If At First You Don’t Succeed On A Post-Trial Motion—Take An Appeal! More Tales From The Minefield Of Post-Trial And Appellate Practice
By Melinda S. Kollross
The Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Word Seed Church & Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. Homewood, 43 F.4th 688 (7th Cir. 2022), again shows why only experienced appellate advocates should navigate the minefield of post-trial and appellate litigation.
Plaintiff is a seven-member congregation that currently operates from the home of its pastor. Plaintiff sought to purchase property for worship services in Homewood, but the village’s zoning ordinance required plaintiff to obtain a special use permit. Plaintiff sued Homewood alleging that the special use permit requirement violated the provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The district court, concluding that plaintiff did not suffer an injury because they did not apply for a special use permit, dismissed the suit for lack of standing. Plaintiff then filed a timely motion to reconsider under Rule 59(e) alerting the district court to two cases issued after the court’s order dismissing the suit; plaintiff argued that those cases established plaintiff’s standing to sue Homewood. The district court disagreed and denied the motion.
Instead of then immediately appealing the decision to the Seventh Circuit, plaintiff filed another motion to reconsider, which the court treated as a Rule 60(b) motion. It denied that motion finding that the arguments plaintiff had advanced could have been made earlier but were not.
Plaintiff finally appealed to the Seventh Circuit and challenged the original judgment dismissing the case for lack of standing arguing that plaintiff had standing to pursue this action against Homewood. But the Seventh Circuit found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review the original judgment or the standing arguments because plaintiff did not appeal once its Rule 59(e) motion was denied. That left the Court with just addressing whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the second motion to reconsider, and given the highly deferential standard accorded to that district court decision under Rule 60(b), the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
Learning Point: There’s an adage that says, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again”. Well, that might be true in some pursuits such as sports, but it’s not true in the minefield of post-trial practice. In Word Seed Church, plaintiff might have had valid, winning arguments on standing and would have enjoyed having the de novo standard of review on appeal—meaning that the Seventh Circuit would not have been bound by the trial court’s decision but could come to its own decision on standing. But plaintiff blew its chances for a reversal on appeal by moving to reconsider again, instead of immediately appealing, which left it with only an appeal from the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion—an insurmountable challenge as shown by the Seventh Circuit decision. A word to the wise: Don’t try to navigate the post-trial and appellate minefield without the active participation of an experienced appellate advocate.