Wednesday, February 02, 2011

SCOTUS Issues Opinion in Ortiz v. Jordan

The Supreme Court decided Ortiz v. Jordan last week, a case in which it held that denials of summary judgment after a full trial on the merits may not be appealed. Here is an excerpt from the Syllabus of the case:

A party may not appeal a denial of summary judgment after a district court has conducted a full trial on the merits. A qualified immunity plea, not upheld at the summary judgment stage, may be pursued at trial, but at that stage, the plea must be evaluated in light of the character and quality of the evidence received in court. Ordinarily, orders denying summary judgment are interlocutory and do not qualify as “final decisions” subject to appeal under 28 U. S. C. §1291. Because a qualified immunity plea can spare an official not only from liability but from trial, this Court has recognized a limited exception to the categorization of summary judgment denials as non- appealable orders. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U. S. 511, 525–526. The exception permits an immediate appeal when summary judgment is denied to a defendant who urges that qualified immunity shelters her from suit. Id., at 527. Such an immediate appeal is not available, however, when the district court determines that factual issues genu- inely in dispute preclude summary adjudication. Johnson v. Jones, 515 U. S. 304, 313. Here, Jordan and Bright sought no immediate appeal from the denial of their summary judgment motion. Nor did they avail themselves of Rule 50(b), which permits the entry of judg- ment, postverdict, for the verdict loser if the court finds the evidence legally insufficient to sustain the verdict. Absent such a motion, an appellate court is “powerless” to review the sufficiency of the evidence after trial. Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc., 546 U. S. 394, 405. This Court need not address the officers’ argument that a qualified immunity plea raising a “purely legal” issue is pre- served for appeal by an unsuccessful summary judgment motion even if the plea is not reiterated in a Rule 50(b) motion. Cases fitting that bill typically involve disputes about the substance and clarity of pre- existing law. In this case, however, what was controverted was not the pre-existing law, but the facts that could render Jordan and Bright answerable under §1983, e.g., whether Jordan was adequately informed, after the first assault, of the assailant’s identity and of Ortiz’s fear of a further assault. Because the dispositive facts were disputed, the officers’ qualified immunity defenses did not present “ ‘neat abstract issues of law.’ ” Johnson, 515 U. S., at 317. To the ex- tent that Jordan and Bright urge Ortiz has not proved her case, they were, by their own account, obliged to raise that sufficiency-of-the- evidence issue by postverdict motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b). They did not do so. The Sixth Circuit, therefore, had no warrant to upset the jury’s decision on their liability.


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