Blurred Lines and Appellate Preservation

Gaye Family lead counsel Richard Busch (left) explains the surprising preservation issues.

The higher the stakes in the litigation, the more important it is to have an appellate nerd in your corner, because you can’t make your arguments to the appellate court if you haven’t preserved them at trial. Most folks who follow copyright law are aware that the Ninth Circuit late last month upheld the jury verdict in favor of Marvin Gaye’s family holding that the song Blurred Lines infringed the copyright in Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it Up. See Williams v. Gaye, 885 F. 3d 1150 (9th Cir. 2018) [.pdf]. And while there are a lot of fascinating copyright issues there, even more important are the appellate preservation issues — the lawyers representing Thicke and Williams tanked large portions of their appeal before they even got there by failing to speak up at two important points at the trial: At the close of plaintiff’s evidence, and before the jury was dismissed after rendering its verdict.

Failure to make a Rule 50(a) Motion

In Federal Court, the rule that covers judgment as a matter of law (also sometimes called judgment notwithstanding the verdict or JNOV from the Latin judgment non obstante veredicto) requires that in a jury trial the Defendant must make a motion at the close of plaintiff’s evidence (Rule 50(a)) and then renew that motion at the end of the case (Rule 50(b)) in order to preserve a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence. The Defendants were left with arguing that “a colloquy between their counsel and the district court regarding jury instructions and verdict forms qualifies as an “ambiguous or inartfully made” Rule 50(a) motion,” and should suffice for preservation purposes, but but the Court found that colloquy fell “far short” of even an inartful motion, and found sufficiency of the evidence unpreserved. Ouch. Williams v. Gaye, 885 F. 3d 1150, n.21 (9th Cir. 2018). In Florida, the equivalent requirement is for a motion for directed verdict.

Failure to Object to Jury’s Verdict

Defendant’s waived their objection to an alleged inconsistency in the jury’s verdict by failing to object before the jury was discharged. And this was not a controversial point — it was a pretty black letter rule that the court mentioned with citation to two older cases and moved on quickly. That objection must, must be made before the jury is discharged.

It can be very hard in the heat of battle — and trial can be a battle — to remember every possible preservation issue. That’s why we recommend you have an appellate specialist on your trial team. What you don’t want is to blur the lines of preservation.

Thank you to the panelists at the Florida Bar Business Law Section’s 9th Annual Intellectual Property Symposium for their fascinating presentations!

Eleventh Circuit Rule Amendments Effective April 2, 2018

The Eleventh Circuit has made a handful of changes to its rules affecting tax practitioners, appellate mediation, and the ability of counsel coming in after an appeal has been initiated to file a replacement brief. Specifically, the rule amendments:

  • Now require the Tax Court to prepare exhibits in the same way any District Court would, by deleting a sentence in Eleventh Circuit Rule 11-3.
  • Remove the local setting out a procedure for late-filed counsel to file a replacement brief before the Court, former Rule 31-6, and all references to it.
  • Delete the requirement that parties serve “an original and one copy” of the Civil Appeal Statement, and remove the requirement of filing copies of portions of the record with the statement, since electronic filing and access to dockets makes serving extra copies or record documents moot.
  • Without a specific rule governing replacement briefs, does this mean the Eleventh Circuit will no longer allow replacement brief practice? The answer is unclear, but I would counsel clients not to count on it.

    The new rules became effective April 2, 2018.

    Eleventh Circuit Says No Benefits Under RESPA If You Address Your Mail Incorrectly

    Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Atlanta

    Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Atlanta

    In Bivens v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., No. 16-15119 (11th Cir. Aug. 17, 2017), the Eleventh Circuit upheld the rejection of the homeowner’s Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) claim, all because he mailed a letter to the wrong address.

    Bivens received a letter from Select Portfolio Servicing (“SPS”) indicating it would be his new loan servicer on his home loan.  Through his attorney, he wrote a letter to SPS–an attempt at a “qualified written request” (“QWR”) under RESPA–“demanding proof of its authority to service his loan.”  But he did not send the letter to the address SPS had designated for receiving QWRs–instead he used a “general correspondence” address.  SPS responded, but did not provide Bivens all the information he requested, so Bivens sued SPS for an alleged RESPA violation.

    The district court granted summary judgment for SPS because Mr. Bivens had failed to mail his QWR to the designated address.  On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed and affirmed.  The 11th Circuit recognized that the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regulations “authorized servicers to ‘establish a separate and exclusive office and address for the receipt and handling of qualified written requests.'”  The Secretary of the Department, in a rulemaking notice, had also explained that if a servicer did establish such an office, the borrower was required to “deliver its request to that office in order for the inquiry to be a ‘qualified written request.'”  Bivens, undisputedly, did not.

    The 11th Circuit concluded that SPS had properly designated an exclusive address for receiving QWRs.  It rejected Bivens’ arguments that he was not sufficiently notified of the specific address, and dismissed Bivens’ assertion that the common mail processing at that same address rendered it non-qualifying as a “separate and exclusive office” under the regulations.  In sum, the 11th Circuit held that Bivens’ failure to mail the QWR to the designated address relieved SPS of any duty under RESPA to respond to it.

    Bivens’ claim failed not because of substantive merit but on a techncality, that probably could have been avoided through more careful reading of important notices or a better understanding and knowledge of applicable regulations.  Don’t let this happen to you!  “Technicalities” are one of many reasons to consult an appellate attorney early on–an extra set of eyes that can reduce cost, expedite proceedings, and potentially avoid a later call to a malpractice carrier.