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After SCOTUS Resolves Circuit Split, Maryland Guard Loses Appeal to Prisoner’s $700,000 Verdict

by David M. Reutter

On May 25, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that a post-trial motion is required only to preserve findings of fact for appellate review—not a purely legal question resolved at summary judgment. The high court accepted the case on January 13, 2023, to resolve a circuit split over this issue which was acknowledged by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit when it dismissed the appeal of a Maryland prison guard supervisor to a verdict in favor of a state prisoner.

As PLN reported, the case was brought by Kevin Younger, who was a pretrial detainee at Maryland Reception, Diagnostic, and Classification Center in September 2013 when he was assaulted by a trio of guards who mistakenly thought him guilty of attacking one of their own. Left severely injured, Younger filed a civil rights complaint in federal court for the District of Maryland in 2016. Defendants, including the guards’ supervisor, Neil Dupree, moved for summary judgment, alleging that Younger failed to exhaust his administrative remedies through the prison grievance process, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. §1997e. But the district court denied that motion, finding the grievance process was effectively unavailable to Younger, who was then awarded $700,000 in damages against Dupree and four of his coworkers—including three who were fired, charged and convicted of assault. [See: PLN, Aug. 2020, p. 56; and May 2023, p. 24.]

Dupree then turned to SCOTUS, which began by noting its holding in Ortiz v. Jordan, 562 U.S. 180 (2011), that an order denying summary judgment on sufficiency-of-the-evidence grounds is not appealable after trial. “Because the factual record developed at trial ‘supersedes the record existing at the time of the summary-judgment motion,’” the Court said “it follows that a party must raise a sufficiency claim in a post-trial motion in order to preserve it for appeal.” That then “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?”

But “[t]he same is not true for pure questions of law resolved in an order denying summary judgment,” the Court continued. Conclusions reached then are not “supersede[d]” by later case developments, so the “rulings merge into the final judgment, at which point they are reviewable on appeal,” as per Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706 (1996) “The reviewing court does not benefit from having a district court reexamine a purely legal pretrial ruling after trial,” the Court explained, “because nothing at trial will have given the district court any reason to question its prior analysis.”

Vacating the Fourth Circuit’s judgment, SCOTUS said that the lower court “was wrong to hold that purely legal issues at summary judgment must be renewed in a post-trial motion.” See: Dupree v. Younger, 598 U.S. 729 (2023).

Back at the Fourth Circuit, the guard’s appeal was reconsidered and again denied on August 24, 2023, when the appellate court once more found the grievance process effectively unavailable to Younger. See: Younger v. Crowder, 79 F.4th 373 (4th Cir. 2023).

That left the jury verdict and award to stand at the district court, where Younger filed a motion for attorney’s fees on September 28, 2023. That motion remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. Younger is represented by attorneys David Daneman and James R. Jeffcoat of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Baltimore, as well as Allen E. Honick of Furman Honick Law in Owings Mills. Before SCOTUS, he was represented by attorney Amy M. Sharia of Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, D.C.  

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Related legal cases

Dupree v. Younger

Younger v. Crowder