Post-Trial Motions


See Also:


Terms:


Bench trial
A bench trial is a case tried before a judge and no jury. In such a case, the judge plays a dual role – judge and fact-finder.

Motion
A motion is a written or oral request for a presiding court to make a ruling or order on a particular legal issue.

Movant
The moving party; the party who makes the motion.

Sua sponte
Sua sponte is a Latin phrase meaning “of its own accord” or “on its own”. It is commonly used to refer to an action that the court takes without any motion by a party.


Post-trial motions are employed after the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) renders its verdict. These motions are to be differentiated from those made at the close of evidence, which was covered in the earlier chapter on trial practice.

Motion for New Trial

The first motion to consider is a motion for a new trial. See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 59. A party may move the court for a new trial in particular situations, and it is up to the trial court’s discretion whether to grant the motion. The rules provide for an order granting a new trial, or similar relief, to remedy a situation where the judgment rendered in the case is a miscarriage of justice. There are many grounds on which a party may base its motion for a new trial; these grounds are not codified, but have been established by the common law. Following are the various grounds on which a party may rely in seeking a new trial:

1) The case where the Verdict is Against the Weight of the Evidence:
A motion for a new trial can be sustained where evidence and testimony presented strongly supports one party, but the judgment is for the other. One court has explained that the power to grant a motion for a new trial

“is a power to examine a whole case on the law and the evidence, with a view to securing a result, not merely legally, but also manifestly against justice, - a power exercised in pursuance of a sound judicial discretion, without which the jury system would be a capricious and intolerable tyranny, which no people could long endure.” -Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Yeatts, 122 F.2d 350 (4th Cir. 1941)

John and Mark are involved in an automobile collision during which John sustained numerous injuries. In support of his allegation that Mark did not stop at a red light and collided with John’s car in the middle of an intersection, John presents testimony from 10 witnesses, all of whom state that they witnessed Mark running the red light. John also presents photographs to support his allegation that his car was demolished in the accident. He also presents evidence from five motor vehicle repair shops in the form of documents, all of which state that John’s car is irreparable. John then rests his case. In his only attempt at a defense, Mark testifies that he does not remember if the light was red and that he didn’t think it was red, but he's not sure. After his testimony, Mark rests his defense. The jury finds that Mark did not run the red light and, therefore, was not negligent. John moves for a new trial based on the ground that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Because the evidence supporting John’s case is so clear and is great in weight, the court is likely to grant John’s motion.

2) The case where the Verdict is Inadequate or Excessive: 
This is the case where the jury’s award is either grossly inadequate or grossly excessive. Some courts have referred to such verdicts as ‘shocking’ to the court’s conscience. For example:

Example (1): While visiting Barney’s apartment, Alice slips on ice on the path to the building and sustains numerous injuries. Alice sues Barney’s landlord in negligence for not maintaining the sidewalk in a safe manner. To support her request for damages, Alice submits evidence from five doctors, all of whom maintain that she will be partially paralyzed for life. Alice also has presented evidence that as a result of her medical condition, she no longer earns what she used to, her quality of life has decreased, and she continually undergoes psychiatric treatment. Alice’s medical bills, on a monthly basis, total $10,000, her new wheelchair cost $25,000, and her lost wages total $100,000. The jury returns a verdict for Alice in the amount of $2,000, total. Alice moves for a new trial based on the ground that the jury’s verdict was inadequate. Based on the facts above, the court is highly likely to grant Alice’s motion.

Example (2): While Bill was backing out of his driveway, Bill’s car collided with Andrew’s car, which was legally parked in the street. Andrew brings an action against Bill for damages to his automobile, which totaled $1,000. Andrew also presented evidence that he rented a car for $100 during the time his car was being repaired. The jury returns a verdict for Andrew in the amount of $200,000. Bill moves for a new trial based on the ground that the jury’s verdict was excessive. A court is highly likely to grant Bill’s motion.

3) The case where a Party Newly Discovers Evidence: 

“[A] motion for new trial on the grounds of newly discovered evidence must meet the following requirements before it [can] be granted: (1) [The newly discovered evidence] must be as would probably change the result on a new trial; (2) [The newly discovered evidence] must have been discovered since the trial; (3) [The newly discovered evidence] must be of such a nature that it could not have been discovered before trial by due diligence; (4) [The newly discovered evidence] must be material; and (5) [The newly discovered evidence] must not be merely cumulative or impeaching.” -Patrick v. Sedwick, 413 P.2d 169 (Alaska 1966).

George brings an action against Dr. Kirk for medical malpractice. George alleges that as a result of Dr. Kirk’s malpractice, George has sustained physical injuries. George commences the action in January 2000. In January 2003, judgment is entered for George in an amount consistent with the evidence submitted. A few months later, the defendant moved for a new trial on the ground that because a medical procedure had been developed by another doctor in 2001 that would have corrected George’s physical injuries, the damage award should be decreased. Because the new medical procedure was not in existence at the time of the trial, the court would properly deny the motion for a new trial.

Similarly, a change in law after the final judgment is not a sufficient basis on which to move for a new trial. See Title v. United States, 263 F.2d 28 (9th Cir. 1959).

Other grounds for a new trial include improper conduct by the court or by counsel and improper conduct affecting the jury. As you might imagine, this may occur when the jury is influenced improperly.

FRCP Rule 59 is clear that following a bench trial,

“the court may open the judgment if one has been entered, take additional testimony, amend findings of fact and conclusions of law or make new findings and conclusions, and direct the entry of a new judgment.”

In other words, following a bench trial, the court has broad discretion to re-open the case and amend the judgment if new facts come to light.

The motion for a new trial must be filed no later than ten days after the judgment is entered. FRCP 59(b). While the motion must specify the grounds upon which the party is relying, after giving the parties notice and an opportunity to be heard, the court may order a new trial on a ground not specified in the motion for a new trial.

It is not only upon a party’s motion that the court may order a new trial. Under FRCP 59(d), the court may, sua sponte, that is, on its own, order a new trial on any ground on which a party could base its motion. If the court orders a new trial sua sponte or grants a motion for a reason not specified in the moving papers, the court must specify the applicable ground(s) upon which it is relying in its order. The court, however, is subject to the same time limitations are imposed on a party's motion for a new trial.

As with other motions, a party may waive its right to move for a new trial if an objection is not properly made in a timely fashion. Where, however, such a waiver would result in a gross miscarriage of justice, an exception may be applied by a court.

The court also has the power to grant a partial new trial - a new trial on a particular issue in the case. Of course, any resolution of the partial new trial cannot affect the determination of the issues already resolved and not at issue in the partial new trial. The issues addressed in the new partial trial must be separate and distinct from the remaining issues. Many partial new trials involve the issue of damages, only. See Doutre v. Niec, 2 Mich.App. 88 (1965); Fisch v. Manger, 24 N.J. 66 (1957).

Under FRCP 59, a party may also move the court to alter or amend the judgment. Some states call such motions “motions for reconsideration”, because they, in essence, ask the court to reconsider a decision that has had an effect on the judgment on the merits.

There are four grounds on which a party may successfully base a motion to alter or amend the judgment. These are: (1) to prevent a miscarriage of justice (see Landrau-Romero v. Banco Popular De Puerto Rico, 212 F.3d 607 (1st Cir. 2000));(2) to account for a change in the law during the action (see White v. New Hampshire Dep’t of Employment Sec., 455 U.S. 445 (1982)); (3) to correct a legal error; and (4) to account for evidence not available during the trial (see Landrau-Romero v. Banco Popular De Puerto Rico, 212 F.2d 607).

Sydney has brought an action against a terrorist group for kidnapping. The applicable federal statute on which Sydney has based her action provides that one is liable upon holding another person against her will for at least two months. Sydney was held for three months. Before the trial begins, the defendant moves for summary judgment. The judge rules in favor of the defendant and holds that because Sydney was not held for four months, the defendant cannot be held liable under the federal statute. Sydney moves the court to alter the judgment on the ground that the court has misunderstood the controlling law; that the pertinent time period is two months, not four. The court would likely grant Sydney’s motion.

Motion for Relief from Judgment

Under FRCP 60(a), the court may correct any clerical error, based on a party’s motion or on it’s own accord (sua sponte). This is true in most jurisdictions.

Also under FRCP 60(b), the court may relieve a party from a judgment, order, or proceeding for any of six reasons.

First, the court may grant such relief from a judgment resulting from “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect”. For example:

Randy is an attorney representing Cleo, the defendant in a civil action. Cleo was properly served the summons and complaint, to which she was required to respond within, under the federal rules, twenty days. The day on which Cleo was served, from which the twenty days began to run, was two days before Thanksgiving, a national holiday. Believing that the federal rules do not count national holidays when determining the day by which the answer is due, Randy files the answer one day late. Because the answer was not filed within the twenty-day statutorily required time period, the court orders a default judgment for the plaintiff on the day that Randy files the answer. This is the type of situation in which Randy may succeed in moving the court to grant relief from the order.

Second, relief from judgment may be granted where there is “newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b)”. There are five requirements that must be met before a court may grant relief based on this ground: (1) the new evidence must have been discovered after trial; (2) the movant must have exhibited diligence in trying to find the new evidence; (3) the additional evidence may not be redundant (to evidence presented during trial), impeaching or cumulative; (4) the evidence must be material and pertinent to the case; and (5) the new evidence would lead one to believe that, if allowed to be presented, the result would be different. See Schwieger v. Farm Bureau Ins. Co., 207 F.3d 480 (8th Cir. 2000). For example:

Amy is the attorney for the plaintiff in a civil action. Upon a motion for summary judgment, the court finds that the defendant cannot be liable to the plaintiff as a matter of law. In making such a determination, the court relies on three affidavits submitted by the defendant. Amy moves the court for relief from its judgment on the ground that she recently discovered that one of the affiants lied in his affidavit. The court will not grant Amy’s request for relief from its judgment because such evidence would be offered to impeach only, and thus is not really newly discovered evidence that is directly relevant to the trial.

Third, relief from judgment may be granted where there has been “fraud (whether heretofore denominated intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party”. There are three prerequisites that must be satisfied before the court may grant relief: (1) during trial, the movant must have had a “meritorious” claim; (2) the opposing party must have engaged in fraud, misrepresentation or other misconduct; and (3) such conduct must have hindered the movant from being able to adequately, fully and fairly present its case at the trial (such interference must be substantial). See De Saracho v. Custom Food Mach., Inc., 206 F.3d 874 (9th Cir. 2000).

Fourth, relief from judgment may be granted where the “judgment is void”. The judgment is void, for example, where the court lacked personal jurisdiction over the parties or lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case. As you learned in previous chapters, courts are given authority to hear certain types of cases. For example, a family court is a court of limited jurisdiction – it may not hear shareholder derivative actions. If a court heard and rendered a verdict on an inappropriate matter, the court can grant relief from the judgment.

Fifth, relief from judgment may be granted where “the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application”.

Finally, the sixth reason on which a court may grant relief from judgment is a catch-all, as the rules allow “any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.

Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law After a Judgment

In the previous chapter, we discussed a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Following a trial and after the jury’s verdict, a party may renew a motion for judgment as a matter of law. See FRCP 50(b). The court has the authority to essentially ignore the jury’s verdict and enter a different judgment if the court determines that the evidence did not support the jury’s verdict. The renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law is just that, however – a renewal. This necessarily implies that a motion for judgment as a matter of law has to have been initially made (and denied) before the verdict was rendered. A renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law after a jury verdict is sometimes called a motion for a "judgment notwithstanding the verdict" sometimes referred to as "J.N.O.V."., based on its Latin initials.

Because the motion for judgment as a matter of law after the jury’s verdict is a renewal of the party’s motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the record (before the verdict), it follows that only those grounds raised in the original motion may be raised in the renewal motion. For example:

Stuart is an attorney for the defendant, the board of directors of S Corp., and is defending a suit by one of S Corp.’s shareholders against the board of directors for violating S Corp.’s bylaws. At the close of the record, Stuart moves for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the plaintiff did not sustain its burden of proof. Finding that the board of directors had ignored and violated the bylaws, the jury returns a verdict for the plaintiff. Stuart then attempts to renew his motion for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the complaint failed to state an action upon which relief can be granted. Because the motion for judgment as a matter of law made after the jury’s verdict does not rely on the same ground as the motion made at the close of the record, the second motion will be denied.

As stated above, if a party does not raise an initial motion for judgment as a matter of law, the rule is that the party may not make a motion for judgment as a matter of law after the jury renders its verdict. As with many legal rules, however, exceptions exist. First, the motion may be allowed if prohibiting it would result in a gross miscarriage of justice. Second, the court may decide that renewal of the motion is not necessary. For example, the court can reserve ruling on the initial motion when it is made prior to the jury's verdict, and wait until after the jury's verdict to rule on the motion. See Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654 (1935).