The Fifth Circuit affirmed a dismissal without prejudice of a plaintiff's putative class action related to a multi-level marketing program selling electricity after the plaintiff refused to submit his claims to arbitration despite the district court compelling arbitration and staying the case pending arbitration. The case languished for over a year after the district court's order compelling arbitration while plaintiff refused to arbitrate the putative class claims. Twice the court requested status reports in which the plaintiff indicated his failure to arbitrate and lack of intent to do so, at which point the district court ordered plaintiff to show cause why the case should not be dismissed for lack of prosecution. The plaintiff responded by reiterating his disagreement with the court's conclusions as to arbitration, his intent not to arbitrate, and his readiness to litigate the case to conclusion before the court. The court ultimately dismissed the case without prejudice for lack of prosecution.
On a threshold issue, the Fifth Circuit concluded that it had appellate jurisdiction over the dismissal as a "final decision with respect to an arbitration." Defendants argued that plaintiff, through his response to the show-cause order, voluntarily dismissed the case, which is not a final appealable decision. The court disagreed, holding that plaintiff's inaction in failing to submit his claims to arbitration was not sufficient to constitute voluntary dismissal. Specifically, the court determined that plaintiff's response to the show-cause order did not serve as notice of dismissal, but rather were "statements of inaction," and therefore did not constitute a voluntary dismissal.
Additionally, the court found that it could appropriately hear an appeal of a dismissal without prejudice. The court surveyed circuit precedent and distinguished the present case from those finding no appellate jurisdiction over dismissals without prejudice. Here, there were no concerns about piecemeal appeals of interlocutory issues because the dismissal concluded the litigation on the merits. Nor, as the court previously established, was the dismissal voluntary such that the litigant was voluntarily dismissing as a tactic to seek expedited appeal of interlocutory issues.
Finally, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court's use of its discretion in dismissing for failure to prosecute. Regardless of whether the heightened standard for dismissal without prejudice—where statutes of limitations risk barring any future litigation—applied, the court held that defendants would prevail. Dismissal was warranted for failure to prosecute because plaintiff demonstrated a "clear record of delay and contumacious conduct" by persistently refusing to arbitrate the claims as the district court so ordered and explicitly stating it would not pursue arbitration. Thus, the Fifth Circuit concluded the lower court acted within its discretion and affirmed.
Griggs v. S.G.E. Mgmt., L.L.C., No. 17-50655 (5th Cir. Sept. 27, 2018).