Law of the Case Did Not Bar Trial Court From Explaining and Reentering Judgment

 The Court of Civil Appeals, on the first appeal of this case, held that the circuit court had wrongly considered evidence outside the pleadings in granting a motion to dismiss. On remand, the circuit court explained that, in fact, its decision had depended on nothing outside the pleadings. It then reentered its dismissal. The Court of Civil Appeals held that this was sufficient and that, given the trial court’s explanation, the “law of the case” doctrine did not bar a reentry of the original judgment. Drees v. Turner, No. 2080742 (Ala. Civ. App. Feb. 26, 2010).

1

The circuit court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on grounds of judicial immunity. The plaintiff appealed. The Court of Civil Appeals “did not address the substance of [the immunity] argument but, instead, concluded that the trial court had impermissibly converted the defendants’ motions to dismiss to motions for a summary judgment by considering matters outside the pleadings.” The appellate court reversed the dismissal and remanded the case for proceedings “consistent with” its opinion.

2

On remand, the trial court entered an order explaining that, in fact, its earlier dismissal had not depended on material outside the pleadings. It had “reviewed material” that the plaintiff had submitted in opposing the motion to dismiss, but only “to determine what was included in [the] Complaint and what was not.” It had quoted part of that material but only, it said, in dicta. It “had not considered the [quoted] language in its decision-making process.” Reasoning that its first decision had therefore not relied on anything outside the pleadings, the trial court reentered its dismissal. The plaintiff again appealed.

3

The Court of Civil Appeals held that the trial court had acted properly. Specifically, the reviewing court held that the “law of the case” doctrine did not prevent the trial court from reentering its original dismissal.

The first appellate decision — that the trial court had wrongly considered material outside the pleadings — was indeed the law of the case. That, however, did not preclude the trial court’s action here.   Under the “law of the case” doctrine,

whatever is once established between the same parties in the same case continues to be the law of that case, whether or not correct on general principles, so long as the facts on which the decision was predicated continue to be the facts of the case. . . .

However, the . . . doctrine does not in all circumstances require rigid adherence to rulings made at an earlier stage of a case. The doctrine directs a court’s discretion; it does not limit a court’s power. The law-of-the-case doctrine is one of practice or court policy, not of inflexible law . . . .

(Emphasis in Drees).

Here, the relevant facts had changed since the first appeal: namely, the circuit court had “explained” that it had not considered evidence outside the pleadings. The Court of Civil Appeals also suggested that applying the doctrine in this case would not accomplish anything useful:

The whole purpose of the reversal was to assure [sic] that the court had followed proper procedures before [the plainitff’s] case was summarily disposed of. That purpose could have been served by allowing [the plaintiff] an opportunity to present additional evidence had the motions to dismiss been converted to motions for a summary judgment; however, that purpose has now been equally served by the trial court’s ruling on the motions to dismiss without its considering any material outside the pleadings.

“Accordingly,” the Court of Civil Appeals held that “the law-of-the-case doctrine did not prevent the trial court from reentering a judgment dismissing the case.” The court then proceeded to address the case’s merits.