• August 20, 2015

trench_72dpiIn our court systems, there are many interesting distinctions between what trial courts do and what courts of appeals do.

Three come immediately to my mind: (1) at the trial court, there is generally one decision-maker for any particular decision while, on appeals, there are generally three judges deciding the legal issues in a particular case; (2) both the quantity and the quality of the cases before trial courts vs. courts of appeal differ; and (3) trial courts are far more likely to see the litigants, the actual parties, than the courts of appeals are.

I think all of these variations coalesce and support a hypothesis that trial courts are more likely to be swayed by “the equities,” that is, what the trial court judges believe to be the JUST and FAIR result rather than one based on careful, cold-hearted analysis.

Trial courts are the battle-fields and trenches of litigation. Courts of appeal are quiet and cloistered bunkers outside of the battle zones, far from the urgency, the anguished cries, and the visceral immediacy.

I thought of this when reading a recent 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in which the trial court ruled in favor of plaintiffs, Kevin and Lisa Nutt. “The record leaves no question that the Nutts were ‘victimized employee[s],'” the Eighth Circuit agreed.

But, when it came to “successor liability” (that is, when it came to award the Nutts with anything other than sympathy), the Eighth Circuit panel continued:

Before imposing [successor] liability, a court must consider the countervailing interests of the defendant-successor and the larger policy goal of facilitating the free transfer of assets. …These concerns generally weigh against expanding liability for a predecessor’s debt. … Accordingly, before imposing financial liability for a predecessor’s past misdeed, courts look for two factors to ensure that liability is proper—notice and the direct transfer of assets from the predecessor.

Unfortunately for the Nutts, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that neither of these preconditions had been met and the Court of Appeals reversed trial court’s decision in the Nutts’ favor.

Maybe the Nutts (and presumably their lawyers) have experienced a bitter truth something at the core of every legal system (aside from a system of judicial tyranny, I suppose, where the sentiments of one person and one person only decide cases). By design, the application of legal rules will inevitably sometimes be heartless.

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