The Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Williamson v. Recovery Limited Partnership begins with a fascinating account of a shipwreck that ultimately spawned decades of litigation: “This appeal is the latest skirmish in the legal battle over the treasures recovered from the 19th century steamship S.S. Central America, a battle that has spanned three decades in numerous courts. Dubbed the ‘ship of gold,’ the Central America sank in the Atlantic Ocean in September 1857, taking over 400 passengers and many tons of gold with her. Her wreckage was discovered over 130 years later by a group of explorers lead by Thomas Thompson, in what remains one of the significant finds in maritime history.” But this history was a troubled one: “The individuals who dedicated their time and talent to the recovery of the Central America have not seen a dime of their promised share of the spoils; Mr. Thompson is a fugitive from the law, actively pursued by United States Marshalls; and the vast wealth representing the ship’s golden cargo is as lost today as it was before September 1988.”
Although the opinion is rich with history and intrigue, the case actually before the Court turns on some drier issues, such as appellate jurisdiction (there’s a lot of that going around recently). The plaintiffs were individuals who had worked on the project to recover the ship for companies controlled by Mr. Thompson, and they were suing on their non-disclosure agreements, which entitled them to a share of the recovery. The district court had granted summary judgment on defendants’ counterclaims and issued an injunction against them. The Sixth Circuit began its analysis with considering appellate jurisdiction over the defendants’ appeal of summary adjudication of the counterclaims and the injunction that also provided for prejudgment attachment. The defendants invoked 28 USC § 1292(a)(3), allowing for interlocutory appeals of cases “determining the rights and liabilities of the parties to admiralty cases,” as a basis for jurisdiction. The Sixth Circuit recognized that it had not previously delineated the standard for appellate jurisdiction concerning admiralty jurisdiction section, and accordingly turned to a survey of other circuits. The Sixth Circuit effectively rejected the interpretations offered by several other circuits concerning how to apply Section 1292(a)(3). Instead, it followed a plain language reading of the statute itself. Finding no ambiguity in the statute, and relying on guidance in the advisory committee notes that militated in favor of jurisdiction on these facts, the Court determined that the order was appealable.
After sorting through the jurisdictional morass, the Court turned to a “complex procedural issue” concerning whether the plaintiff’s case is time barred under 46 USC § 80107(c). The Sixth Circuit found that provision to be inapplicable because the plaintiffs were not suing on their employment contracts, rather they were suing on their non-disclosure agreements, which provided them for a percentage of the net recovery. Therefore, the Court upheld summary judgment and ultimately the injunction as well.
This case may not have a significant impact in the Circuit’s jurisprudence, because although it is the first case to definitely apply the admiralty appellate jurisdiction statute, the Sixth Circuit is not exactly a hotbed of those types of cases. Nevertheless, the background story here makes for a fascinating read.