WEISGRAM et al. v. MARLEY CO. et al.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, reproduced below, governs motions for judgment as a matter of law in jury trials.4 It allows the trial court to remove cases or issues from the jury’s consideration “when the facts are sufficiently clear that the law requires a particular result.” 9A C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure §2521, p. 240 (2d ed. 1995) (hereinafter Wright & Miller). Subdivision (d) controls when, as here, the verdict loser appeals from the trial court’s denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law:

“[T]he party who prevailed on that motion may, as appellee, assert grounds entitling the party to a new trial in the event the appellate court concludes that the trial court erred in denying the motion for judgment. If the appellate court reverses the judgment, nothing in this rule precludes it from determining that the appellee is entitled to a new trial, or from directing the trial court to determine whether a new trial shall be granted.” 

Under this Rule, Weisgram urges, when a court of appeals determines that a jury verdict cannot be sustained due to an error in the admission of evidence, the appellate court may not order the entry of judgment for the verdict loser, but must instead remand the case to the trial court for a new trial determination. Brief for Petitioner 20, 22; Reply Brief 1, 17. Nothing in Rule 50 expressly addresses this question.5

In a series of pre-1967 decisions, this Court refrained from deciding the question, while emphasizing the importance of giving the party deprived of a verdict the opportunity to invoke the discretion of the trial judge to grant a new trial. See Cone v. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co., 330 U.S. 212, 216—218 (1947); Globe Liquor Co. v. San Roman, 332 U.S. 571, 573—574 (1948); Johnson v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co., 344 U.S. 48, 54, n. 3 (1952); see also 9A Wright & Miller, §2540, at 370. Then, in Neely, the Court reviewed its prior jurisprudence and ruled definitively that if a motion for judgment as a matter of law is erroneously denied by the district court, the appellate court does have the power to order the entry of judgment for the moving party. 386 U.S., at 326; see also Louis, Post-Verdict Rulings on the Sufficiency of the Evidence: Neely v. Martin K. Eby Construction Co. Revisited, 1975 Wis. L. Rev. 503 (surveying chronologically Court’s decisions bearing on appellate direction of judgment as a matter of law).

Neely first addressed the compatibility of appellate direction of judgment as a matter of law (then styled “judgment n.o.v.”) with the Seventh Amendment’s jury trial guarantee. It was settled, the Court pointed out, that a trial court, pursuant to Rule 50(b), could enter judgment for the verdict loser without offense to the Seventh Amendment. 386 U.S., at 321 (citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243 (1940)). “As far as the Seventh Amendment’s right to jury trial is concerned,” the Court reasoned, “there is no greater restriction on the province of the jury when an appellate court enters judgment n.o.v. than when a trial court does”; accordingly, the Court concluded, “there is no constitutional bar to an appellate court granting judgment n.o.v.” 311 U.S., at 322 (citing Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654 (1935)). The Court next turned to “the statutory grant of appellate jurisdiction to the courts of appeals [in 28 U.S.C. § 2106],”6 which it found “certainly broad enough to include the power to direct entry of judgment n.o.v. on appeal.” 311 U.S., at 322. The remainder of the Neely opinion effectively complements Rules 50(c) and 50(d), providing guidance on the appropriate exercise of the appellate court’s discretion when it reverses the trial court’s denial of a defendant’s Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law. Id., at 322—330; cf. supra, note 5 (1963 observation of Advisory Committee that, as of that year, “problems [concerning motions for judgment coupled with new trial motions] ha[d] not been fully canvassed”).

Neely represents no volte-face in the Court’s understanding of the respective competences of trial and appellate forums. Immediately after declaring that appellate courts have the power to order the entry of judgment for a verdict loser, the Court cautioned:

“Part of the Court’s concern has been to protect the rights of the party whose jury verdict has been set aside on appeal and who may have valid grounds for a new trial, some or all of which should be passed upon by the district court, rather than the court of appeals, because of the trial judge’s first-hand knowledge of witnesses, testimony, and issues–because of his ‘feel’ for the overall case. These are very valid concerns to which the court of appeals should be constantly alert.” 311 U.S., at 325.7

Nevertheless, the Court in Neely continued, due consideration of the rights of the verdict winner and the closeness of the trial court to the case “do[es] not justify an ironclad rule that the court of appeals should never order dismissal or judgment for the defendant when the plaintiff’s verdict has been set aside on appeal.” Id., at 326. “Such a rule,” the Court concluded, “would not serve the purpose of Rule 50 to speed litigation and to avoid unnecessary retrials.” Ibid. Neely ultimately clarified that if a court of appeals determines that the district court erroneously denied a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the appellate court may (1) order a new trial at the verdict winner’s request or on its own motion, (2) remand the case for the trial court to decide whether a new trial or entry of judgment for the defendant is warranted, or (3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law for the defendant. Id., 327—330; see also 9A Wright & Miller §2540, at 371—372.  Next Page ->

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