Tuesday, March 23, 2021
The final version of my article, Appellate Courts and Civil Juries, 2021 Wisconsin L. Rev. 1, is now posted. It tackles the question of what standard of review appellate courts should use for findings made by civil juries. There’s a fair amount of confusion on this issue, because some appellate courts have conflated it with the framework for choosing the standard of appellate review for rulings by lower court judges. (The confusion is not helped by the extent to which the often elusive distinction between “law” and “fact” plays a role.)
This is also an issue that the Supreme Court is considering right now in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., a $9 billion lawsuit about Google’s use of Java programming code to develop its Android operating system. SCOTUS issued a specific order asking the parties to brief the appropriate standard of review for the jury’s verdict in favor of Google on its fair use defense. The Google case was argued at the beginning of this Term but is still awaiting a decision—here are some of my thoughts on the case from back in October after the oral argument: SCOTUS, Google v. Oracle, and Appellate Review of Civil Jury Verdicts.
I enjoyed working on this piece, and I hope folks find it helpful. Special thanks to the great editors at the Wisconsin Law Review, who did a fantastic and timely job getting the article finalized—maybe even in time for SCOTUS to read it! Here’s the full abstract:
In federal civil litigation, decisionmaking power is shared by juries, trial courts, and appellate courts. This Article examines an unresolved tension in the different doctrines that allocate authority among these institutions, one that has led to confusion surrounding the relationship between appellate courts and civil juries. At base, the current uncertainty stems from a longstanding lack of clarity regarding the distinction between matters of law and matters of fact. The high-stakes Oracle-Google litigation--which is now before the Supreme Court--exemplifies this. In that case, the Federal Circuit reasoned that an appellate court may assert de novo review over a jury's verdict simply by characterizing a particular issue as legal rather than factual. But this approach misperceives the approach demanded by Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which permits judicial override of a jury's verdict only when "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis" to reach such a verdict.
Rule 50's reasonable-jury standard does not permit de novo review of a jury's verdict on a particular issue. Rather, it requires deference to the jury's conclusion on that issue unless the reviewing court can explain why principles of substantive law or other aspects of the trial record render that verdict unreasonable. This deferential standard of review faithfully implements the text and structure of the Federal Rules and respects the jury's role in our federal system. Yet, it also preserves appellate courts' ability to provide meaningful clarification that will guide future decisionmakers.