Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Any Point, Ground, or Relief" - Posttrial Motions Require Careful Attention

Partner, Huck Bouma PC

Seasoned appellate practitioners know that an issue needs to be properly preserved in the trial court if a reviewing court is to address it. The basics are simple. Litigants usually cannot raise an issue for the first time on appeal or appeal from the admission of evidence not properly objected to at trial. Most know that a party must also obtain a ruling on the objection.

But sometimes attorneys need to know more than the basics.

To preserve an issue that arises in a jury trial, a timely and proper posttrial motion is mandatory. The precise content of the motion is specified by law. The requirements for that content are enforced strictly. Errors and omissions in posttrial motions after a jury trial can derail the strongest appeals–even appeals that would have been successful absent such an error or omission in the posttrial motion.

Section 12-1202(b) of the Code of Civil Procedure provides:
“Relief desired after trial in jury cases *** must be sought in a single posttrial motion. *** The posttrial motion must contain the points relied upon, particularly specifying the grounds in support thereof, and must state the relief desired, as for example, the entry of a judgment, the granting of a new trial or other appropriate relief.” (Emphasis added.) 735 ILCS 5/12-1202(b) (West 2012).
Illinois Supreme Court Rule 366(b)(2)(iii) further provides:
“A party may not urge as error on review of the ruling on the party's post-trial motion any point, ground, or relief not specified in the motion.”  (Emphasis added.)  Ill. S. Ct. R. 366(b)(2)(iii) (eff. Feb. 1, 1994).
“[A]ny point, ground, or relief.” Each of those words is loaded with meaning. Most importantly, the use of the word “or” expands the requirements. All points, grounds, and forms of relief must be specified. Just specifying the points and grounds is not enough.

Hamilton v. Hastings, 2014 IL App (4th) 131021, involved a negligence action and is a recent example of the stringent requirements regarding posttrial motions. At the close of the evidence in a jury trial, the plaintiff unsuccessfully moved for a directed verdict on the issue of liability. The jury then rendered a verdict for the defendant.

The plaintiff’s posttrial motion raised seven points, but asked for only one form of relief – a new trial. One of the seven points was that “the [c]ourt erred in failing to direct a verdict for the [p]laintiff at the close of evidence.” The trial court denied the motion, noting “the verdict may have been different than I personally would have entered if I was the finder of fact ***.” 

The plaintiff appealed only “from the trial court’s denial of his posttrial motion.” The plaintiff sought “judgment of liability against the defendant *** and a remand for trial on damages only” on appeal. Consistent with the plaintiff appealing from the denial of his posttrial motion, the plaintiff’s brief argued only for a new trial. Apparently, the plaintiff’s brief on appeal did not expressly seek judgment in his favor on the issue of liability. Nonetheless, the reviewing court noted, the plaintiff was “essentially asking this court to enter a judgment” in his favor on the issue of liability, calling it “a judgment n.o.v.

The reviewing court explained that the plaintiff's failure to request a judgment n.o.v. was not a mere technical failure because the “supreme court has carefully preserved the distinction in the evidentiary standard courts apply to each.” Specifically, on the one hand, a directed verdict (or judgment n.o.v.) is proper when all of the evidence, viewed in the aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelming favors the movant that no contrary verdict based on the evidence could stand. On the other hand, a motion for a new trial is proper when the trial court, after weighing the evidence, concludes that the verdict is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. A motion for a new trial, the reviewing court noted, would not implicate the same evidentiary standard for a judgment n.o.v., and therefore, the trial court did not have the opportunity to reconsider its decision to deny the plaintiff's request for a directed verdict. The reviewing court concluded that, because the plaintiff did not request a judgment n.o.v. in his posttrial motion, the plaintiff was “precluded from asking this court to enter judgment on liability.”

Important for both trial and appellate practitioners alike, the reviewing court conceded that the plaintiff wrote in his posttrial motion that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a directed verdict on the issue of liability. But that was not enough; it was a “mere allegation.” The reviewing court concluded that the plaintiff also had to specifically ask for that directed verdict in his posttrial motion.

The plaintiff raised the issue of the judgment he sought in his posttrial motion as a “point” and probably a “ground,” but fatally omitted to specifically request that judgment n.o.v. – the form of the “relief” he sought during the trial when he moved for a directed verdict. Two out of three may not be that bad in love songs, but it will not preserve an issue for appeal in a posttrial motion. See Meat Loaf, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” Bat Out of Hell (1977).

The reviewing court, however, did consider the plaintiff's appeal as framed by the notice of appeal, that is, the trial court's denial of his posttrial motion for a new trial. The court noted that, because the plaintiff did not sufficiently develop his argument regarding the trial court’s denial of his posttrial motion in his brief, it would have been justified in declining to address that issue pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 341(h)(7) (eff. Feb. 6, 2013). Nonetheless, because the defendant decided to brief the issue as framed by the notice of appeal, he would not be prejudiced if the reviewing court decided that issue. The reviewing court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiff's posttrial motion for a new trial. 

Posttrial motions require careful attention. Including the points and grounds is the easy part. Specifically asking for all the particular forms of relief requested–by name–requires more thought. And is required.

Recommended Citation: Lawrence A. Stein, "Any Point, Ground, or Relief" - Posttrial Motions Require Careful AttentionThe Brief, (November 2, 2014),

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