Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Discusses Law of the Case Doctrine

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals provided a helpful discussion of the application of the law of the case doctrine in Drees v. Turner, released December 18, 2009.   

The first time the Drees case had been before the Court of Civil Appeals, the plaintiff Drees argued that the trial court had erred in dismissing his action based on the doctrine of judicial immunity.  The appellate court did not address the judicial immunity issue at that time, but held that the trial court had impermissibly converted the defendants’ motions to dismiss into motions for summary judgment by considering matters outside the pleadings.  The appellate court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.  

Following remand, the trial court entered a second judgment, in which it explained that it had not relied on any of the material outside the pleadings in dismissing the plaintiff’s action.  The trial court further stated that, although it had quoted from those materials, it did so only in dicta.  The trial court thereafter reentered a judgment dismissing the action without affording the plaintiff any opportunity to conduct discovery or to submit additional evidence in support of his position. 

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court failed to follow the appellate court’s mandate on remand.   The court noted the law of the case doctrine:

It is the duty of the trial court, on remand, to comply strictly with the mandate of the appellate court according to its true intent and meaning, as determined by the directions given by the reviewing court.  No judgment other than that directed or permitted by the reviewing court may be entered….The appellate court’s decision is final as to all matters before it, becomes the law of the case, and must be executed according to the mandate.

Based on this, the appellate court’s conclusion in the first appeal that the trial court had considered evidence outside the pleadings became the law of the case.   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." 

While the appellate court did hold in the first appeal that the trial court had considered evidence outside the pleadings in rendering its orders of dismissal, the facts upon which that holding was based changed.  The record now contains information directly from the trial court in which the trial court explained that it did not consider  evidence outside the pleadings in ruling on the motions to dismiss.  Accordingly, the law of the case doctrine did not prevent the trial court from reentering a judgment dismissing the case based solely on the pleadings.