Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc.

PETITIONER: Unitherm Food Systems, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Swift-Eckrich, Inc., dba ConAgra Refrigerated Foods
LOCATION: Guantanamo Prison

DOCKET NO.: 04-597
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2005-2006)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 546 US 394 (2006)
GRANTED: Feb 28, 2005
ARGUED: Nov 02, 2005
DECIDED: Jan 23, 2006

ADVOCATES:
Burck Bailey - argued the cause for Petitioner
Malcolm L. Stewart - argued the cause for Petitioner
Robert A. Schroeder - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

When ConAgra, Swift-Eckrich's parent company, attempted to enforce its patent for a process for browning precooked meats, Unitherm claimed that the patent was invalid because Unitherm's president had invented the process six years before. Unitherm sued, alleging that ConAgra had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by attempting to enforce a patent obtained by fraud. Pursuant to Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, ConAgra moved for judgment as a matter of law, asking the Disrict Court to dismiss the case based on insufficiency of evidence. The court denied the motion and sent the case to the jury, which returned a verdict for Unitherm. ConAgra appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, again arguing that the evidence was insufficent to prove an antitrust violation. However, ConAgra did not renew the motion for judgment as a matter of law after the verdict, pursuant to Rule 50(b), or move for a new trial, pursuant to Rule 59. Normally, parties must file the Rule 50(b) motion after an unfavorable verdict in order to obtain judgment as a matter of law on appeal. Unitherm argued that since ConAgra had failed to renew its motion under Rule 50(b), the Court of Appeals could not consider the insufficiency-of-evidence claim. ConAgra took the position that renewal of the motion is optional. The Federal Circuit considered itself bound to apply the precedent of the relevant regional Circuit Court (the Tenth), under which Rule 50(b) is indeed optional, in contrast to the precedents of the other Circuit Courts. The Federal Circuit found the evidence insufficient to support the jury's verdict, so it reversed the District Court and ordered a new trial. Unitherm appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the procedural dispute.

Question

May a court of appeals review the sufficiency of evidence supporting a jury's verdict if the appellant failed to renew the motion for judgment under Rule 50(b) or move for a new trial under Rule 59?

Media for Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 2005 in Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 23, 2006 in Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has the opinion in No. 04-597, Unitherm Food Systems versus Swift-Eckrich.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Petitioner Unitherm sells a process for browning precooked meats.

Respondent ConAgra has a patent pertaining to that process and sought to enforce its patent against Unitherm.

In response, Unitherm filed suit in federal court, where it sought a declaration that ConAgra’s patent was invalid and alleged that ConAgra had violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act by attempting to enforce a patent that was obtained by committing fraud on the Patent and Trademark Office.

The district court determined that ConAgra’s patent was invalid and permitted Unitherm’s Sherman-Act claim to proceed to trial.

Prior to the submission of the case to the jury, ConAgra moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law, contending that Unitherm had failed to present sufficient evidence to sustain its claim.

The district court denied that motion and submitted the case to the jury.

The jury returned a verdict for Unitherm, and ConAgra neither renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b) nor moved for a new trial on antitrust liability pursuant to Rule 59.

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, ConAgra sought to pursue the sufficiency of evidence claim it had raised in its Rule 50(a) motion.

Though the Federal Circuit has concluded that a party’s failure to renew its challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence pursuant to Rule 50(b) forecloses appellate consideration of such challenges, it was bound by circuit precedent to apply the law of the 10th Circuit to this issue.

Under 10th Circuit law, the Court of Appeals may consider challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, even when a party has failed to comply with the requirements of Rule 50.

If the court of appeals finds that the evidence is insufficient to support the verdict, the court of appeals may order a new trial, although it may not grant judgment as a matter of law.

Again, that's under 10th Circuit precedence.

In accordance with this practice, the Federal Circuit determined that Unitherm’s evidence was insufficient and remanded for a new trial.

We granted cert.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals.

Rule 50(b) sets forth the procedural requirements for renewing insufficiency-of-the- evidence challenge after the jury verdict and the entry of judgment.

It provides, in relevant part, that a, “movant may renew its request for judgment as a matter of law by filing a motion no later than 10 days after entry of judgment, and may alternatively request a new trial or join a motion for a new trial under Rule 59”.

This Court has addressed the implications of a party’s failure to file a post-verdict motion under Rule 50(b) on several occasions.

In Cone versus West Virginia Pulp & Paper, this Court concluded that, in the absence of a Rule 50(b) motion, “an appellate court is without power to direct the district court to enter judgment contrary to the one it had permitted to stand”.

In support to this conclusion, this Court observed that a post-verdict 50(b) motion is necessary, because determination of whether a new trial should be granted or a judgment entered under Rule 50(b) calls for the judgment in the first instance of the district court.

Moreover, in Johnson versus New York, this Court held that the, “requirement of a timely application for judgment after verdict is not an idle motion, because it is an essential part of the rule firmly grounded in the principles of fairness”.

The only difference between these authorities and the case before us today is that instead of directing the district court to enter judgment, the Federal Circuit directed the district court to conduct a new trial; but this distinction is immaterial.

This Court’s observations about the necessity of a post-verdict motion under Rule 50(b) and the benefits of the district court’s input at that stage apply with equal force whether a party is seeking judgment as a matter of law or simply a new trial.

Accordingly, we hold that because respondent failed to renew its pre-verdict motion as specified in Rule 50(b), there was no basis for review of respondent’s sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenge in the Court of Appeals.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kennedy joins.