November 30, 2016 Practice Points

When the Judge Is Wrong

By Florence M. Johnson

"There is no such thing as the judge being wrong."

This proclamation was uttered to me by—you guessed it—a judge. It's a judge's job to be right, and ultimately they wear the robes, not you. However, every litigator will eventually encounter a jurist who is undeniably flat-out wrong on an issue. Whether the error is a ruling on an objection or a misapplication of the law, this scenario can leave both judge and litigator in a pickle. This practice point seeks to clarify your options when this inevitably happens.

Before you proceed, define the nature of the error and its potential impact. Ask yourself these key questions:

Is the error material?
First, determine whether the error is one that can be easily remedied. Outside of open court, the ruling with which you take issue may be addressed with a motion to reconsider. If you question a ruling against you within court, you may ask the court's permission to brief any issue before a ruling is handed down. It's your job to represent your client accurately; don't be shy about due diligence on a sticky point.

How will the error affect the case's outcome?
If a ruling is in doubt, it's best to err on the side of caution: assume every ruling will have an impact on every aspect of the case, from discovery boundaries to use of expert witnesses or the manner in which evidence will be presented at trial. Don't spend too long contemplating this one.

What mechanism will allow me to remedy this error without sacrificing my reputation and my client's interests?
If your objection results in a questionable ruling by the court, make a record of it with an offer of proof to preserve the record for appeal and move forward.

Unfortunately, there are times when a judge's misunderstanding or misapplication of the law is material but the issue cannot be remedied via a later appeal. In these circumstances, the rules provide for an interlocutory appeal. Interlocutory appeal is a tool that circumvents waiting for the final decision of the district court, instead allowing direct appeal to the appellate court while the action is pending.

This practice point illustrates the operation of Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 5.0, below.

Rule 5. Appeal by Permission

(a) Petition for Permission to Appeal.

(1) To request permission to appeal when an appeal is within the court of appeals' discretion, a party must file a petition for permission to appeal. The petition must be filed with the circuit clerk with proof of service on all other parties to the district-court action.

(2) The petition must be filed within the time specified by the statute or rule authorizing the appeal or, if no such time is specified, within the time provided by Rule 4(a) for filing a notice of appeal.

(3) If a party cannot petition for appeal unless the district court first enters an order granting permission to do so or stating that the necessary conditions are met, the district court may amend its order, either on its own or in response to a party's motion, to include the required permission or statement. In that event, the time to petition runs from entry of the amended order.

(b) Contents of the Petition; Answer or Cross-Petition; Oral Argument.

(1) The petition must include the following:

(A) the facts necessary to understand the question presented;
(B) the question itself;
(C) the relief sought;
(D) the reasons why the appeal should be allowed and is authorized by a statute or rule; and
(E) an attached copy of:

(i) the order, decree, or judgment complained of and any related opinion or memorandum, and
(ii) any order stating the district court's permission to appeal or finding that the necessary conditions are met.

(2) A party may file an answer in opposition or a cross-petition within 10 days after the petition is served.

(3) The petition and answer will be submitted without oral argument unless the court of appeals orders otherwise.

(c) Form of Papers; Number of Copies. All papers must conform to Rule 32(c)(2). Except by the court's permission, a paper must not exceed 20 pages, exclusive of the disclosure statement, the proof of service, and the accompanying documents required by Rule 5(b)(1)(E). An original and 3 copies must be filed unless the court requires a different number by local rule or by order in a particular case.

(d) Grant of Permission; Fees; Cost Bond; Filing the Record.

(1) Within 14 days after the entry of the order granting permission to appeal, the appellant must:

(A) pay the district clerk all required fees; and
(B) file a cost bond if required under Rule 7.

(2) A notice of appeal need not be filed. The date when the order granting permission to appeal is entered serves as the date of the notice of appeal for calculating time under these rules.

(3) The district clerk must notify the circuit clerk once the petitioner has paid the fees. Upon receiving this notice, the circuit clerk must enter the appeal on the docket. The record must be forwarded and filed in accordance with Rules 11 and 12(c).

Every circuit has different internal rules for initiating an interlocutory appeal. It's up to the practitioner to understand their implementation; all attorneys should fastidiously study the applicable rules to make sure requirements of appeal are met.

Florence M. Johnson is the principal attorney at Johnson and Johnson, PLLC, in Memphis, Tennessee and the chair of the Practice Points subcommittee for the Minority Trial Lawyer committee of the Section of Litigation.


Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).