On May 25, 2023, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that a post-trial motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 50(b) is not required to preserve appellate review of a purely legal issue resolved at summary judgment. Dupree v. Younger, No. 22-210, 2023 WL 3632755 (U.S. May 25, 2023).
The respondent in the appeal brought an action against petitioner for use of excessive force in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, alleging that petitioner—a former correctional lieutenant—ordered three prison guards to attack him during his pretrial detention in a Maryland state prison. Prior to trial, petitioner moved for summary judgment, arguing that respondent failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The district court denied the motion, holding that respondent satisfied his exhaustion obligation because the Maryland prison system internally investigated the assault. The case went to trial, and the jury found petitioner liable and awarded respondent monetary damages. Respondent did not present any evidence related to his exhaustion defense at trial.
Under FRCP 50(a), a party may move for judgment as a matter of law before the case is submitted to the jury. FRCP 50(b) then allows a party to renew that motion after trial. Here, although respondent made a motion for judgment as a matter of law under FRCP 50(a), the motion did not address his exhaustion defenses, and respondent did not make a renewed motion post-trial under FRCP 50(b). Respondent then appealed the issue of his exhaustion defense, which the district court had dismissed on summary judgment, to the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal, holding under Fourth Circuit precedent that a claim or defense rejected at summary judgment is not preserved for appellate review unless that claim or defense was renewed in a post-trial motion, even when the issue is a purely legal one.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review respondent’s appeal, noting that there was a circuit split among the Courts of Appeals over whether a purely legal challenge resolved at summary judgment must be renewed in a post-trial motion in order to preserve that challenge for appellate review. The Court held that a purely legal challenge need not be renewed in a post-trial motion to preserve that legal issue for appeal. The Court explained that FRCP 50(b) post-trial motions are necessary when factual issues are addressed at summary judgment in order to preserve the issues for appeal because those questions address the sufficiency of the trial record. By contrast, purely legal issues can be resolved without reference to any disputed facts, and “a district court’s resolution of a pure question of law . . . is unaffected by future developments in the case.” Accordingly, requiring litigants to make a motion under Rule 50(b) on pure legal issues is an “empty exercise” because “nothing at trial will have given the district court any reason to question its prior analysis.”