On March 5, 2013, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case Baker v. Bradley that sheds light on the often-thorny issue of when it will accept jurisdiction over a premature notice of appeal.

The Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction is generally limited to appeals from final judgments that dispose of all claims and parties. While this statement of the law is simple in the abstract, it can be difficult to implement under the current rules and case law.

In 1981, the Arizona Supreme Court in Barassi v. Matison created a limited exception allowing the Court of Appeals jurisdiction over certain premature notices of appeal. Specifically, the Barassi Court ruled that a notice of appeal filed after the trial court’s minute entry ruling on a post-judgment motion but before entry of final judgment is valid if the opposing party was not prejudiced. More recently, the Arizona Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the Barassi exception in cases such as Craig v. Craig and Smith v. Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission. These later cases only allowed the Court of Appeals to exercise jurisdiction if “no decision of the court could change and the only remaining task is merely ministerial.”

In Baker v. Bradley, the Court of Appeals views Craig and Smith as overly constricting the Barassi exception and renders an opinion that more closely resembles what it believes the Arizona Supreme Court intended to allow with the exception. Baker involved an inmate’s claims of civil rights violations against three defendant correctional officers. The plaintiff never served one of the defendant officers. Plaintiff filed a notice of appeal after the trial court dismissed all of his claims against the only two served defendants in a minute entry but prior to the court’s entry of final judgment.

The Court of Appeals determined that plaintiff’s premature notice of appeal was within the Barassi exception because the trial court’s remaining act of entering a formal judgment after the minute entry dismissing all claims did not change the substance of the minute entry and, thus, was merely a ministerial act. The defendants did not seek their attorneys’ fees and the third party was never served, so the court did not consider him to be a party to the litigation. Accordingly, nothing changed between the minute entry dismissing all claims and the entry of final judgment formalizing the court’s prior ruling.

The court in Baker is careful to point out that, if it were to interpret the wording from Craig and Smith literally to mean that the Barassi exception applies only “if no decision of the court could change,” this would essentially eliminate the Barassi exception for notices of appeal filed prematurely after a minute entry is issued but before entry of final judgment. Indeed, all minute entries are by nature changeable and can be revoked or amended before a final judgment is entered. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Barassi exception (which, itself, allowed appellate jurisdiction over a notice filed after issuance of a minute entry) is not so limited. Particularly, the court determined that the Barassi exception is not strictly limited to the post-judgment context and the Arizona Supreme Court did not intend a literal application of the words “if no decision of the court could change.”

Notwithstanding its attempt to shed some light on the subject, the Court of Appeals invites the Arizona Supreme Court to elucidate, if necessary, which notices of appeal will invoke appellate jurisdiction. If the Arizona Supreme Court accepts this invitation, we may soon see additional clarification and potentially an alternate interpretation of the Barassi exception.

Potential rule changes may also simplify this confusing issue. On January 8, 2013, the State Bar of Arizona submitted a Petition to Amend Rules 54 and 58 of the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure and Rule 9 of the Arizona Rules of Civil Appellate Procedure. The State Bar’s proposed changes (made after consultation with the Court of Appeals) would model the rules after the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and provide straightforward procedures to cure technical defects in many premature appeals. The State Bar also proposed a new Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 54(c) to require trial courts to certify when judgments are intended to dispose of an entire case.