Supreme Court rules district courts can recall a discharged jury

TrialNews logo

July 7, 2016 - Ryan Watson

 

Federal district courts have limited inherent power to recall a jury in civil cases after identifying an error in the jury’s verdict, the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-2. This uncommon situation arises when the court discharges a jury and then, shortly after, realizes that the verdict was legally impermissible or would result in a mistrial. (Dietz v. Bouldin, 2016 WL 3189528 (U.S. June 9, 2016)).

Rocky Dietz was driving through an intersection in Bozeman, Mont., when Hillary Bouldin ran a red light and struck him. His negligence suit against Bouldin was removed to federal district court. At trial, Bouldin admitted fault, and the parties stipulated that $10,136 of Dietz’s medical expenses were reasonable and necessary. The only question for the jury was whether Dietz was entitled to more than the stipulated amount.

The jury returned a verdict for Dietz but awarded him no damages. The judge then discharged the jurors, who left the courtroom. A few minutes later, realizing the error—that a verdict of less than the stipulated amount was legally impermissible and would require a new trial—the judge summoned the jury back to the courtroom. He confirmed that the jurors had not discussed the case with anyone else and ordered them to deliberate again and reach a different verdict. The next day, the jury awarded Dietz $15,000. Dietz appealed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the district court had the authority to recall the jury after it had been discharged. That authority is not explicitly mentioned in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, so if the district court can exercise it, it must be an inherent power. The Court explained that a district court’s inherent powers are: “a reasonable response to a specific problem” and must not “contradict any express rule or statute.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, concluded that recalling a jury can be a reasonable response to correcting a jury verdict error in some circumstances—comparing it to the court’s authority to provide a curative instruction when it recognizes a jury verdict error before it discharges the jury. Further, the Court pointed out, district courts have an inherent authority “to manage their dockets and courtrooms with a view toward the efficient and expedient resolution of cases.” Here, the alternative to recalling the jury would have been to declare a mistrial and empanel a new jury—a much more time-consuming and expensive solution. Additionally, rescinding the discharge order and recalling a jury does not violate any express rule or statute. Even though the rules plainly assume that the jury no longer exists to instruct after it has been discharged, the Court found no express prohibition.

Finally, the Court cautioned that the exercise of this power would not be appropriate in every case. If there is any indication of juror prejudice or taint following the discharge, the district court should be reluctant to recall the jury. Similarly, if the jury had been discharged for too long, it would be inappropriate to recall it. Finally, if there was a particularly strong or emotional response to the verdict, either from the parties or from people in the courthouse, the jurors may no longer be impartial. Applying these factors to Dietz’s case, the Court found that the district court had acted reasonably in exercising its inherent power to recall the jury, and affirmed.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Thomas argued that the common law prohibited a judge from recalling a discharged jury and that this prohibition should serve as a bright-line rule in all cases. In the age of 24/7 news coverage and smartphone access, the dissent reasoned that it is never certain that jurors will remain impartial, avoid discussing the case, or refrain from gathering outside information about the case once they have been discharged. Concerned that a multifactor test would create less clarity and encourage litigation, he would have applied the common law rule to reverse the Ninth Circuit.