Dietz v. Bouldin

PETITIONER: Rocky Dietz
RESPONDENT: Hillary Bouldin
LOCATION: Montana

DOCKET NO.: 15-458
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 579 US (2016)
GRANTED: Jan 19, 2016
ARGUED: Apr 26, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 09, 2016

ADVOCATES:
John F. Bash - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the respondent
Kannon K. Shanmugam - for the petitioner
Neal Kumar Katyal - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Hillary Bouldin’s vehicle collided with Rocky Dietz’s in Montana in 2009. Dietz filed a negligence claim for injuries sustained from the accident. The action was removed to federal court. The parties made stipulations as to past damages, and the jury ruled in Dietz’s favor but awarded $0 in damages. The district court judge dismissed the jury but then reconsidered and re-empaneled the jury. He asked them to re-determine the damages in a manner consistent with the parties’ stipulation. The jury returned the same verdict and awarded $15,000 in damages. On appeal, Dietz claimed that the district court erred by recalling the jury after it had been dismissed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and held that dismissing the jury, then recalling the jurors, was not an abuse of discretion because the jurors were not exposed to prejudicial influence during the brief duration of their dismissal.

Question

Can the judge recall jurors for further service in the same case after the judge has discharged a jury from service and the jurors have left the judge’s presence?

Media for Dietz v. Bouldin

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 2016 in Dietz v. Bouldin

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 09, 2016 in Dietz v. Bouldin

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

And Justice Sotomayor has our opinion in case 15-458, Dietz versus Bouldin.

Sonia Sotomayor:

This case comes to us from the Ninth Circuit.

Petitioner Rocky Dietz was hurt in a car accident in Bozeman, Montana.

Dietz sued the driver who hit him, respondent Hillary Bouldin.

Bouldin removed the case to Federal court.

At trial Bouldin admitted that he was at fault for the accident and that Dietz suffered around about $10,000 in damages.

The jury had to decide if Bouldin owed Dietz more than $10,000.

The trial court instructed the jury that no matter what, they had to award Dietz at least the stipulated $10,000.

Something got lost in translation.

The jury found for Dietz but awarded him $0 in damages.

Nobody caught the mistake.

The judge instead thanked the jury for their service and ordered them discharge, they were free to go.

A few minutes later the judge realized the mistake, the $0 award was legally impermissible in light of the $10,000 in stipulated damages.

The jury had the clerk of the court roundup the dismissed jurors, only one of whom had left the courthouse to go across the street to get his hotel's receipt.

After the jurors returned, the judge asked them if they had spoken to anyone about the case since they have been discharged.

They answered no, they had not.

The judge explained the mistake in the verdict, told the jury he was reimpaneling them and ordered them to return the next morning to deliberate again.

Dietz objected arguing that the judge could not reimpanel the jury and that the only remedy was to throw out the verdict and order a new trial.

The judge overruled Dietz's objection, the next day the reassembled jury awarded Dietz $15,000 in damages.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split on whether and when a federal district court has the inherent authority to rescind the discharge order and recall a dismissed jury.

We now hold that it does have that inherent authority in limited circumstances.

A district court's exercise of its inherent powers must be a reasonable response to a specific problem before the court and it cannot contradict any federal rule of procedure or statute.

Recalling a just dismissed jury to fix an error in their verdict does both of these things.

It saves the parties the time and money of a new trial and it is not contradicted by any federal rule or statute, but jurors can be tainted if they are exposed to prejudicial material which is why courts tell jurors at the beginning of trial to avoid outside influences and not talk about the case.

Therefore in considering whether it is appropriate to recall a jury, a trial court must take into account the potential for prejudice.

Our opinion sets out a few factors that court should consider, how much time has passed since discharge, even a few minutes could be enough in a particular case, whether the jurors talked to anyone about the case, whether emotional reaction in the courtroom would affect the jurors such that they might begin to doubt their decision, and whether jurors were exposed to potential prejudice by checking their smartphones, such as texting a spouse about the case or researching a disputed point on the Internet.

In this case we see no potential for prejudice and we therefore affirm.

Our decision today is limited to civil cases only.

Given the additional complexities in criminal cases like the double jeopardy bar, we do not address whether it would ever be appropriate to recall a discharged jury in a criminal case.