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Mohawk Industries, Inc. v. Carpenter

December 8, 2009

MOHAWK INDUSTRIES, INC., PETITIONER
v.
NORMAN CARPENTER



On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit Court Below: 541 F. 3d 1048

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2009

Argued October 5, 2009

When respondent Norman Carpenter informed the human resources department of his employer, petitioner Mohawk Industries, Inc., that the company employed undocumented immigrants, he was unaware that Mohawk stood accused in a pending class action -- the Williams case -- of conspiring to drive down its legal employees' wages by knowingly hiring undocumented workers. Mohawk directed Carpenter to meet with the company's retained counsel in Williams, who allegedly pressured Carpenter to recant his statements. When he refused, Carpenter maintains in this unlawful termination suit, Mohawk fired him under false pretenses. In granting Carpenter's motion to compel Mohawk to produce information concerning his meeting with retained counsel and the company's termination decision, the District Court agreed with Mohawk that the requested information was protected by the attorney-client privilege, but concluded that Mohawk had implicitly waived the privilege through its disclosures in the Williams case. The court declined to certify its order for interlocutory appeal, and the Eleventh Circuit dismissed Mohawk's appeal for lack of jurisdiction, holding, inter alia, that the District Court's ruling did not qualify as an immediately appealable collateral order under Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U. S. 541, because a discovery order implicating the attorney-client privilege can be adequately reviewed on appeal from final judgment.

Held: Disclosure orders adverse to the attorney-client privilege do not qualify for immediate appeal under the collateral order doctrine. Pp. 4-13.

(a) Courts of Appeals "have jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts." 28 U. S. C. §1291. "Final decisions" encompass not only judgments that "terminate an action," but also a "small class" of prejudgment orders that are "collateral to" an action's merits and "too important" to be denied immediate review, Cohen, supra, at 545-546. "That small category includes only decisions that are ... effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action." Swint v. Chambers County Comm'n, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Sotomayor

Opinion of the Court

558 U. S. ____ (2009)

Section 1291 of the Judicial Code confers on federal courts of appeals jurisdiction to review "final decisions of the district courts." 28 U. S. C. §1291. Although "final decisions" typically are ones that trigger the entry of judgment, they also include a small set of prejudgment orders that are "collateral to" the merits of an action and "too important" to be denied immediate review. Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U. S. 541, 546 (1949). In this case, petitioner Mohawk Industries, Inc., attempted to bring a collateral order appeal after the District Court ordered it to disclose certain confidential materials on the ground that Mohawk had waived the attorney-client privilege. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal for want of jurisdiction.

The question before us is whether disclosure orders adverse to the attorney-client privilege qualify for immediate appeal under the collateral order doctrine. Agreeing with the Court of Appeals, we hold that they do not. Postjudgment appeals, together with other review mechanisms, suffice to protect the rights of litigants and preserve the vitality of the attorney-client privilege.

I.

In 2007, respondent Norman Carpenter, a former shift supervisor at a Mohawk manufacturing facility, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleging that Mohawk had terminated him in violation of 42 U. S. C. §1985(2) and various Georgia laws. According to Carpenter's complaint, his termination came after he informed a member of Mohawk's human resources department in an e-mail that the company was employing undocumented immigrants. At the time, unbeknownst to Carpenter, Mohawk stood accused in a pending class-action lawsuit of conspiring to drive down the wages of its legal employees by knowingly hiring undocumented workers in violation of federal and state racketeering laws. See Williams v. Mohawk Indus., Inc., No. 4:04-cv-00003-HLM (ND Ga., Jan. 6, 2004). Company officials directed Carpenter to meet with the company's retained counsel in the Williams case, and counsel allegedly pressured Carpenter to recant his statements. When he refused, Carpenter alleges, Mohawk fired him under false pretenses. App. 57a-64a.

After learning of Carpenter's complaint, the plaintiffs in the Williams case sought an evidentiary hearing to explore Carpenter's allegations. In its response to their motion, Mohawk described Carpenter's accusations as "pure fantasy" and recounted the "true facts" of Carpenter's dismissal. Id., at 208a. According to Mohawk, Carpenter himself had "engaged in blatant and illegal misconduct" by attempting to have Mohawk hire an undocumented worker. Id., at 209a. The company "commenced an immediate investigation," during which retained counsel interviewed Carpenter. Id., at 210a. Because Carpenter's "efforts to cause Mohawk to circumvent federal immigration law" "blatantly violated Mohawk policy," the company terminated him. Ibid.

As these events were unfolding in the Williams case, discovery was underway in Carpenter's case. Carpenter filed a motion to compel Mohawk to produce information concerning his meeting with retained counsel and the company's termination decision. Mohawk maintained that the ...


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