Although it has become a settled feature of federal courts jurisprudence, the “collateral order doctrine” first articulated by the Supreme Court in 1949 continues to provoke judicial and academic criticism. "Accordingly," as a unanimous Court stressed in 2006, "we have not mentioned applying the collateral order doctrine recently without emphasizing its modest scope," lest it come to "overpower the substantial finality interests [the final judgment rule] is meant to further."
Notwithstanding the strong policy judgment enmeshed within the final judgment rule and the consistent rhetoric of the Court's collateral order opinions, this short essay demonstrates that the Justices have in fact effected a dramatic (if largely unnoticed) expansion of the collateral order doctrine in recent years — one that, by its nature, applies specifically to private suits seeking damages against government officers in their personal capacity. Starting from the now-settled holding that a government officer’s official immunity is an immediately appealable collateral order (at least as to the relevant legal questions), the Court has used the obscure and obtuse doctrine of “pendent appellate jurisdiction” to sub silentio shoehorn into interlocutory appellate review of a trial court’s contested denial of official immunity (1) whether the plaintiff’s complaint satisfies the applicable pleading standards; (2) the elements of the plaintiff’s cause of action; and (3) the very existence of such a cause of action. More to the point, these expansions have come with exceptionally little analysis, with two of these three jurisdictional holdings buried in footnotes.
The practical effect of these beclouded expansions is only now becoming visible. Thus, in two recent high-profile Bivens cases, both the D.C. and Seventh Circuits (the latter sitting en banc) reversed a trial court’s recognition of a Bivens claim on interlocutory appeal of the denial of qualified immunity, even though neither court of appeals disturbed the district court’s underlying determination of non-immunity. And whatever might be said about the continuing viability of Bivens claims, lower courts have begun to piggyback other legal questions going to the merits onto interlocutory immunity appeals, as well.
As this essay concludes, in addition to flying in the face of longstanding precedent, the more troubling analytical implication of this trend is to both formally and functionally vitiate the longstanding distinction between litigation immunities and defenses to liability. To the extent that officer defendants might now be able to press most potential legal defenses on interlocutory appeal of a denial of a motion to dismiss even where they are not entitled to official immunity, such defenses will necessarily become functional immunities from suit in any case in which they are validly invoked — and will make it that much harder (and more expensive) for plaintiffs to recover even in cases in which they are not. If the Justices truly intended such a result, even if only in officer suits, one could at least have expected them to say more about it than the cryptic discussions that have sufficed to date. Had they done so, they might have realized that such a result is incredibly difficult to defend as a matter of law, policy, precedent, or prudence.