On May 25, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dupree v. Younger. The case arose out of a claim of excessive force brought under section 1983. The question presented was whether a party must reassert in a post-trial motion a purely legal issue rejected at summary judgment to preserve the issue for appellate review. The Court said no.
Dupree (the defendant) moved for summary judgment, arguing that Younger (the plaintiff/prisoner) failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing his complaint. The district court denied the motion. It concluded that, despite disputed issues of fact related to exhaustion, Younger’s exhaustion obligation was satisfied when Maryland prison officials completed an investigation into Younger’s claim.
A jury found against Dupree and his co-defendants. Dupree did not file a post-trial motion under Rule 50(b). On appeal, he argued a single issue: Whether the district court erred by rejecting his exhaustion defense at summary judgment. The 4th Circuit, bound by its precedent, dismissed the appeal because Dupree did not preserve the issue in a Rule 50(b) motion. The Super Court vacated the 4th’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.
The Court explained that a party must raise a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim in a post-trial motion to preserve the issue for appeal. This principle does not apply to purely legal issues. Why? Because the facts developed at trial “supersede the record existing at the time of summary judgment.” Since the facts may change during trial, a “disappointed party” must “allow the district court to take a first crack” at whether the evidence is sufficient to prove a claim. This is not the case with purely legal issues, because a “reviewing court does not benefit from having a district court reexamine a purely legal pretrial ruling.” “[Nothing at trial will [give] the district court any reason to question it prior [legal] analysis.”
Before Dupree the 11th Circuit held that a post-trial motion is required to preserve for appeal a purely legal error made at summary judgment. See, e.g., Am. Builders Ins. Co. v. S.-Owners Ins. Co., 56 F.4th 938, 950 (11th Cir. 2023). Dupree abrogates this holding and resolves a circuit split on the issue.