Failure to Preserve Error Costs Plaintiff a New Trial

Preservation of error is an issue that is discussed so frequently by appellate lawyers that it tends to be met with eye rolls by other lawyers. However, we keep talking about preservation of error because it is one of few things that can kill an appeal before it ever gets addressed on the merits. For this reason, appellate lawyers can add value to a trial team by ensuring that errors made at trial are properly preserved for appeal–freeing up trial laywers to focus on evidence, testimony and other substantive matters.

A recent case out of the Fifth District Court of Appeal underscores, yet again, the importance of proper preservation of error. Hang Thu Hguyen d/b/a Millenia Day Spa v. Wigley, No. 5D13-1925, 2014 WL 2968860 (Fla. 5th DCA July 3, 2014). Plaintiff Wigley filed a lawsuit against Millenia seeking damages for injuries sustained during a paraffin wax manicure. During closing argument, Millenia’s counsel made certain statements that Plaintiff’s counsel deemed improper. Plaintiff’s counsel objected that the statements were improper, and those objections were sustained by the trial court. Plaintiff asked for a curative instruction with respect to one of the objectionable statements, and the trial court granted the request.

After the jury returned a Plaintiff’s verdict ascribing 80% of fault to the Plaitniff, Plaintiff filed a motion for new trial based on the improper remarks made by Millenia’s counsel during closing. The trial court granted the motion for new trial, but the Fifth DCA reversed. Why? Because, in objecting to Millenia’s statements, Plaintiff’s counsel never asked for a mistrial.

“When a party objects to instances of attorney misconduct during tial, and the objection is sustained, the party must also timely move for a mistrial in order to preserve the issue for a trial court’s review of a motion for a new trial.” Companioni v. City of Tampa, 51 So. 3d 452 (Fla. 2010).

Because the Fifth DCA found no fundamental error in the defendant’s closing arguments, there was no support in the record for a new trial, and the trial court order granting a new trial was reversed.

Even the most seasoned trial lawyers, in the heat of battle, can and do get hung up on these technicalities in the law. In high stakes litigation especially, best practices would dictate that at least one lawyer be assigned to focus on preservation of error issues during the trial.

SCOTUS’s DOMA Decision Illustrates Complexities of Appellate Practice

Image This post was contributed by Hallie Fisher, a third-year law student Duke University School of Law and Summer Associate at LDDK&R.

Last month the Supreme Court issued what can only be deemed a landmark ruling, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, 2003 WL 3196928 (U.S., June 26, 2013), which held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, commonly referred to as “DOMA,” was unconstitutional.  DOMA was enacted in 1996 to ensure, among other things, that states which restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples would not be required to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in other states.  While much of DOMA remains in effect, the Windsor case resulted in the striking of DOMA’s Section 3, which purported to define marriage only as the union between one man and one woman, and prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage for purposes of federal law, as unconstitutional.

The definition of marriage adopted by Section 3 was significant because the federal government confers thousands of benefits upon married couples, including: special treatment under the Tax Code, employment and pension benefits, and even support relating to medical privacy and hospital visitation, to name a few.  DOMA effectively denied lawfully-married same-sex couples these benefits.

As with many pivotal cases on civil and social issues (i.e., Roe v. Wade, Loving v. Virginia, and their progeny), what many articles gloss over is just how these cases get before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Windsor decision started with one person: Edie Windsor, a widow who had legally married her wife, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007. Windsor’s and Spyer’s marriage had been recognized as valid under the principle of comity by the state of New York, where the couple was domiciled.  After Spyer passed away in 2009, Windsor was required to pay over $300,000 in estate tax on her late wife’s estate. A widow from an opposite-sex marriage would not have been required to pay this estate tax because under federal law “any interest in property which passes or has passed from the decedent to his surviving spouse” is excluded from taxation.   26 U.S.C. § 2056(a).

Windsor filed suit against the United States in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Windsor prevailed on the merits in the District Court, and the IRS was ordered to refund the tax paid with interest. The decision was appealed to the Second Circuit United States Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court’s ruling, holding that Section 3 of DOMA violated the equal protection rights granted by the Fifth Amendment.  Before the appeal was heard by the Second Circuit, the Solicitor General of the United States petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, which was ultimately granted, and both parties delivered oral arguments in late March of 2013.

The progression of the Windsor case depicts many of the standard aspects of appellate procedure.  However, one unique aspect of the Windsor case is that the federal government did not defend DOMA’s constitutionality. Generally the Department of Justice is tasked with representing the federal government in matters relating to statutes enacted by Congress, such as DOMA.  Here, though, the Department of Justice, at the insistence of President Obama, refused to defend the Act’s constitutionality.  At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service, an executive agency, was enforcing the provisions of DOMA.  As a result of the government’s refusal to defend DOMA, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), subsidized by fundraising efforts of the Republicans of the House of Representatives adopted the defense of DOMA, hired counsel to defend DOMA’s constitutionality, and was granted leave to intervene in the case.

BLAG’s defense of DOMA highlights one of the more challenging aspects of appellate practice.  In cases argued before the Supreme Court, and in appeals at all levels, there are often complex or technical legal questions at issue that may ultimately influence whether the case is affirmed or reversed. For instance, although the main issue in Windsor was DOMA’s constitutionality, another significant issue was whether BLAG even had standing to file an appeal.   It is often the job of appellate counsel to help their clients understand that appeals are not always centered around the main issue at trial, and there can be complex issues raised in an appellate proceeding that may subvert a jury verdict or judge’s ruling even though common sense may dictate another result.

Having an attorney who will be able to understand and argue the facts and complexities of a case competently may not be the only concern, though. During the appellate stages of high stakes cases, especially those involving constitutional and social issues, it is common to have interest groups weighing in on both sides of the issue. In Windsor, literally hundreds of amicus briefs were filed on both sides of the issue, with companies like Google, Starbucks, and Aetna supporting Windsor’s case, and many religious organizations supporting BLAG and the constitutionality of DOMA.  In such high stakes cases, it is important to have appellate counsel who will be able to reconcile the client’s individual needs with the public policy considerations of the outcome of the case.  One should never lose sight of the fact that bringing a case before the Supreme Court, which has the potential to change laws that affect individuals throughout the nation, primarily affects the individual parties to the case.

While Windsor was celebrated as a victory, the victory is small in that the decision left open many important issues, such as adoption rights for gay couples, employer treatment of gay couples under federal laws like ERISA, and even protections in the criminal arena. If individuals are affected by the questions Windsor left open, it is important they contact competent counsel positioned to take on such issues. This is especially important since such cases will not only affect the individual petitioners, but could have important precedential value for others who are similarly situated.

Preservation of Error: Prejudicial or Argumenative Closing Arguments

ImageThe Second District Court of Appeal, last week, issued an opinion that reversed a trial court’s order granting new trial, Carnival Corporation v. Jimenez, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D455a, Case No. 2D11-5482 (2d DCA February 27, 2013).  The order was predicated on the trial judge’s finding that “comments made [by defense] counsel during closing arguments are perceived to have been prejudicial and highly inflammatory in nature because of their cumulative effect and their accusatory undertones.”  Id.

Jimenez was a personal injury case in which a large part of the defense strategy was to discredit the plaintiff’s expert/treating physician, because he had treated the plaintiff under a letter of protection.  According to the order on appeal, defense counsel “argued in closing . . . that plaintiff’s counsel . . . had collaborated or conspired with [the doctor] to conjure a non-injury into this lawsuit.”  While the trial court recognized that it had allowed evidence of the letter of protection, the introduction of such evidence “is to enable defense counsel to suggest that the doctor may have a financial bias, or stake in the outcome of the case.  Not for the impermissible purpose of allowing Defendant’s attorney to suggest a ‘neighborly’ conspiracy between the doctor and Plaintiff’s attorney.”  In sum, the trial court determined that the defense went so far in putting forth the conspiracy theory that the jury could not fairly assess the issues of causation and damages.

While the general rule is that improper comments made during closing argument may provide a basis for granting a new trial (see Mercury Ins. Co. of Fla. v. Moreta, 957 So. 2d 1242, 1250 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007)), the issue must be properly preserved by contemporaneous objection and a motion for mistrial.  Engle v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246, 1271 (Fla. 2006).  If the error has not been properly preserved, a new trial is only warranted when the improper behavior amounts to fundamental error.  Companioni v. City of Tampa, 51 So. 3d 452, 456 (Fla. 2010).

The Jimenez court, noted that the plaintiff’s counsel only made two objections relative to the defense counsel’s references to the letter of protection.  Both were sustained, but there was no motion for mistrial.  The court, relying upon the 4-part test articulated in Murphy v. International Robotic Systems, Inc., 766 So. 2d 1010, 1027-31 (Fla. 2000) determined that while the plaintiff established the first prong of Murphy–that the challenged conduct was improper–she did not establish the remaining three prongs:  that the challenged conduct was harmful, that the challenged conduct was incurable, and that public interest in our system of justice requires a new trial.

Because the application of the Murphy factors did not show that the challenged conduct was so highly prejudicial that it denied the plaintiff her right to a fair trial, the order granting new trial was reversed, and the final judgment was ordered to be reinstated.

Practice tip:  when objecting to prejudicial or argumentative closing arguments: 1) object contemporaneously, 2) request a curative instruction (if appropriate), and 3) move for a mistrial, or be bound by the heightened standard for new trials articulated in Murphy.