By statute, Courts of Appeals have jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States, except where a direct review may be had in the Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C.S. § 1291. A final decision is typically one by which a district court disassociates itself from a case. The Supreme Court, however, has long given § 1291 a practical rather than a technical construction. The statute encompasses not only judgments that terminate an action, but also a small class of collateral rulings that, although they do not end the litigation, are appropriately deemed final. That small category includes only decisions that are conclusive, that resolve important questions separate from the merits, and that are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action. In applying the collateral order doctrine, the Court has stressed that it must never be allowed to swallow the general rule that a party is entitled to a single appeal, to be deferred until final judgment has been entered. That admonition reflects a healthy respect for the virtues of the final-judgment rule. Permitting piecemeal, prejudgment appeals undermines efficient judicial administration and encroaches upon the prerogatives of district court judges, who play a special role in managing ongoing litigation.
Respondent former shift supervisor filed suit alleging that the employer had terminated him in violation of 42 U.S.C.S. § 1985(2) and various Georgia laws. According to the complaint, his termination came after he informed a member of the employer's human resources department in an e-mail that the company was employing undocumented immigrants. At the time, unbeknownst to the supervisor, the employer stood accused in a pending class-action lawsuit of conspiring to drive down the wages of its legal employees by knowingly hiring undocumented workers. The supervisor refused to recant his statement and was fired. The supervisor filed a motion to compel the employer to produce information concerning a meeting with retained counsel and the employer's termination decision. The employer maintained that the requested information was protected by the attorney-client privilege. The district court ordered the employer to disclose certain confidential materials on the ground that the employer had waived the attorney-client privilege. On appeal for the collateral order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal for want of jurisdiction. Certiorari was granted to resolve a conflict concerning the availability of collateral appeals in the attorney-client privilege context.
Was a collateral appeal available to review a order compelling discovery of evidence that was claimed to be protected by the attorney-client privilege?
The Court affirmed the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Court held that collateral order appeals were not necessary to ensure effective review of orders adverse to the attorney-client privilege, 28 U.S.C.S. § 1292(b) appeals, mandamus, and appeals from contempt citations facilitated immediate review of some of the more consequential attorney-client privilege rulings.