Order On Partial Fee Petition Not Appealable. Merits Panel Dismissal Trumps Motion Panel.

Michael Gagliardo died in a racing-car accident. Paulette (sister) and Margaret (wife) administered Michael’s estate. They hired Quinlan & Carroll to investigate whether the estate could sue for wrongful death. Paulette later hired Duane Morris, another law firm, to open an estate in court. Duane Morris was on the job only for a few months, after which Paulette hired Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw.

Paulette asked the trial court to determine how much attorney fees were owed to which law firms. Quinlan, an “interested party” to the estate proceeding, asked for a substitution of judge to determine its right to fees. Quinlan’s request was granted.

Duane Morris filed its fee petition covering the entire time it represented the estate. Mayer Brown filed its fee petition for a part of the time it represented the estate. The trial court granted some of the law firms’ claims for fees.

Unhappy with the ruling, Margaret appealed. But Mayer Brown asked the court to dismiss the appeal because the order from which the Margaret appealed was not final and appealable, and the trial court did not rule that the order could be appealed. The First District Illinois Appellate Court agreed with Mayer Brown. Here is the court’s reasoning:

As noted earlier, it is undisputed that Mayer Brown continued to represent the estate after March 21, 2006, the last date on its fee petition. For this reason, the fee petition was interlocutory in part. Mayer Brown would be filing one or more fee petitions in the future. The 2006 order did not contain the language required by Supreme Court Rule 304(a): “[the trial court must make] an express written finding that there is no just reason for delaying either enforcement or appeal or both.” … Nor is the order appealable under Rule 304(b)(1) … as a judgment entered in the administration of an estate that does not require the special language. An order entered in an estate administration without Rule 304(a) language is not appealable where, as here, the judgment entered was for fewer than all of the claims for relief sought by the claimant.

Here, although the order was a final disposition of the fees claimed by Duane Morris, it was an interim order for fees claimed by Mayer Brown. An interim order for attorney fees is not a final or appealable order.

Margaret asked for a rehearing. She argued that the appellate could not dismiss the appeal because a previous panel of appellate judges denied the same request by Mayer Brown to dismiss. But the second appellate panel rejected that argument, saying its opinion trumped the original panel’s:

A motion panel’s denial of a motion to dismiss before briefing and argument is not final and may be revised at any time before the disposition of the appeal … The panel that hears the appeal has an independent duty to determine whether it has jurisdiction and to dismiss the appeal if it does not … The motion panel’s denial of the earlier motion to dismiss has no bearing on our review.

The lesson is: Don’t give up on a motion to dismiss an appeal, even if it was denied by a motion panel. Appellants have to worry about a motion panel’s dismissal of an appeal, but an appellee gets a second bite at the apple by the merits panel. Read the whole opinion, Estate of Gagliardo, No. 1-06-1714 (6/5/09), by clicking here.