Therefore, Bigbyte’s notice of appeal, which was filed over a year later, was untimely.

Bigbyte made several creative arguments that its notice of appeal was actually timely, or should be considered as timely, but the Supreme Court rejected all of them.  While those arguments may be interesting to appellate law nerds (like me), the details are not important here.  What you should take away from this case is that you do not want to be fighting about whether your notice of appeal was timely or not.  Read Rule 1-054(B).  Learn it, live it, love it.

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