Longtime readers know that my favorite appellate genre is probable the “The Standard of Review Decides Cases” opinion. The Fourth Circuit just handed down a solid example in Burgess v. Goldstein.
Writing for the panel, Judge Quattlebaum leads off with a grabby TSORDC intro:
The facts underlying this appeal are dramatic and emotional. They involve unsavory characters from the Baltimore drug underworld, a brutal murder, a wrongful conviction and a $15 million judgment against a Baltimore Police Department officer for withholding and fabricating evidence. But the questions presented to us are not materially different from those we face in much more mundane cases. Was there sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict? Did the district court err in failing to give a requested jury instruction? And did the district court allow inadmissible hearsay evidence?
Our answers to those questions are determined largely based on the standard of review we must employ. Because there was evidence from which a reasonable jury could have found police misconduct, we affirm the district court’s denial of motions for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial under Rules 50 and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Because the district court’s jury instructions, taken as a whole, complied with the law and the court’s earlier rulings, we find no error in them. And, although the district court improperly admitted hearsay evidence, the error, in the context of the record as a whole, was harmless. For those reasons, as more fully explained below, we affirm the jury’s verdict and the district court’s denial of the Rule 50 and Rule 59 motions. But we do reverse the district court’s dismissal of Burgess’ claim against the Baltimore Police Department under Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), as described below.
The opinion then runs through a fact section that reads like a true-crime podcast. I’m not even going to try to summarize it, but its worth checking out.
And then CA4 considers the district court’s rulings on Goldstein’s Rule 50 and Rule 59 motions. It gives what seems like a fair explanation of his arguments. But then it reminds us that TSORDC:
Goldstein’s arguments are compelling. Indeed, Burgess’ case here appears thin. But thin evidence is not the same as no evidence. And under our standard of review, we are required to construe the evidence in the light most favorable to Burgess and to draw reasonable inferences in his favor. If we do that, we conclude that Burgess introduced enough evidence from which the jury could have inferred that Goldstein interviewed Brian, who told him that he saw a man who was not Burgess enter the home, and that, despite this knowledge, Goldstein wrote that all the children were asleep during the murder. That evidence includes . . .. Of course, there was evidence from which the jury could have rejected both conclusions Burgess advances. But under our standard of review, it is not our job to weigh the evidence or judge credibility. “On such appellate review we determine if a reasonable jury could have found the verdict.” First Union Commercial Corp., 411 F.3d at 556. Here, our standard of review compels the conclusion that a reasonable jury could have agreed with Burgess.
Did you notice the ellipses I threw in there? That’s the part of the opinion where the panel explained precisely what evidence got Burgess over the Rule 50 motion (and, by extension, the Rule 59 motion). This sort of guidance helps the bench and bar a ton.
Finally, Judge Quattlebaum explains why the standard of review works this way:
In affirming the district court’s denial of Goldstein’s Rule 50 motion, we emphasize the importance of the jury’s role in trials, a role enshrined in the Seventh Amendment. That role is, of course, important in any trial. It is even more important in trials, like the one here, that boil down to credibility determinations. The jury here was tasked with making a number of difficult credibility decisions. It had to decide what testimony to believe and what to reject. It had to decide how the various pieces of evidence offered over the course of a ten-day trial fit together. It did this with a front row seat to the testimony offered by the witnesses. From that vantage point, the jury was able to examine not only the words the witnesses said, but also how they said them—their facial expressions, their body language, their pauses, their mannerisms and all the other intangible factors that are present in a trial. In contrast, we, reviewing words on a transcript many years after they were spoken, lack the ability to appreciate those factors. For that important reason, we disturb a jury’s factual determinations only if they lack evidentiary support. United States v. Shipp, 409 F.2d 33, 36 (4th Cir. 1969) (“[W]here the evidence is in conflict, the jury’s opportunity to observe the witnesses’ demeanor is especially important in judging credibility.”). Here, we conclude that the evidence offered by Burgess was sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude as it did on the withholding and fabrication claims.
Terrific opinion. Highly recommended.