Is That Your Final Judgment?
By Dean A. Bochner
The concept of a final judgment seems straightforward enough: At the end of the case, when all disputed issues have been resolved, the court enters a judgment that disposes of all claims between the parties. Simple, right? Not quite.
Almost 85 years ago, the California Supreme Court observed that "[t]here is undoubtedly some confusion existing as to what constitutes a final judgment." (Middleton v. Finney (1931) 214 Cal. 523, 525.) Since then, California’s appellate courts have provided some guidance on this question, but widespread confusion among judges and lawyers persists. This article examines and tries to clarify the law governing finality of civil money judgments in California.
By statute, a judgment is "the final determination of the rights of the parties in an action or proceeding." (Code Civ. Proc., § 577.) Case law explains that a judgment terminates the litigation and "’leaves nothing to be done but to enforce by execution what has been determined.’" (Doudell v. Shoo (1911) 159 Cal. 448, 453.) The California Supreme Court has articulated the following standard to determine whether a judgment is final: "’It is not the form of the decree but the substance and effect of the adjudication which is determinative. As a general test, which must be adapted to the particular circumstances of the individual case,…where no issue is left for future consideration except the fact of compliance or noncompliance with the terms of the first decree, that decree is final, but where anything further in the nature of judicial action on the part of the court is essential to a final determination of the rights of the parties, the decree is interlocutory.’" (Griset v. Fair Political Practices Com. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 688, 698.)