Posted by: Andy Taylor | October 15, 2013

Toward a More Practical Approach to Preservation: Hardin v. Bishop

In a December 2012 blog post, we questioned whether Bayer Cropscience LP v. Schafer, 2011 Ark. 518, represented a “possible departure from Arkansas’s strict preservation rules.” See Procedural Lessons from a $48 Million Dollar Appeal.  As readers of this blog will likely recall, the Arkansas Supreme Court in Schafer addressed whether the punitive damages cap, enacted by the legislature as part of the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2003, was constitutional.  The trial court had ruled from the bench that the cap was unconstitutional, and in its written order had implicitly held that the cap was unconstitutional (by upholding a jury verdict in excess of the cap).  However, the trial court had not addressed the constitutional argument in its written ruling, and in its ruling from the bench, the trial court had not stated which of two arguments it accepted in holding that the cap was unconstitutional.

In Schafer, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that the oral ruling from the bench was adequate.  The Court also held that the lack of an explanation for the trial court’s decision in its written opinion did not prevent the Arkansas Supreme Court from addressing the merits of the constitutional argument.  In our blog post from 2012, we noted that “[i]t will be interesting to see whether the Schafer preservation rule is followed by the Court in decisions to come.”  Last week, in Hardin v. Bishop, 2013 Ark. 395, the Arkansas Supreme Court fully embraced the ruling in Schafer, and overruled a handful of cases in the process.

The Facts

Although the more interesting part of the Hardin opinion (at least for appellate attorneys) is procedural in nature, a simplified summary of the facts is provided for context.  Hardin involved a brush fire that got out of control, damaging a tire shop and some electrical equipment owned by Entergy.  The fire had been started by Mr. Randy Wardlaw, who was burning brush on property that belonged to Ms. India Bishop.  The owner of the tire shop, along with Entergy, sued Mr. Wardlaw and Ms. Bishop (on the theory that Mr. Wardlaw was acting as Ms. Bishop’s agent).  In addition to compensatory damages, the plaintiffs sought to recover double damages under a fire prevention statute, Ark. Code Ann. § 20-22-304.

Ms. Bishop filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no question of material fact that Mr. Wardlaw had caused the damage, and further arguing that Mr. Wardlaw was not acting as her agent when he started the fire.  She also argued, in the alternative, that the fire prevention statute (which allowed the recovery of double damages) did not apply to her.  After a hearing, the trial court granted Ms. Bishop’s motion for summary judgment, but did not state a specific basis for the ruling.  The plaintiffs appealed to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, and the Arkansas Supreme Court accepted certification of the case to address the question of whether the plaintiffs’ arguments had been preserved for appeal, given that the trial court had not offered a specific basis for its ruling.

The Opinion: Hardin v. Bishop

In its opinion (written by Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson, who also wrote the majority opinion in Schafer), the Arkansas Supreme Court acknowledged that “the circuit court generally granted Bishop’s motion for summary judgment without ruling specifically on the arguments presented in the parties’ motions, briefs, and oral arguments.”  The Supreme Court pointed out, however, that the “primary argument” made by Ms. Bishop in her motion for summary judgment was that Mr. Wardlaw was not acting as her agent, and the plaintiffs’ primary argument was that there was a genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether he was acting as her agent.

The Arkansas Supreme Court next looked at the text of two rules.  First, the Court examined Rule 56(c)(2) of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that “the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issues specifically set forth in the motion.”  Second, the Court examined Rule 52(a) of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that “[f]indings of fact and conclusions of law are unnecessary on decisions of motions under these rules.”  (The Court also relied on this rule in reaching the merits of the case in Schafer.)  The Supreme Court appears to have drawn a distinction here between preservation when motions are involved and preservation in other types of cases, holding that “when a case does not involve a motion, we typically adhere to our well-established principle that the failure to obtain a ruling on an issue at the trial court level precludes a review of the issue on appeal.”

Based on these rules, the Supreme Court held that the agency issue was adequately preserved for appeal.  The agency issue had been raised by the parties in their motions and in their oral arguments before the trial court.  The trial court’s order stated that it was “[b]ased upon the adopted pleadings and argument of counsel,” and so the trial court’s order “encompassed the sole issue of agency presented to it . . . .”  Therefore, the agency issue was preserved.

Before moving to the merits of the plaintiffs’ argument regarding agency, the Arkansas Supreme Court acknowledged a line of cases in which the trial court had granted a motion for summary judgment and the Supreme Court had held that, in the absence of specific rulings on numerous claims, that the issue was not preserved for appeal.  In Hardin, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that “[t]o the extent that those cases and their progeny are inconsistent with the holding in the present case, we overrule them.”

The Takeaway: Appellate Practice Tips

This decision definitely relaxes the court’s prior strict preservation rules, and seems to adopt a more common-sense approach to preservation than perhaps has been used in the past.  In Hardin, the trial court had clearly based its decision on the agency issue.  In fact, the agency issue was the only issue raised in the briefs, other than Ms. Bishop’s argument that the statute allowing for double damages did not apply to her.  Because the trial court completely dismissed Ms. Bishop from the case (rather than simply limiting the amount of damages that could be awarded against her), it was clear that the trial court based its decision on Ms. Bishop’s agency argument.

This practical approach to preservation is certain to be welcomed by both trial counsel and appellate counsel.  Nevertheless, a word of caution is in order.  The Court in Hardin was examining a motion for summary judgment that examined only one issue.  In fact, the Arkansas Supreme Court noted two different times that the issue of agency was the “sole” issue raised in the motion for summary judgment, while noting that in the previous decisions that were inconsistent with Hardin, the motions involved “numerous claims.”  In addition, the Supreme Court noted that Hardin involved a motion, and seemed to draw a distinction with cases that do not involve a motion.  Therefore, the safest route still is to obtain a written ruling (along with a basis for the ruling, when the trial court will accommodate such a request) on any important argument that needs to be preserved for appellate review.

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