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Potential Shocker: Another Sensible (and Unanimous) Supreme Court Opinion

Again, another decision that I must appreciate from the Supremes.  Trust me, I rarely offer praise to a decidedly right-wing (5 Justices) Court — especially with our one-year anniversary of the tragedy that is Citizens United.

However, the Ortiz v. Jordan opinion is another rational, and well-conceived decision, penned by Justice Ginsburg (one of our more moderate justices).  Certainly, if a plaintiff is able to survive summary judgment, and then successfully get through a full trial on the merits, the defendant (in this case,  a state agency) should not be able to negate the trial verdict by attempting to question the legitimacy of the trial court’s ruling of summary judgment.

Acknowledgment to another great legal blog, Jurist’s Paper Chase (out of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law):  http://jurist.org/paperchase/2011/01/supreme-court-rules-against-summary-judgment-appeal-after-full-trial.php?

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously Monday in Ortiz v. Jordan [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a party may not appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits. Petitioner Michelle Ortiz was sexually assaulted by a corrections officer in prison and then placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for reporting the assault. She brought a § 1983 claim against respondents Paula Jordan, a case manager at the prison, and Rebecca Bright, who was responsible for Ortiz’s time in solitary confinement. The district court denied respondents’ motion for summary judgment, and they went ahead with trial without appealing. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Ortiz more than $600,000. Jordan and Bright subsequently appealed the denial of summary judgment. Rejecting their claim, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg wrote:

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) [Cornell, text] left the appellate forum with no warrant to reject the appraisal of the evidence by the judge who saw and heard the witnesses and had the feel of the case which no appellate printed transcript can impart.

While the vote was unanimous, Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurrence, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. The concurrence maintains that the court granted certiorari to decide only the issue of whether a party may appeal an order denying summary judgment after a full trial on the merits, and argues that the court reached too far in addressing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), suggesting that they should rule on the narrow question and remand for consideration any further issues.

The Court’s decision reverses and remands the earlier ruling [text] of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website], which held in March 2009 that, “although courts normally do not review the denial of a summary judgment motion after a trial on the merits, denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity is an exception to this rule.” There was previously a circuit split on this issue.

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