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Those in the legal profession understand the importance of preserving issues for appeal. Yet there has been conflict among the Courts of Appeals over whether a question of law, resolved at summary judgment, must be renewed in a post-trial motion in order to preserve that challenge for appellate review. In a unanimous opinion in Dupree v. Younger, 598 U.S.___(2023), 22-210, the Supreme Court of the United States settled the dispute holding post-trial motions are not required in order to preserve appellate rights for pure questions of law.
Kevin Younger sued Neil Dupree, and others, under 42 USC 1983, alleging use of excessive force in violation of his 14th Amendment rights. Younger claimed that during his pre-trial detention in Maryland State Prison, Dupree, a former correctional officer, ordered 3 other guards to assault him. Prior to trial, Dupree moved for summary judgment asserting that Younger failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a). The District Court denied Dupree’s motion finding that there was no dispute that the Maryland Prison System internally investigated Younger’s assault, and that this investigation satisfied Younger’s obligation to exhaust administrative remedies.
At jury trial, Dupree did not present any evidence about Younger’s obligation to exhaust his administrative remedies. The jury found Dupree liable and damages were awarded to Younger. Dupree did not file any post trial motions following the verdict, but instead filed an appeal with the 4th Circuit arguing the District Court’s rejection of his exhaustion defense at summary judgment was improper. The 4th Circuit dismissed Dupree’s appeal as, “a claim or defense rejected at summary judgment is not preserved for appellate review unless it was renewed in a post-trial motion—even when the issue is a purely legal one.” Varghese v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., 424 F. 3d 411, 422– 423 (2005).
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the Fourth Circuit’s decision. In Ortiz v Jordan, 562 U.S. 180 (2011), the Supreme Court held that a party must file a post-trial motion to preserve a claim for appeal based on sufficiency of the evidence. “Because a purely legal question is, by definition, one whose answer is independent of disputed facts, factual development at trial will not change the district court’s answer.” Dupree at pg 7. Therefore, when a district court denies summary judgment based on a pure issue of law, the aggrieved party need not raise the issue again post trial motion to preserve the right to appellate review. Ultimately, the 4th Circuit’s decision was overturned and the case was remanded back to the 4th Circuit to determine whether Dupree’s appeal was a purely legal question.
Frustratingly, the Court did not provide much guidance in determining what constitutes a factual question vs. a pure question of law. Justice Barrett, writing the opinion for the Court, noted a pure question of law is one “because of law books, not trial exhibits.” This is not terribly helpful. When it comes to determining whether or not to file a post trial motion, the old adage “better to be safe than sorry” applies. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and be sure to file your Rule 50 post trial motion!