Court of Appeals Clarifies Scope of Evidence that Must Be Considered in Deciding a Reserved Rule 50(a) Motion

On March 26, 2015, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Sullivan v. AboveNet Communications, Inc., No. 14-CV-431, slip op. (Mar. 26, 2015), in which it considered, inter alia, what evidence must be considered by a trial court when it reserves ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law made pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50(a). Sullivan, slip op. at 13-17.

By way of background, this case proceeded to trial and, after the close of the plaintiff’s case, the defendants “filed Rule 50 (a) motions for judgment as a matter of law.” Id. at 8. “[T]he trial court reserved ruling on the motions and the defense began its case.” Id. “At the close of the defense’s case, the [defendants] renewed their Rule 50 (a) motions, but the trial court again reserved ruling.” Id. at 9. The jury returned a verdict in favor of one of the defendants but against the other. Id. “After the trial court dismissed the jury, the trial court took to the issue of resolving the pending Rule 50 (a) motions.” Id. The trial court concluded — based exclusively on the evidence presented during the plaintiff’s case — that the plaintiff had failed to establish an essential element of his claim against the defendant found liable by the jury. Id. at 9-11. The plaintiff objected on the grounds that the trial court disregarded evidence presented during the defense’s case which was sufficient to establish the plaintiff’s claim. Id. at 11. The trial court disagreed that it was required to consider such evidence, and entered judgment as a matter of law. Id. The plaintiff appealed. Id.

In considering the issue raised by the plaintiff’s objection, the Court of Appeals stated that, “although we do not dispute that the trial court may reserve ruling on a Rule 50 (a) motion made at the close of the plaintiff’s case until after the jury verdict, we disagree that the trial court may decide the reserved motion based solely on the record as it existed at the close of the plaintiff’s case.” Id. at 16 (footnote omitted). It stated that it agreed with the federal interpretation of “the equivalent” federal rule (Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)) which provides that the rule “does not authorize a trial judge, after the defense has presented its case (in whole or in part), to revisit, and grant, a defense motion for judgment as a matter of law made at the close of the plaintiff’s case without considering, in addition to the evidence presented in the plaintiff’s case, the evidence presented by the defense.” Id. at 16-17 (quotation marks omitted). The Court of Appeals explained that “[t]o hold otherwise would unacceptably exalt form over substance,” and would be “inherently incompatible with this court’s standard of review on appeal to conduct a de novo review of the full record.” Id. at 17 (quotation marks omitted). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that, “when a motion for judgment as a matter of law is made at the close of the plaintiff’s case but a decision is reserved until after the defense [has] presented its case, the trial court must consider the full record as it exists at the time in deciding the reserved motion.” Id. (footnote omitted).

Based upon this holding, and the resolution of other issues that are not discussed here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in granting judgment as a matter of law, and, accordingly, reversed the trial court and remanded for reinstatement of the jury verdict. Id. at 24.