January 24, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Ortiz v. Jordan

On January 24, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Ortiz v. Jordan, No. 09-737, holding that the defendants' failure in a civil rights action to raise sufficiency of the evidence in a post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law precluded the appellate court from upsetting the jury's decision on liability..

Plaintiff sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that she was sexually assaulted by a corrections officer while an inmate in an Ohio reformatory. She further alleged that a prison investigator retaliated against her for reporting the assaults by placing her in solitary confinement.

Defendants, the prison investigator and a case manager in plaintiff's living unit, moved for summary judgment on pleas of qualified immunity, which the district court denied. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff. Defendants sought judgment as a matter of law both at the close of plaintiff's evidence and at the close of their own presentation. However, they did not renew their request for judgment as a matter of law after the verdict as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). Nor did they request a new trial. The district court entered judgment for plaintiff. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit found that the district court should have granted summary judgment to the defendants based on their qualified immunity defense. It therefore reversed the judgment.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit. The Court first noted that summary judgment motions based on qualified immunity may be immediately appealed, unless the district court determines that factual issues genuinely in dispute preclude summary adjudication. It then held that, because defendants failed to appeal from the denial of their summary judgment motion and also failed to avail themselves of Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b), the appellate court was "powerless" to review the sufficiency of the evidence after trial. The Court rejected defendants' argument that a qualified immunity plea raising a "purely legal" issue is preserved for appeal by an unsuccessful summary judgment motion even if the plea is not reiterated in a Rule 50(b) motion. In the Court's view, the qualified immunity plea did not turn on purely legal issues but instead turned on factual disputes.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined.

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