A Post-Judgment Motion Which Has Become Moot Is Not Deemed Denied by Rule 59.1; Alternative Grounds for a Rule 59 Motion Are Not Waived if Not Asserted on Appeal

In HIlb, Rogal & Hamilton v. Beirsdoerfer, No. 1060522, released December 14, the Supreme Court held that post-judgment motions which have become mooted are not subject to denial by operation of Rule 59.1.  The court also concluded, in a matter of first impression, that a party who fails to raise its remittitur arguments on appeal from the grant of a motion for a new trial in its favor does not waive those arguments.

The jury returned a verdict against the defendant for breach of contract, fraud, and suppression and awarded damages of $1,000,000.  Following the verdict, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial, and, in the alternative, a motion for a remittitur (the 2002 motion for remittitur).  The trial court granted the motion for a new trial, but the Alabama Supreme Court, in Beiersdoerfer I, reversed and remanded.    

On remand, the trial court held a status conference at which the defendant sought a ruling on the 2002 motion for a remittitur and filed a second motion for remittitur (the 2006 motion for remittitur).   The trial court, however, concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on the 2002 remittitur because it had been pending for more than 90 days and was denied by operation of law pursuant to Rule 59.1.    

The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed, however, reasoning that the effect of the trial court’s order granting a new trial was to vacate the judgment entered on the jury verdict awarding damages.  At that point, having attained the new trial sought in the postjudgment motion, all other relief requested in the alternative became moot, including the 2002 motion for remittitur.  Because the order granting the motion for a new trial rendered the motion for a remittitur moot, that motion was  therefore no longer pending and was not subject to Rule 59.1. 

When the Supreme Court reversed that aspect of the trial court’s judgment granting the defendan’ts motion for a new trial in Beirsdoerfer I and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings, the mandate contemplated the reinstatement of the judgment entered on the jury verdict.  At that point, the case stood exactly as it did after the trial concluded in 2002, when the trial court initially entered a judgment on the jury verdict.  The trial court entered a new judgment on the jury verdict on November 20, 2006.  Any postjudgment motions that had been filed after the entry of the first judgment in 2002, as well as any additional postjudgment motions that were timely filed after the entry of the judgment on November 20, 2006, were then ripe for consideration by the trial court. 

In other words, the motion for a remittitur filed in 2002 that had been mooted by the order granting the motion for a new trial once again became ripe for consideration by the trial court after the entry of the 2006 judgment, as did the motion for a remittur filed by the defendants in November 2006.  The trial court therefore erred in determining that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on the motion for remittitur. 

The trial court also considered whether the cross-appeal in Beirsdoerfer I should have addressed the motion for remittitur and whether the failure to do so constituted a waiver of that issue.  The court concluded that it did not.  When the trial court entered the order granting the motion for a new trial in 2002, it implicitly denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial.  Therefore, when the verdict winner apealed, the verdict losers were obligated to challenge in a cross-appeal the trial court’s order rejecting their postjudgment motion for a JML.  They did so, but failed to raise their arguments as to the merits of a remittitur.  The plaintiff argued that the failure to do so constituted a waiver of those arguments. The defendant countered that they did not have a right to a ruling in 2002 on their motion for a remittitur and were therefore under no obligation to present their arguments in support of a remittitur in their cross-appeal in Beirsdoerfer I.  The court agreed.  

The court noted that Rule 50(c)(1) requires a trial court to rule on a party’s motion for a new trial if the court grants the party’s post-judgment motion for a JML.  Thus, if the trial court grants the motion for a postjudgment JML, then the moving party has a right to a ruling from the trial court on its alternative motion for a new trial and must raise on appeal the issue of the trial court’s failure to rule on the motion for a new trial or the argument is waived.  The converse, however, is not true.  When the trial court denies a party’s motion for a postjudgment JML, the plain language of the rule indicates that a party has no right conferred upon it to require a ruling from the trial court on alternative grounds asserted for postjudgment relief pursuant to Rule 59. 

In this case, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a postjudgment JML but granted their motion for a new trial.  The trial court did not rule on the remittitur motion because there was no need for such a ruling: the trial court had already granted the defendant the greater relief of a new trial.  The Supreme Court therefore refused to fault the defendant for not arguing in their cross-appeal that they were entitled to a remittitur in a setting where they had already been granted a new trial. 

Although there was no Alabama authority on this point, the Court noted that its conclusion that alternative grounds were not waived was supported by federal decisions.