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Supreme Court Simplifies Process to Appeal Legal Errors

A trial verdict is often not the final word in litigation, and the fact finder’s decision is only as good as your ability to defend or overturn it on appeal. That’s why an essential component of any trial is something known as error preservation. In many instances, a legal or factual issue not properly raised to a lower court can result in a party waiving that issue (giving up any right they would otherwise have to contest the matter before a higher appellate court). This is true even in situations where the issue is meritorious and may have a dispositive impact on the case outcome.

The rules for preserving error, and the types of motion practice used to accomplish that preservation, can be dangerous land mines for inexperienced or unwary litigators, especially when their primary focus is on winning the case by attending to all of the demands of a trial, including preparing for witness examinations, organizing evidence presentation, and developing closing argument. Both federal and state law have long recognized important distinctions between the rules for appealing legal issues and factual issues, though the line between the two can often be blurry. In federal practice, both categories of issues can be raised to the Court in various stages throughout litigation, including motions to dismiss before the completion of discovery, motions for summary judgment before trial, "Rule 50(a)" motions before the jury's verdict, and "Rule 50(b)" motions made at the conclusion of a trial.

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an important opinion in Dupree v. Younger that simplifies the ability of litigants to preserve purely legal issues for appellate review. Kevin Younger sued Neil Dupree, a correctional officer, alleging that Dupree ordered three correctional officers to attack him while he was in pretrial detention at a Maryland state prison. Dupree moved for summary judgment and argued that Younger had failed to comply with the legal requirements to exhaust all of his administrative remedies before bringing the lawsuit (known as an "exhaustion defense"). The district court denied the motion, and the case proceeded to trial, where a jury ultimately found in favor of Younger. Dupree did not file any Rule 50 motion at the end of the trial. He later appealed his exhaustion defense to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which dismissed his appeal based on the Fourth Circuit's rule that any claim or defense rejected by the trial court at the summary judgment stage of litigation must be raised again in a post-trial motion to preserve the issue for appellate review.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, reversed that ruling and held that a party does not need to file a post-trial motion to preserve a purely legal issue previously decided on summary judgment by the district court. A "purely legal issue," as the Court explained, is one that can be resolved without reference to any disputed facts. The Court distinguished these types of issues from factual issues, noting that a district judge's summary judgment ruling on a question of fact may be affected by the subsequent development of the factual record at trial. The trial judge is in the best position to evaluate things like witness demeanor and credibility, and the admissibility of evidence, so it makes sense for that judge to have the first shot at deciding whether anything from the trial record has created grounds to change his earlier summary judgment ruling. In contrast, if the judge changes his mind about an earlier legal ruling, it would be because he has reevaluated his opinion of the law based on his review of relevant legal authorities—not because he was informed on the law by any witness testimony or trial exhibits. Thus, the Supreme Court explained that there is no practical benefit to requiring the district court to review its legal rulings after trial because the Court of Appeals is just as qualified to consider the legal issues and determine if the trial judge was correct.

This opinion resolves a previous split between the federal circuit courts. Some circuits, including the Fifth Circuit that covers Texas, had previously agreed with the Fourth Circuit's approach requiring a post-trial motion to preserve adverse summary judgment rulings (even on pure questions of law) for appeal. Other circuits disagreed, or otherwise required post-trial motions to preserve certain types of legal errors but not others. The rule is now uniform throughout the United States: while a post-trial motion may still be necessary to preserve factual issues for appeal (which are often critical to the outcome of many trials and should not be overlooked), parties can freely appeal a federal judge's summary judgment ruling on a pure question of law after trial even if they do not raise that issue again in a post-trial Rule 50 motion.

The practical effect of this ruling will likely reduce the number of post-trial motions in cases where attorneys feel that only legal issues from the summary judgment stage need to be appealed. This conserves judicial resources by not requiring trial judges to spend time reconsidering their prior interpretation of the law when that interpretation is unlikely to have changed after trial, and should also save litigants time and expense by reducing the scope of necessary post-trial motion practice.

Of course, there may still be many instances in which it is wise to file a post-trial motion on a question of law, especially if a party has discovered new legal authority since the time of summary judgment to support its case further or feels that it can articulate its legal arguments in a better way that may cause the judge to reach a different conclusion. After all, a Rule 50 motion is the first available opportunity to potentially reverse an adverse jury verdict before beginning the appellate process.