Monday, January 24, 2011

Today's SCOTUS Decision in Ortiz v. Jordan

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision today in Ortiz v. Jordan (covered earlier here and here). Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court. From the opinion:

We granted review to decide a threshold question on which the Circuits are split: May a party, as the Sixth Circuit believed, appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits? Our answer is no. The order retains its interlocutory character as simply a step along the route to final judgment. See Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U. S. 541, 546 (1949). Once the case proceeds to trial, the full record developed in court supersedes the record existing at the time of the summary judgment motion. …

When summary judgment is sought on a qualified immunity defense, the court inquires whether the party opposing the motion has raised any triable issue barring summary adjudication. “[O]nce trial has been had,” however, “the availability of official immunity should be determined by the trial record, not the pleadings nor the summary judgment record.” 15A C. Wright, A. Miller, & E. Cooper, Federal Practice & Procedure §3914.10, p. 684 (2d ed. 1992 and Supp. 2010). After trial, if defendants continue to urge qualified immunity, the decisive question, ordinarily, is whether the evidence favoring the party seeking relief is legally sufficient to overcome the defense. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 50(a), (b) (stating conditions on which judgment may be granted as a matter of law).

In the case before us, the Court of Appeals, although purporting to review the District Court’s denial of the prison officials’ pretrial summary-judgment motion, several times pointed to evidence presented only at the trial stage of the proceedings, The appeals court erred, but not fatally, by incorrectly placing its ruling under a summary judgment headline. Its judgment was infirm, however, because Jordan's and Bright's failure to renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) left the appellate forum with no warrant to reject the appraisal of the evidence by “the judge who saw and heard the witnesses and ha[d] the feel of the case which no appellate printed transcript can impart.” Cone v. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co., 330 U. S. 212, 216 (1947).

As Justice Ginsburg writes later in the opinion:

Nor did [defendants] avail themselves of Rule 50(b), which permits the entry, postverdict, of judgment for the verdict loser if the court finds that the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain the verdict. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 50(a), (b). Absent such a motion, we have repeatedly held, an appellate court is "powerless" to review the sufficiency of the evidence after trial. Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc., 546 U. S. 394, 405 (2006).

Justice Thomas authored a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy:

We granted certiorari to decide the narrow question whether a party may appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits. I agree with the Court that the answer is no. The Court also reaches beyond that question, however, to address the effect of Jordan and Bright’s failure to renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b). I would limit our decision to the question presented and remand for consideration of any additional issues.

--A

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