To preserve the issue for appeal, must a party reassert a purely legal issue rejected at summary judgment in a post-trial motion?
This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether litigants can preserve purely legal issues for appellate review without having to raise such issues in a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law. This case also asks whether a trial court’s rejection of a litigant’s motion for summary judgment as a matter of law constitutes a final judgment subject to appellate review. Petitioner Neil Dupree argues that the Court should allow the preservation for appeal of purely legal issues rejected by the trial court in summary judgment without raising them again in a Rule 50 motion, according to the principles of the final judgment rule and interpretation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Respondent Kevin Younger counters that the Court must require litigants to file a Rule 50 motion to preserve legal issues for appellate review because a rejection of a motion for summary judgment does not constitute an appealable final judgment. This case also has implications for judicial efficiency and economy.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether to preserve the issue for appellate review a party must reassert in a post-trial motion a purely legal issue rejected at summary judgment.
In September of 2013, three prison guards attacked Respondent Kevin Younger while he was being held as a pretrial detainee at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic & Classification Center (“MRDCC”), a state prison in Baltimore. Younger v. Dupree at 3. The guards entered Younger’s cell while he slept, grabbed him, threw him from his bunk to the floor, and then proceeded to assault him until he lay unconscious and bleeding heavily on the cell’s floor. Id. Three years later, Younger initiated proceedings under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Petitioner Neil Dupree, a senior official at MRDCC, and several other prison employees, asserting violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Id. at 4. An individual can sue under § 1983 when they allege that a state or local official has violated their civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Before trial began, Dupree moved for summary judgment, arguing that Younger failed to comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), and therefore his claim is barred. Id. The PLRA requires that those bringing a § 1983 claim must first exhaust all available administrative remedies. The United States District Court for the District of Maryland rejected Dupree’s argument and denied his summary judgment motion, finding that the PLRA did not bar Younger’s claims. Id. The district court arrived at this finding because the administrative remedy identified by Dupree as unexhausted was not truly available to Younger in any meaningful way, and therefore he was not required to pursue it. Id. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury found Dupree and four of his codefendants liable under § 1983 for violating Younger’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, awarding Younger $700,000 in damages. Id. at 5.
Following the trial, Dupree filed a post-trial motion asking for a remitter in regard to the verdict, which the district court denied. Id. Dupree did not raise and reassert his PLRA exhaustion argument that the district court had previously rejected. Id. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Dupree raised only one claim, seeking appellate review of his PLRA exhaustion argument. Id.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Dupree’s claim. Brief for Respondent at 6. The Fourth Circuit, applying its long-held precedent, found that because Dupree did not raise the PLRA exhaustion argument before the district court in a Rule 50 motion, Dupree could not appeal the exhaustion issue. Id. at 6–7. Under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“the Rules”), a party can move the court to make a judgment as a matter of law, which is appropriate when a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the other party on that issue. Under its precedent, the Fourth Circuit cannot review the pretrial denial of a motion for summary judgment after a full trial and final judgment on the merits, even in cases where the issue rejected on summary judgment and not reasserted in a post-trial motion is purely legal. Younger at 9. Thus, the Fourth Circuit held that because Dupree’s appeal was precisely the type which it could not hear, his exhaustion issue was not properly before the court. Id.
Dupree petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, which it granted on January 13, 2023.
THE FINALITY OF SUMMARY JUDGMENT DENIAL
Dupree argues that, in the case at bar, there is no dispute regarding the facts, and the only dispute is the correct application of the law –a purely legal issue—and therefore appealable. Brief for Petitioner at 14. Dupree asserts that the appealability of purely legal issues raised at summary judgment follows from the final judgment rule, which states that appellate review is unavailable until the conclusion of a case. Id. at 13. Dupree further contends that Supreme Court precedent previously held that in exchange for making parties wait until final judgment to file an appeal, all legal errors made prior to the final judgment can be appealed. Id. Dupree also maintains that an erroneous denial of a summary judgment motion is no different in consequence or form from other types of appealable pre-trial motions, such as a denial to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, which does not require a post-trial motion. Id. at 17–18.
In response, Younger argues that Supreme Court precedent, such as Ortiz v. Jordan, makes clear that denial of a summary judgment motion does not qualify as an appealable final decision under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, which states that courts of appeals only have jurisdiction over final decisions from district courts. Brief for Respondent at 17. Younger further asserts that there is no distinction in Supreme Court precedent regarding whether the district court relied on a question of pure law or fact, nor is there a distinction in the text of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Id. at 18. Younger also maintains that the denial of a motion for summary judgment is simply the denial of judgment, and therefore there is no appealable final decision rendered on any claims or defenses, but merely a pretrial order deciding that a case will proceed to trial. Id. at 19. Younger contends that because the district court denied Dupree’s motion for summary judgment, a final decision was never rendered on his exhaustion argument because a final decision on that argument was not required for the district court to deny summary judgment. Younger concludes that, because Dupree did not renew his exhaustion argument in a post-trial motion, he forfeited his right to appeal on that basis. Id. at 22.
THE MANDATE OF RULE 50
Dupree argues that the text, history, and application of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 does not require that parties raise purely legal issues that were previously raised at summary judgment. Brief for Petitioner at 38. Dupree maintains that the text of Rule 50 is silent in regard to preserving claims for appeal, and instead only states that parties “may” renew their motions for summary judgment if they so choose. Id. Dupree further contends that the history of Rule 50 shows that the rule was designed to deal with issues regarding sufficiency of evidence, not issues of pure law. Id. at 39. Dupree posits that Supreme Court precedent, such as Cone v. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co., confirm that Rule 50 is applied to question the reviewability of motions challenging the sufficiency of evidence, not whether purely legal issues must be re-raised to be preserved. Id. at 41–43.
In response, Younger argues that a motion under Rule 50 is required to preserve claims for appellate review following trial, and this conclusion is confirmed by the rule’s text, history, and application. Brief for Respondent at 14. Younger maintains that the language of Rule 50 explicitly contemplates issues of law, because it makes specific mention of questions of law several times throughout its text. Id. at 25. Younger also contends that the history of Rule 50, stretching as far back as 1935, shows that there was a well-established practice of preserving questions of law. Id. at 25-26. Younger further asserts that Dupree’s argument concerning the application of Rule 50 fails because the Supreme Court has specifically applied Rule 50 to resolve legal issues, not just issues of evidentiary sufficiency, such as in Johnson v. N.Y., N.H. & R. Co.
THE SEVENTH AMENDMENT JURY TRIAL RIGHT
Dupree maintains that the Seventh Amendment does not present a hurdle to an appellate court’s review of purely legal issues decided at the summary judgment stage. Brief for Petitioner at 37. Specifically, Dupree points to the text of the Seventh Amendment itself, which provides that “no fact tried by a jury, shall otherwise be re-examined in any Court of the United States.” Id. at 37–38. Accordingly, Dupree maintains that the Seventh Amendment explicitly prevents judicial reexamination of issues of fact and does not speak to purely legal issues. Id. at 38. Moreover, Dupree stresses that, even beyond the text, the Seventh Amendment has never been interpreted to prohibit appellate courts from reviewing legal issues decided pretrial. Id.
Younger counters that a rule requiring parties to file a Rule 50 motion in order to preserve issues for appeal would both safeguard parties’ Seventh Amendment jury trial right and ensure that courts only hear necessary trials. Brief for Respondent at 37. Younger maintains that summary judgment is commonly opposed on multiple bases, including both legal and factual issues. Id. at 38. Younger stresses, however, that the nature of summary judgment is such that a court need only find one reason to deny the motion for the trial to proceed. Id. Younger emphasizes that Dupree’s rule would result in situations where summary judgment is denied based on the legal ground only, the first trial proceeds to judgment, and then the unresolved factual issue is relevant on appeal and generates the need for a second jury trial. Id. Hence, Younger argues that preserving all summary judgment arguments in a Rule 50 motion would allow parties to, at the first trial, address issues that were not dispositive for summary judgment purposes, while protecting parties’ Seventh Amendment jury trial right and preventing unnecessary trials. Id. at 39.
THE HISTORY OF THE FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE
Dupree argues that permitting review of purely legal issues resolved at the summary judgment stage is in line with the history of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which were created to support decisions being made on the merits of a case, not technicalities. Brief for Petitioner at 27. Dupree contends that the Rules are aimed at removing and simplifying “procedural traps” that complicated issues for appeal. Id. at 28. Dupree also asserts that the intent of the drafters of the Rules was to remove any unnecessary procedural requirements. Id. Thus, Dupree maintains that requiring a party to make a redundant post-trial motion in order to preserve an issue for appeal is contrary to the Rules’ basic purpose and instead serves as a trap for the unwary litigant who fails to follow the unnecessary procedural steps to maintain their appellate rights. Id. at 30.
In response, Younger argues that modern-day summary judgment existed as a novel procedure when the Rules were enacted in 1938 and, before their adoption by the Rules, it existed only in limited form. Brief for Respondent at 32. Younger maintains that the Rules changed the scope of summary judgment so drastically that the resulting structure of summary judgment contained no analogue to previous English or American law. Id. at 33. Younger maintains that the modern-day summary judgment flows from the structure of the Rules, simply requiring a further motion rather than creating a procedural trap. Id. at 37. Younger acknowledges that while this requirement may create “redundant motions,” he maintains that such motions are still necessary under the Rules. Id.
JUDICIAL ECONOMY AND EFFICIENCY
A group of law professors, in support of Dupree, argue that preserving purely legal decisions for appeal without a Rule 50 motion promotes judicial economy. Brief of Amici Curiae Law (“Law Professors”), in Support of Petitioner at 20. The law professors reason that preserving legal decisions curtails procedural hurdles for litigants while allowing appellate courts to review decisions based on their merits. Id. at 21-22. Furthermore, the law professors note that forcing Rule 50 motions for appeals will cause petitioners to raise as many legal issues as possible, even if they decide not to raise them ultimately. Id. at 22. Therefore, the law professors conclude that disallowing appeals in cases like the one at bar will incentivize litigants “to delay, harass adversaries, and unduly burden” trial courts. Id.
Younger counters that requiring Rule 50 motions to preserve legal decisions will prevent subsequent piecemeal litigation. Brief for Respondent at 39. Younger further contends that district judges naturally understand the procedural necessity of preserving issues, and it is rather the “extra work and additional trials” that most burden the courts and judges. Id. Thus, Younger argues that requiring Rule 50 motions will save time and eliminate such burdens. Id.
THE ABIILTY OF COURTS TO ADJUDGE AND PROMOTE CLARITY
Law professors, in support of Dupree, argue that preserving legal decisions for appellate review respects the appellate courts’ deference to review purely legal issues. Brief of Law Professors at 18–19. Law professors distinguish a trial court’s role in deciding issues of sufficiency of evidence from an appellate court’s role in reviewing matters of law. Id. at 19. Law professors contend that preserving legal decisions for appeal equips appellate courts to review the same documents that trial courts did. Id. Law professors claim that there is no discernible policy or legal justification for forbidding an appellate court’s review of a clearly erroneous legal decision simply due to the parties’ failure to raise the issue again on appeal. Id. at 19–20. Law professors project that forcing the filing of a Rule 50 motion for appellate review will undermine not only the fundamental separation of roles of courts but also appellate courts’ power to review. See id. at 20. Such erosion of appellate courts’ power to clarify law may create undetected erroneous legal rulings in areas concerning pure law, such as constitutional interpretation or immunity. Id.
Younger counters that Dupree’s proposed preservation rule distinguishing issues of law and fact hinders courts’ ability to administer litigation through unnecessary confusion. Brief for Respondent at 41. Younger notes that the definition of purely legal issues versus factual issues inherently lacks a clear distinction. Id. Younger observes that Dupree’s dichotomous standard will force litigants to define which issues are legal and factual on their own, which cannot be consistent and predictable. Id. at 43. Younger further notes that appellate courts will be forced to review the litigants’ distinctions of law and fact, which unduly burdens and confuses courts. Id. Younger asserts that requiring a Rule 50 motion to preserve any issue denied in summary judgment provides the courts with a clear, easy-to-follow rule. Id. at 45. Therefore, Younger suggests that the Supreme Court must reject the uncertain boundaries that Dupree suggested to promote clarity of courtroom procedure and rules.
IMPACT ON LITIGANTS’ INCENTIVES AND TRIAL STRATEGIES
The DRI Center for Law and Public Policy (“DRI”), in support of Dupree, argues that forcing a Rule 50 filing will prevent litigants from fully developing purely legal issues on appeal. Brief of Amici Curiae the DRI Center for Law and Public Policy (“DRI”), in Support of Petitioner at 7. DRI points out that a Rule 50 motion permits a limited page number for parties to appeal both sufficiency of evidence claims and purely legal claims. Id. A party who lost on legal arguments in summary judgment would thus naturally focus on sufficiency claims rather than diluting them for the sake of again raising purely legal arguments. Id. DRI contends that the Court must allow preservation of all issues to prevent such distortion of litigants’ incentives. Id. at 8.
Contrarily, Younger argues that allowing preservation of legal issues without a Rule 50 motion will incentivize defendants to “sandbag” trials. Brief for Respondent at 47. According to Younger, “sandbagging” refers to remaining silent on an issue to preserve it for appeal. Id. Younger posits that defendants who assert affirmative defenses but lose on mixed questions of law and fact in summary judgment may employ this strategy. Id. Younger argues that such defendants will present evidence irrelevant to such affirmative defenses in the hope of sandbagging the plaintiff on appeal. Id. Therefore, Younger claims, Dupree’s rule will likely incentivize defendants to create “wasted trials,” a burden even larger than requiring litigants to claim issues of law on appeal for preservation. Id.
- John Elwood, Relist-Palooza: Religious Exercise, the False Claims Act, Takings Clause, RICO, Bank Secrecy, and More, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 11, 2023).
- Kalvis Golde, In Maryland Prison-Assault Case, A Request to Clarify an Important Procedural Question, SCOTUSblog (Sept. 23, 2022).
- Dan Schweitzer, Supreme Court Report: Dupree v. Younger, 22-210, National Association of Attorneys General (Jan. 20, 2023).