When Does Mootness of an Appeal Require Vacation of the Decision Being Appealed?

Lightner v. 1621 Route 22 West Operating Co., LLC, 729 F.3d 235 (3d Cir. 2013).  This short decision by Judge Ambro addressed a narrow question:  when does the mootness of an appeal call for the decision below, the subject of that appeal, to be vacated?  The context of the case was an unfair labor practices proceeding instituted by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) against defendant, a nursing home operator.

While administrative proceedings were in process, the NLRB filed suit in federal court seeking temporary injunctive relief to prevent defendant from engaging in unlawful conduct and to compel defendant to reinstate certain employees.  In a 129-page opinion, Judge Cooper entered an injunction and required the reinstatement of two employees.  But she declined to order reinstatement of two other employees or to grant certain other relief.  Both the NLRB and defendant appealed to the Third Circuit.  Thereafter, the Board issued a decision in the administrative proceedings that mooted Judge Cooper’s ruling.  The Board moved to dismiss the appeals and requested that Judge Cooper’s ruling be vacated.  Defendant agreed that the appeals should be dismissed, but opposed vacation of the decision below.

The panel ruled that Judge Cooper’s decision would be vacated.  “When a civil case becomes moot while an appeal is pending, the normal practice is to vacate the district court judgment ‘because doing so clears the path for future relitigation of the issues between the parties.’  Alvarez v. Smith, 558 U.S. 87, 94 (2009).”  Quoting U.S. Bancorp Mortgage Co. v. Bonner Mall Partnership, 513 U.S. 18, 25 (1994), Judge Ambro noted that there is an exception to this principle when “mootness results from settlement.”  That is because, by settling, “the losing party has voluntarily forfeited his legal remedy …, thereby surrendering his claim to the equitable remedy of vacatur.”

That “limited” exception was not applicable here.  “Mootness in our case arose when the Board issued its decision and order on the merits of the complaint against [defendant].”  The Board had not forfeited its right to a legal remedy on appeal.  Defendant sought to preserve Judge Cooper’s opinion because defendant wanted to rely, in another action involving these parties, on facts in the record before Judge Cooper.  Judge Ambro stated, however, that vacating the opinion would have “no effect on the existence or record of the proceedings” before the district court.

Accordingly, the appeals were dismissed and the “very careful and well-articulated opinion” of Judge Cooper was vacated.  However, Judge Ambro concluded the panel’s decision with an “attaboy” (in this instance, an “attagirl”?), stating that the panel members “deeply appreciate the exceptionally hard work of Judge Cooper.”