Dupree v. Younger: Posttrial motion not needed to appeal purely legal issue denied by summary judgment before trial
By Greg Mermelstein, Deputy Director & General Counsel, Missouri Public Defender
Purely legal issues resolved at summary judgment do not need to be renewed in a posttrial motion in order to raise them on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held May 25 in Dupree v. Younger. 
Kevin Younger was a Maryland state prisoner who was assaulted by corrections officers.  He brought a Section 1983 suit against prison official Neil Dupree for allegedly ordering the assault.
Dupree moved for summary judgment before trial on grounds that Younger had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  The district court denied the motion.
The case then proceeded to jury trial.  Dupree did not present any evidence regarding his exhaustion defense, and did not invoke exhaustion in his Rule 50(a) motion for judgment before the case was submitted to the jury.
The jury found Dupree liable, and awarded $700,000 in damages.
Dupree did not file a posttrial motion under Rule 50(b).
Dupree appealed to the Fourth Circuit on grounds the district court erred in denying his motion for summary judgment on failure-to-exhaust grounds.
The Fourth Circuit held the claim was not preserved for appeal because it had not been raised in a posttrial motion.  
The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a circuit split.
Dupree did not need to file a posttrial motion to raise the denial of summary judgment of a purely legal issue, the Court held in a unanimous opinion.
The Court had previously held, in Ortiz v. Jordan (2011), that an order denying summary judgment on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds was not reviewable on appeal unless the party preserved the sufficiency challenge in a posttrial motion.
But Ortiz was based on the fact that some pretrial rulings “are overcome by later developments” at trial, the Court said.  “Once the case proceeds to trial, the full record developed in court supersedes the record existing at the time of the summary judgment motion.”
“Fact-dependent rulings must be apprised in light of the complete trial record”, the Court said.  “It follows, Ortiz holds, that a party must raise a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim in a posttrial motion to preserve it for review on appeal.”
Raising a sufficiency claim in a posttrial motion allows the district court “to take first crack at the question that the appellate court will ultimately face:  Was there sufficient evidence in the trial record to support the jury’s verdict?” the Court said.
But “the same is not true of purely legal issues – that is, issues that can be resolved without reference to any disputed facts,” the Court said.  “Trials wholly supplant pretrial factual rulings, but they leave pretrial legal rulings undisturbed.”
Because a district court’s “purely legal conclusions” at summary judgment are not superseded by developments at trial, such rulings merge into the final judgment and are reviewable on appeal, without having been raised in a posttrial motion, the Court said.
“We therefore hold that a posttrial motion under Rule 50 is not required to preserve for appellate review a purely legal issue resolved at summary judgment,” the Court said.
The Court concluded by recognizing that some cases may raise mixed questions of fact and law.   
“That’s a fair concern,” the Court said, “and it would not be surprising if prudent counsel … make sure to renew their arguments in a Rule 50 motion out of an abundance of caution.”
The Court vacated the Fourth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case to decide if Dupree’s issue is “purely legal.”