Fifth Circuit Reminds Practitioners of the Importance of Compliance With the Strictures of Rule 50 When Submitting Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law

February 14, 2019 | Insights

Through its establishment of “judgments as a matter of law,” Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Procedure provides a mechanism by which a party can seek to obtain judgment at various points in a case after the trial begins, and before judgment is entered. Rule 50(a) allows a party to challenge the sufficiency of evidence presented before a case is submitted to a jury, once the other party has had the full opportunity to be heard. Rule 50(b), by contrast, guides the procedure for renewing a sufficiency challenge after a jury verdict and before entry of judgment.

In Puga v. RCX Solutions, Inc., ____ F.3d ____, 2019 WL 409698 (5th Cir. Feb. 1, 2019), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently reminded practitioners of Rule 50(a)’s expansive scope, and the corresponding hazard to a movant attempting to append a new argument in a post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion. That is, Rule 50 commands that any movant seeking relief under Rule 50(b) must first move for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) on the same grounds.

In Puga, a driver for RCX Solutions crashed into Mr. Puga’s truck, causing significant injuries. The company was found liable by a jury for the driver’s negligence, and the jury awarded a total of $3.4 million in damages.

Before the case went to the jury, the company timely but unsuccessfully moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a), asserting insufficient evidence of the driver’s relationship as a statutory employee of the company, and insufficient evidence of the driver’s negligence. After the trial concluded, the company timely filed a Rule 50(b) motion, asserting for the first time that amendments to the federal law covering motor carriers precluded the adverse verdict, that is, that federal law barred liability against a motor carrier for the acts of independent contractors. This motion was likewise denied.

On appeal, the company challenged the trial court’s Rule 50 denials. The Puga Court rejected these arguments. It noted that Rule 50(a) obliges a movant to specify the judgment sought and the law and the facts that entitle the movant to a judgment. It also noted that in the face of a denial of such a motion, the movant is entitled to renew that motion after trial pursuant to Rule 50(b).

In this case, the Court noted that the matter of potential federal law “pre-emption” raised by the company in its post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion was not asserted in the original Rule 50(a) motion, even though it had alluded in its Rule 50(a) motion to the legitimacy of the driver’s status as a statutory employee. The Court further noted that such an argument was also absent from a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment that the company submitted before the trial. The Court therefore barred the company’s attempt to obtain relief on its Rule 50(b) motion, focusing upon the purpose of Rule 50(b) as “prevent[ing] a litigant from ambushing both the district court and opposing counsel after trial.” Puga, 2019 WL 409698, at p. *7,_citing Dimmitt Agri Indus., Inc. v. CPC Int’l., Inc., 679 F.2d 516, 521 (5th Cir. 1982). To the Court, Rule 50(b)’s limited scope is designed to promote the opportunity for a trial court to re-examine questions of evidentiary insufficiency, as well as the opportunity for opposing counsel to be alerted to such insufficiency before submission of the case to a jury. Id.

Asserting an expansive reading of Rule 50(b), the company claimed that it had permissibly raised its federal statutory claim in its Rule 50(b) motion because the novel issue raised was a “purely legal issue.” Puga, 2019 WL 409698, *12, n. 2. The Puga Court rejected this assertion as well, noting that “purely legal conclusions” are covered within the scope of Rule 50(a) and, if not raised there, are waived. Idciting Feld Motor Sports, Inc. v. Traxxas, L.P., 861 F.3d 591, 596 (5th Cir. 2017).

The Puga decision reminds practitioners of the importance of being inclusive, indeed overinclusive, when submitting a Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as a matter of law, irrespective of whether the basis for such a motion is ground in “factual” or “legal” points.

Meet Lonnie

Lionel M. Schooler is a management-side employment lawyer and recognized authority on employment law, federal appellate practice, and arbitration. Lonnie’s employment practice focuses on counseling clients and litigating, on a nationwide basis, claims under all employment laws, wage and hour claims, and investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Texas Workforce Commission. Lonnie is also experienced as an arbitrator on the Commercial and Employment Panels of the American Arbitration Association and as an advocate. He was selected for inclusion by the National Association of Distinguished Neutrals and is certified as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators for international arbitration matters. Since 2017, Lonnie has served on the Board of Directors of the Houston Bar Association. His previous editorial experience includes serving as editor-in-chief of The Houston Lawyer, a bimonthly publication of the Houston Bar Association.

The views expressed are his own. This article has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.