The federal courts of appeals have created—and acknowledged that they’ve created—a finality trap for would-be appellants. Litigants risk falling into the trap when they voluntarily dismiss some of their claims without prejudice and then try to appeal the district court’s resolution of other claims. Most courts of appeals see this as an attempted end run around the general rule that appeals must wait until all claims are resolved. After all, the without-prejudice dismissal means that the voluntarily dismissed claims might resurface at some future point. Most courts of appeals accordingly hold that the voluntary, without-prejudice dismissal does not result in a final, appealable decision. The trap springs when those courts then don’t provide a straightforward means for fixing the finality problem. Litigants are then left in litigation limbo. Their case is over and unchangeable in the district court. But the case is not final—and never will become final—for purposes of appeal.
The finality trap is asinine. And there’s an easy fix: Give would-be appellants the choice of either disclaiming the right to refile the voluntarily dismissed claims or returning to the district court to continue the action. This choice obviates any refiling concerns and ensures that the right to appeal is not lost due to a small procedural misstep.
Recent struggles with the finality trap also hint at an alternative approach to finality. When determining whether a district court has issued a final, appealable decision, courts normally look to the substance of the district court’s decision. That is, they ask whether the district court has actually resolved all of the claims. An alternative approach might ask only whether the district court is finished with an action. At that point—regardless of what the district court has done—the district court has entered a final decision. This shift in focus from what a district court has done to whether the district court is done might bring some much-needed clarity and simplicity to this area of the law.