Dietz v. Bouldin

Issues 

Can a federal court, after discharging a jury, recall the jurors and direct them to deliberate further in order to correct an invalid verdict?

Oral argument: 
April 26, 2016

This case stems from a vehicle collision lawsuit and comes to the Supreme Court on appeal from the Ninth Circuit. Respondent Hillary Bouldin collided with petitioner Rocky Dietz who subsequently sued Bouldin in Montana state court for injuries sustained during the accident. Bouldin removed the case to federal court and the jury found in favor of Dietz but erroneously awarded $0 in damages, which was legally impossible because Bouldin had admitted to causing at least $10,000 in medical expenses. The Supreme Court will clarify under which circumstances, if any, federal courts may recall jurors dismissed after having rendered a final verdict. Dietz contends that the Court should establish a bright-line rule clearly forbidding such re-empaneling of jurors, asserting instead that the appropriate remedy for an invalid verdict is a new trial. Bouldin counters that federal courts should be allowed to exercise discretion to determine when it is appropriate to recall a jury after its dismissal. This case will affect how federal courts interpret rules and procedures for recalling jurors and will also impact the fairness and finality of jury verdicts and judicial efficiency in federal court proceedings.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

After a judge has discharged a jury from service in a case and the jurors have left the judge’s presence, may the judge recall the jurors for further service in the same case?

Facts 

In August 2009, respondent Hillary Bouldin, while driving his car, struck petitioner Rocky Dietz’s car. Dietz sued Bouldin in Montana state court for physical and mental injuries sustained as a result of the accident. The case was removed to federal court, and prior to trial, Bouldin admitted that the accident was his fault and that Dietz’s injuries resulted from the accident. Dietz and Bouldin stipulated that Dietz was entitled to at least $10,136, the total medical expenses incurred from the accident up to that point.Accordingly, the only amount in dispute at trial was the amount of future damages that Bouldin was liable for. At trial, Dietz presented evidence that he would require physical therapy, medication, and injections for pain. Bouldin, however, took issue with Dietz’s claims, citing Dietz’s pre-existing medical conditions and asserting that some of Dietz’s claimed future medical expenses did not stem directly from the accident. Bouldin also argued that Dietz was overstating the amount of medical care he would actually seek.

During closing arguments, Bouldin’s attorney reminded the jury of the parties’ stipulation regarding medical expenses and explained that their award should also include an amount for reasonably probable future medical care. While the jury deliberated, one of the jurors sent a message to the judge, asking whether the previously incurred medical expenses had been paid, and if so, by whom. The judge responded that the information was not relevant to the jury’s verdict. The judge did, however, discuss with Dietz’s and Bouldin’s attorneys his concerns that the jury might not understand that their verdict had to cover, at minimum, the amount of stipulated damages.

The jury found in favor of Dietz, but awarded him damages in the total amount of $0. The judge realized that such a verdict was invalid, but only after he had dismissed the jury and called the court into recess. He immediately recalled the jurors and explained to them that their verdict was inconsistent with the parties’ stipulation regarding prior medical expenses. The judge asked the jurors whether any of them had been influenced by outside factors during the period that that they were dismissed, and when they collectively responded that they had not, he ordered them to reconvene to issue a new verdict. Dietz objected to this procedure and moved for a mistrial, which the judge denied. The jury, after reconvening, awarded Dietz the sum of $15,000.

Dietz appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the district court’s recalling the jury after it had been dismissed violated due process. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling, finding that the district court judge, in immediately recalling the jury and determining that they had not been affected by outside influence, acted appropriately within his discretion. Dietz subsequently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for writ of certiorari, which the Court granted on January 19, 2016.

Analysis 

Dietz argues that federal courts cannot re-empanel juries because judges lack inherent authority to do so. Likewise, he contends, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not grant judges express authority over jurors after they are discharged. Dietz urges the Court to establish a “bright-line rule” against recalling discharged jurors for further instruction and deliberation. Bouldin contends that federal courts have the inherent authority to correct an error of judicial process and that the federal rules do not divest courts of this authority. Bouldin also argues that there is no justification in this situation for the Court to exercise its supervisory powers to construct a bright-line rule.

FEDERAL COURTS’ AUTHORITY TO RECALL DISCHARGED JURORS

Dietz argues that federal courts do not have inherent or express authority to recall discharged jurors for further service in a case. Dietz contends that recalling discharged jurors fails the Court’s three-part test for inherent authority. First, Dietz claims that it conflicts with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51(b)(3), which allows federal courts to deliver jury instructions only before the jury is dismissed, but not after. Second, Dietz maintains that there is no “long unquestioned” history of courts exercising a recall power. Third, Dietz argues that such power is not necessary or sufficiently limited, pointing to existing rules, such as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, which provide remedies for invalid verdicts after the jury is discharged, such as a new trial.

Dietz asserts that federal courts also lack express authority under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. According to Dietz, the silence in the rules on this issue implies that courts are prohibited from recalling jurors after they are discharged. Dietz again relies on Rules 51(b)(3) and 59, as well as Rules 50(b) and 48(c), all of which either do not grant this authority or terminate powers over the jury upon discharge. Finally, Dietz argues that federal courts also lack express authority over discharged jurors because after the jurors are discharged, they become ordinary citizens and cease to be part of a jury.

Bouldin counters that a federal court has the inherent authority to undo its own pronouncement of jury discharge to correct an improper verdict, and gives three principles that have emerged from the cases regarding inherent authority. First, Bouldin claims that a federal court has the inherent authority to correct an error of judicial process under United States v. Morgan, 307 U.S. 183 (1939). Second, Bouldin argues that federal courts have the inherent authority to “manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.” Third, Bouldin maintains that federal courts have the power to modify or rescind an order before final judgment. Bouldin does not acknowledge a three-part test for inherent authority, but contends that the federal rules are silent regarding whether a federal court may recall discharged jurors. Additionally, Bouldin argues that there is no requirement for inherent powers to have a “long unquestioned” history, and also maintains that courts have recalled dismissed juries since at least 1855. Finally, Bouldin argues that the Court only requires the exercise of inherent powers to “be a reasonable response to the problems and needs that provoke [their use,]” and that recalling the jury in this case was expedient, just, and narrowly tailored.

Bouldin further contends that because a federal court has the inherent authority to recall discharged jurors, it does not need the Federal Rules to grant it express authority. Bouldin contends that the Rules’ silence on the issue does not imply a prohibition. Finally, Bouldin argues that each of the Rules that Dietz relies on do not apply to correcting an improper verdict.

A NEW “BRIGHT-LINE RULE”

If the Court finds that a federal court could recall discharged jurors, Dietz argues that the Court should establish a “bright-line rule” against calling discharged jurors to reconsider a verdict. Dietz contends that a bright-line rule “strikes a sensible balance between considerations of fairness and economy.” Dietz first argues that the rule would promote fairness, because jurors are subject to outside influence and coercion upon discharge or may change their minds or soon become confused about the events of the trial. Second, Dietz contends that the rule promotes finality. Otherwise, judges could always reopen cases by arguing that juries could return without undue prejudice, and verdicts would always be subject to challenge without an appeal. Dietz also maintains that any interest in expediency does not outweigh the considerations of fairness and finality. Dietz asserts that expediency should not be favored at all costs and that other federal rules exist to fix errors before discharge or provide for a new trial.

Bouldin maintains that the Supreme Court’s supervisory powers should “be sparingly used,” and argues that petitioner’s proposed bright-line rule would undermine fairness, finality, and efficiency concerns. First, Bouldin contends that Dietz’s proposed rule would undermine fairness by mandating new trials when they are unnecessary, and would encourage parties that notice an error to remain silent until after jurors are discharged, in order to get an improper “second bite of the apple.” Further, he argues that Dietz’s concerns about fairness if the jury is recalled are unfounded, since voir dire can expose improper outside influence and because the jury must have already been confused if it submitted an improper verdict. Second, Bouldin argues that recalling a jury will always achieve finality quicker than a new trial, and points to Due Process limitations that already place boundaries on how long after discharge a jury can be recalled. Finally, Bouldin argues that recalling a jury is always more efficient than scheduling a new trial.

Discussion 

The Court will decide whether federal courts possess the authority to recall discharged jurors to correct an improper verdict. The Court’s resolution of this case will implicate concerns about judicial fairness and finality.

JUDICIAL FAIRNESS AND FINALITY

Dietz contends that jurors, after dismissal, are free to discuss the case and are vulnerable to outside influence, especially considering the current availability of electronic communications and mobile devices. Additionally, Dietz asserts that the possibility that a juror could be recalled could confuse or even coerce jurors, which threatens the constitutional right to a fair trial. Dietz contends that a bright-line rule prohibiting the recalling of jurors after a final verdict would avoid the “madness” of scenarios where judges could recall jurors days after a final verdict, or where attorneys could file motions to do the same.

Bouldin counters that a bright-line rule requiring a new trial when one is unnecessary would undermine public confidence in judicial fairness. Bouldin explains that, under a bright-line rule, a party that is unhappy with a verdict and realizes the verdict contains an obvious error could refrain from objecting until after the jury is discharged, thus attempting to unfairly obtain a new trial. Bouldin also argues that finality would be undermined, not reinforced, by a bright-line rule requiring a new trial. Bouldin explains that, in the instant case, the invalid verdict would have had to have been thrown out under such a bright-line rule. Bouldin concludes that recalling the jury enabled the lower court to obtain a final judgment the next day, as opposed to having to undergo the entirety of a new trial in order to obtain a final judgment. Accordingly, Bouldin asserts that denying courts’ discretion to recall jurors when appropriate would result in judicial inefficiency.

Conclusion 

In this case, the Court will consider whether federal courts can recall discharged jurors to reconsider a verdict. Dietz argues that federal courts do not have the inherent authority to recall jurors after they are discharged and contends that nothing in the federal rules gives them express authority over jurors in this situation. Bouldin argues that federal courts have the inherent authority to fix a judicial process error and that the federal rules do not take this authority away from federal courts. But Dietz proposes that the Court should establish a specific rule against recalling jurors for further instruction and deliberation any time after they have been discharged. Bouldin contends that Dietz offers no legitimate justification for the Court to exercise its supervisory powers to construct the proposed rule. This decision will impact the fairness and finality of jury verdicts and judicial efficiency in federal court proceedings.

Edited by 

Acknowledgments 

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