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In re World Trade Center Disaster Site Litigation

January 8, 2007

IN RE WORLD TRADE CENTER DISASTER SITE LITIGATION


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alvin K. Hellerstein, U.S.D.J.

DENYING MOTION FOR INTERLOCUTORY APPEAL AND ASSERTING CONTINUING JURISDICTION

OPINION AND ORDER

I consider in this opinion whether Defendants' filing of a pre-final judgment notice of appeal from my order denying various immunity-based motions divests this Court of jurisdiction to conduct further proceedings. I consider also Defendants' motion asking that I certify the same order for interlocutory review.

On October 17, 2006, I denied Defendants' motions for judgment on the pleadings and for summary judgment. See In re World Trade Ctr. Disaster Site Litig., 456 F. Supp. 2d 520 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (hereinafter "In re WTC Disaster Site Litig." or "Order of October 17, 2006"). I held that the immunities claimed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the City of New York, and the contractors it had engaged, pursuant to the New York State Defense Emergency Act ("SDEA"), N.Y. Unconsol. Law § 9193 (McKinney 2006); New York State and Local Natural Disaster and Man-Made Disaster Preparedness Law ("Disaster Act"), N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 20 to 29-g (McKinney 2006); the Stafford Act, 42 U.S.C. § 5148, and other sources, required fact-intensive analyses and a fuller record than that which was presented by Defendants' motions. I ordered further pretrial proceedings to develop an appropriate record for subsequent motions, or trial.

Defendants now seek to appeal that order. On November 15, 2006, Defendants filed a motion asking me to certify an interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). A day later, on November 16, 2006, Defendants filed a notice of appeal. In an accompanying letter, Defendants asserted that their appeal was of right, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and the collateral order doctrine, and that the filing of the notice of appeal ousted my jurisdiction to conduct further pretrial proceedings. In light of proceedings already scheduled to advance these cases to their next stage and the intense public interest in assuring that the cases continue to advance towards resolution, and consistent with my view that Defendants' efforts to pursue an immediate interlocutory appeal lack merit, I issued an order provisionally denying Defendants' motion for interlocutory review and rejecting Defendants' assertion that the district court was ousted of jurisdiction. I stated that an opinion and order would soon follow. See Summary Order of Nov. 27, 2006. Defendants asked to brief the issue first, and plaintiffs responded similarly. I agreed to defer my rulings in order to consider their briefs.

I hold, following full consideration of Defendants' arguments, that their notice of appeal is legally ineffective to divest the district court of its jurisdiction. Defendants' motion to certify my Order of October 17, 2006 for interlocutory review is denied.

Background

The plaintiffs in these cases claim to have suffered damage to their respiratory systems and other illnesses from the noxious environment that pervaded the World Trade Center site while they worked to clear debris from the site between September 11, 2001 and June, 2002. Plaintiffs sued the City of New York, alleging that its Department of Design and Construction took control of the site, engaged contractors, and supervised the clean-up operations, but failed to provide adequately for the safety of workers engaged in the clean-up operations. Plaintiffs also sued the contractors for whom they worked and who were involved in the operation. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as the owner of the site and because of alleged other involvements, was also sued, as were many other defendants.

The City, the contractors whom it engaged, and the Port Authority alleged affirmative defenses, among them, that they were immune to suit because of the State and federal laws mentioned previously. Since the defenses raised issues of fact, and on consent of the parties, I ordered discovery proceedings limited to facts relevant to the defenses, and set a motions and briefing schedule to enable me to determine the force and validity of the defenses.

Following consideration of the parties' submissions, I ruled that Defendants, although potentially entitled to immunity, could not claim it in blanket and absolute fashion. See generally In re WTC Disaster Site Litig., supra. I interpreted the SDEA to require consideration of various fact-intensive criteria, among them whether Defendants acted in "good faith," id. at 553, and held that the defense of immunity was not susceptible of decision on motion for judgment on the pleadings, id. at 556. Similarly, under the Disaster Act "specific actions have to be evaluated according to time, place and necessity," requiring the development of a factual record. Id. at 557--58. And, similarly, I held that the factual record was not sufficiently developed to support motions based on state common law immunities. Id. at 559. I held that Defendants were not entitled to derivative federal immunity on motion for summary judgment because genuine issues of material fact remained relating to the extent to which Defendants adopted federal standards and protocols. Id. at 566. I held that the Stafford Act did not apply to non-federal actors and therefore did not apply to Defendants in this case. Id.

Defendants seek now to put an end to pretrial proceedings, in favor of review by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. By motion, Defendants seek this Court's certification for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).*fn1 Separately, Defendants claim that they are entitled, of right, to an immediate appeal under the collateral order doctrine and that their appeal to the Court of Appeals ousts this Court of jurisdiction to conduct further pretrial proceedings.

Discussion

I. Appeal Before Final Judgment

A. Final Judgment and the Collateral Order Doctrine

The 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. § 1291. "The requirement of finality precludes [appellate] consideration of decisions that are subject to revision, and even of 'fully consummated decisions that are but steps towards final judgment in which they will merge.'" Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299 (1996) (quoting Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541 (1949)). The collateral order doctrine identified with Cohen, supra, is a "practical construction" of the final judgment rule, which "accommodates a 'small class' of rulings, not concluding the litigation, but conclusively resolving 'claims of right separable from, and collateral to, rights asserted in the action.'" Will v. Hallock, 126 S.Ct. 952, 957 (2006) (quoting Cohen, 337 U.S. at 546).

To appeal an order before final judgment, three "stringent" conditions must be satisfied: the order must "(1) conclusively determine the disputed question, (2) resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action, and (3) be effectively unreviewable on appeal from final judgment." Id. (quotations and brackets omitted). The scope of decisions that meet these conditions must remain narrow and "never be allowed to swallow the general rule that a party is entitled to a single appeal, to be deferred ...


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