Litman v. Massachusetts Mut. Life Ins. Co.

Citation825 F.2d 1506
Decision Date31 August 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-5939,85-5939
PartiesBernard LITMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. MASSACHUSETTS MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)

Joel D. Eaton, Podhurst Orseck Parks, Josefsberg, Eaton, Meadow & Olin, P.A., Miami, Fla., for plaintiff-appellant.

Gerry S. Gibson, Steel Hector & Davis, Miami, Fla., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.



FAY, Circuit Judge:

The case was taken in banc to consider whether the mandate in Litman v. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., 739 F.2d 1549 (11th Cir.1984) ("Litman I ") was properly executed. The mandate included an order for a new trial on punitive damages. The district court did not conduct a new trial, however, because it was of the opinion that the "Waiver of a Right to New Trial and Consent to Entry of Judgment" presented by Massachusetts Mutual ("Mass Mutual") was an acceptable alternative disposition of the case. For the reasons that follow, we find that the district court's order was inconsistent with and in disregard of the law of the case established in Litman I. We REVERSE and REMAND for a new trial on punitive damages. Because this case involves the structural relationship between the appellate court and district court within the judicial hierarchy, we examine the creation of the federal court system, the tools that emerged to enforce the three-tier structure and the institutional values the tools are designed to perpetuate.

I. Historical Perspective of the Organization of the Federal Court System.

Judicial power is created by the Constitution and Congress. Art. III of the Constitution provides: "[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." U.S. Const., art. III, Sec. 1. As early as 1789, Congress created district courts and circuits courts. Judiciary Act of 1789, ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73. In 1891, Congress passed the Evarts Act, Act of Mar. 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 826, which established the circuit court of appeals as a separate intermediate level court. The primary objective of the Evarts Act was to relieve the Supreme Court of the excessive burden imposed upon it arising from the rapid growth of the country, and the steady increase in litigation, by transferring a considerable part of its appellate jurisdiction to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and making the judgments of that Court final, absent compelling circumstances. United States v. Dickinson, 213 U.S. 92, 97, 29 S.Ct. 485, 486, 53 L.Ed. 711 (1909); American Construction Co. v. Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Ry., 148 U.S. 372, 382, 13 S.Ct. 758, 762, 37 L.Ed. 486 (1893). Today's judicial structure emerged when Congress passed the Judicial Code of 1911, Mar. 3, 1911, ch. 231, 36 Stat. 1131, which aligned the circuit courts as those handling most appeals and assigned the district court as the general trial court of original jurisdiction. In so doing, Congress established the three tier system as well as the chain of command within the judiciary hierarchy.

The Constitution confers jurisdictional powers on the Supreme Court. See U.S. Const., art. III, Sec. 2. The Court has limited original jurisdiction and exercises appellate jurisdiction, either by direct appeal or by the discretionary writ of certiorari, over the district courts, the courts of appeals, and the highest courts of the states. 13 C. Wright, A. Miller & E. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure Sec. 3507 (2d ed. 1984). The Supreme Court has the power to make determinations as to the law of the land that binds all courts. By statute Congress has assigned jurisdictional powers to both district and circuit courts. The district courts are courts of original jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1331 (1982). The circuit courts have appellate jurisdiction over district courts, administrative agencies and exercise power to issue original writs in appropriate cases. 13 C. Wright, A. Miller & E. Cooper, supra, at Sec. 3506. Appellate courts have the power to issue mandates which are commands that cannot be ignored. Absent a Supreme Court decision to the contrary, district courts are compelled to follow mandates of appellate courts. In re Sanford Fork & Tool Co., 160 U.S. 247, 255, 16 S.Ct. 291, 293, 40 L.Ed. 414 (1895); Sibbald v. United States, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 488, 492, 9 L.Ed. 1167 (1838).

The three tier system evolved purposefully and deliberately and operates to define the proper allocation of authority and responsibility within the judicial system. Experience has demonstrated that the system works. Throughout history courts at all three levels have recognized that careful observation of this allocation of authority is necessary for a properly functioning judiciary. When district courts err, appellate courts do not hesitate to correct mistakes and confine the court to its authorized boundaries. When an appellate court errs, the Supreme Court does likewise.

II. Institutional Tools, Values and Illustrations.

There are several methods used to ensure order is maintained within the judicial hierarchy. Pursuant to statutory provisions, appellate courts have the authority to issue writs of mandamus. All Writs Statute, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1651 (1982). The historic use of the writ of mandamus issued by an appellate court has been to exert its revisory appellate power over the district court. Roche v. Evaporated Milk Ass'n, 319 U.S. 21, 26, 63 S.Ct. 938, 941, 87 L.Ed 1185 (1943); Ex parte Peru, 318 U.S. 578, 583, 63 S.Ct. 793, 796, 87 L.Ed. 1014 (1943). The writ affords an "effective means of confining the inferior court to a lawful exercise of its prescribed jurisdiction, or of compelling it to exercise its authority when it is its duty to do so." Ex parte Peru, 318 U.S. at 583, 63 S.Ct. at 796. The writ of mandamus, while an extreme remedy, is still used when a district court usurps power or abuses its discretion. Kerr v. United States District Court, 426 U.S. 394, 402, 96 S.Ct. 2119, 2123, 48 L.Ed.2d 725 (1976); United States v. Fernandez-Toledo, 737 F.2d 912, 919 (11th Cir.1984); In re Extradition of Ghandtchi, 697 F.2d 1037, 1038 (11th Cir.1983); see United States v. Cannon, 807 F.2d 1528, 1529 (11th Cir.1986). The writ is a tool used to keep the courts functioning within the constitutional and congressional design.

The Supreme Court, by accepting cases through the discretionary writ of certiorari, has kept order within the courts. The notion that the federal district courts and circuit courts of appeal must adhere to controlling Supreme Court decisions is reinforced whenever necessary. In Hutto v. Davis, 454 U.S. 370, 375, 102 S.Ct. 703, 706, 70 L.Ed.2d 556 (1982), the Court emphasized the need to adhere to the hierarcal structure of the federal court system created by the Constitution and Congress. "[U]nless we wish anarchy to prevail within the federal judicial system, a precedent of this Court must be followed by the lower federal courts no matter how misguided the judges of those courts may think it to be." Davis, 454 U.S. at 375, 102 S.Ct. at 706.

A recent case serves as a compelling illustration. 1 In Jaffree v. Board of School Comm'rs, 554 F.Supp. 1104 (S.D.Ala.1983), the district court held that the fourteenth amendment did not incorporate the establishment clause of the first amendment against the States. The district court ruled that the United States Supreme Court had erred. Id. at 1128. Justice Powell, in his capacity of Circuit Justice for the Eleventh Circuit, entered an interlocutory emergency stay of the judgment of the district court and stated that, "[u]nless and until this Court reconsiders the following decisions, they appear to control this case. In my view, the District Court was obligated to follow them. Similarly, my own authority as Circuit Justice is limited by controlling decisions of the full Court." Jaffree v. Board of School Comm'rs, 459 U.S. 1314, 1316, 103 S.Ct. 842, 843, 74 L.Ed.2d 924 (1983).

Thereafter, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court's order dismissing the complaint, 705 F.2d 1526 (11th Cir.1983), cert. denied, 466 U.S. 926, 104 S.Ct. 1707, 80 L.Ed.2d 181 (1984). The Court emphasized the district court's obligation to adhere to Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court had considered the historical implications and concluded that its present interpretation of the first and fourteenth amendments is consistent with the historical evidence. Id. at 1532. Even though the district court concluded that the Supreme Court erred it was required to follow the controlling decision. Id. at 1532; Stell v. Savannah-Chatham County Bd. of Ed., 333 F.2d 55, 61 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 379 U.S. 933, 85 S.Ct. 332, 13 L.Ed.2d 344 (1964). The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 105 S.Ct. 2479, 86 L.Ed.2d 29 (1985) (this appeal dealt with the narrow question of whether a period of silence for "meditation or voluntary prayer" established religion within the meaning of the first amendment). The message sent to the district court from both the Supreme Court and the court of appeals was clear--it had an obligation to follow precedent.

Many devices have been created to ensure that authority, jurisdiction and responsibility remain properly allocated among the three levels of courts within the federal judiciary. The discussion above merely serves to illustrate the point. The courts within the system have differing responsibilities and standards and values must be formulated and communicated in order to ensure that the process...

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