On December 8, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Mohawk Industries, Inc. v. Carpenter, No. 08-678. It is the first opinion authored by new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
In an employment lawsuit, a federal district court ordered Mohawk Industries to produce documents relating to the plaintiff's meeting with outside counsel and the company's decision to terminate him. Mohawk argued that the information was protected by the attorney-client privilege. The district court agreed that the information was privileged but held that the company had waived the privilege. Mohawk tried to appeal the district court's order to the Eleventh Circuit, which dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction on the ground that the district court's order was not appealable under the collateral-order doctrine of Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541 (1949).
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed. The Court started by emphasizing that the collateral-order doctrine is a narrow exception to the general rule that only final judgments are appealable. The Court acknowledged that the attorney-client privilege is very important, but held that it was not so important that it requires an exception to the general rule that parties must wait until the end of the case to appeal interlocutory orders. The Court pointed out that there are other remedies that a party in Mohawk's situation can pursue—for example, a request that the district court certify the question to the court of appeals under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) or a petition for a writ of mandamus. Parties can also defy a disclosure order, incur sanctions or a contempt order from the district court, and then appeal the sanctions or contempt order to the court of appeals.
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Justices joined except Justice Thomas, who filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.