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Federal District Courts Have Inherent Power to Rescind Discharge Orders and Recall Juries

Rocky Dietz v. Hillary Bouldin
(June 9, 2016) Supreme Court of the United States

by Matthew J. McCloskey, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-458_b07d.pdf

In a recent opinion, the Supreme Court held that Federal district courts have an inherent, albeit limited, power to rescind a jury discharge order and recall a jury that has been dismissed.

This case arose out of a motor vehicle accident in which Defendant, Hillary Bouldin, ran a red light and T-boned Plaintiff, Rocky Dietz. Plaintiff was injured in the collision and filed a lawsuit against Defendant sounding in negligence to recover for his injuries. Defendant removed the case to Federal District Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

At trial, Defendant admitted that he was at fault for the accident, and he stipulated that Plaintiff’s claimed medical expense damages of $10,136 were reasonable and necessary as a result of the collision. The case was submitted to the jury solely on the issue of whether Plaintiff was entitled to damages exceeding $10,136. During deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge asking: “Has the $10,136 medical expenses been paid; and if so, by whom?” The Court, with the consent of both parties, told the jury that that information was not relevant to their deliberations. Subsequently, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor, but awarding $0 in damages. The judge then ordered that the jury was “discharged” and told the jury that they were “free to go.”

Just minutes later, the Court ordered the jury brought back to the courtroom. After discharging the jury, the Court realized that the $0 verdict was not “legally possible in view of stipulated damages” in the amount of $10,136. Consequently, the Court offered to order a new trial or to “reempanel the jurors, instruct[] them to award at least the stipulated damages, and order[] them to deliberate anew.” Over Plaintiff’s objection, the Court eventually decided to reempanel the jurors, stating that it did not want “to just throw away the money and time that’s been expended in this trial.” The judge explained the mistake to the jurors, and asked the jury to deliberate further. After further deliberation, the jury again returned a verdict in Plaintiff’s favor, this time awarding $15,000 in damages.

Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the District Court erred in reempaneling the jury. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that a district court judge can recall a jury after they have been discharged so long as the jury has not been “exposed to any outside influences that would compromise their ability to reconsider the verdict fairly.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, affirmed. The Court noted that, although the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure grant district courts a host of express powers, those powers are not exclusive. For example, the Rules do not expressly permit a Court to entertain a motion in limine or a motion to dismiss under the forum non conveniens doctrine. Thus, district courts possess certain implied powers “governed not by rule or statute but by the control necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.” Whether a district court’s actions are in accordance with its implied powers depends on a two-part test: (1) “the exercise of an inherent power must be a ‘reasonable response to the problems and needs’ confronting the court’s fair administration of justice”; and (2)” the exercise of an inherent power cannot be contrary to any express grant of or limitation on the district court’s power contained in a rule or statute.”

Applying this test, the Court concluded that recalling a jury is a valid exercise of a district court’s inherent powers. First, “rescinding a discharge order and recalling the jury can be a reasonable response to correcting an error in the jury’s verdict in certain circumstances.” In this regard, the Court noted that district courts have broad authority to correct jury errors. Moreover, particularly under the facts of this case, the Court’s decision to recall the jury was inarguably connected to the Court’s desire to insure the “expeditious disposition” of the parties’ dispute. Second, the Court perceived no rule or statute that contravened the District Court’s decisions to rescind the discharge order. Accordingly, the District Court had the power to rescind the discharge order and recall the jury.

The Court cautioned, however, that “[j]ust because a district court has the inherent power to rescind a discharge order does not mean that it is appropriate to use that power in every case. . . . The inherent power to rescind a discharge order and recall a dismissed jury, therefore, must be carefully circumscribed, especially in light of the guarantee of an impartial jury that is vital to the fair administration of justice.” Particularly where recalling a jury would present “any suggestion of prejudice” to the district court, district courts should generally refrain from rescinding discharge orders. The Court set forth three (3) non-exclusive factors which district courts should consider in making their inquiry: (1) “the length of delay between discharge and recall”; (2) “whether the jurors have spoken to anyone about the case after discharge”; and (3) “the reaction to the verdict,” both in the courtroom and in society. Furthermore, “[i]n considering these and any other relevant factors, courts should also ask to what extent just-dismissed jurors accessed their smartphones or the internet, which provide other avenues for potential prejudice.”

Applying these factors to this case, the Court concluded that the District Court did not err in recalling the jury. The jury had been out of the courtroom for only a few minutes, and only one juror had left the building in that time frame. Accordingly, there was little potential for prejudice, and the District Court’s decision to rescind the discharge order was a permissible exercise of its powers.


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