When a party appeals a court order before the conclusion of the case, the appellate court’s decision on the questions of law presented on appeal governs how the trial court decides those questions of law throughout all subsequent stages of the lawsuit. This concept is known as the “law of the case” doctrine. The law of the case can have a substantial impact the ultimate outcome in business litigation, because a party cannot relitigate a legal issue already decided by the appellate court. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation lawyer, and also represents clients in business litigation in Miami, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents clients in breach of contract litigation, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.
One example of this circumstance occurred in the case of Specialty Restaurants Corp. v. Elliott, 924 So. 2d 834 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005). The appellate court affirmed a summary judgment in favor of Specialty Restaurants Corporation (“SRC”) as to all claims brought by Mike Elliott and Mike Elliott & Company (collectively the “Elliotts”). SRC filed a motion seeking appellate attorney’s fees and costs based on its proposal for settlement. A proposal for settlement is a tactic used in business litigation that consists of a written settlement offer which if not accepted can make the opposing party responsible for its attorney’s fees if the monetary outcome of the case is within a specific range of the offer. The Elliotts opposed SRC’s motion for appellate attorney’s fees but did not challenge the legal sufficiency of the proposal for settlement. The appellate court granted SRC’s motion for appellate attorney’s fees based on the unchallenged proposal for settlement. On remand, the trial court initially determined that SRC was entitled to attorney’s fees and costs for both the trial court and on appeal based on the proposal for settlement. Before the trial court could decide the amount of attorney’s fees and costs to be awarded, the Elliotts filed a motion to reconsider, contending for the first time that the proposal for settlement was legally insufficient. The trial court entered an order vacating the portion of the order that determined entitlement pursuant to the proposal for settlement. SRC immediately appealed.
The appellate court held that its prior order awarding appellate attorney’s fees found that SRC was entitled to attorney’s fees under the proposal for settlement and that this ruling became the law of the case on the issue of the enforceability of that proposal for settlement. In business litigation, the law of the case doctrine includes not only issues explicitly ruled upon by the court, but also those issues which were implicitly addressed or necessarily considered by the appellate court’s decision. The appellate court held that by awarding fees pursuant to the proposal for settlement, the appellate court necessarily determined the legal sufficiency of the proposal for settlement, and that determination of legal sufficiency was binding on the trial court in any subsequent proceedings. “[W]hatever is once established between the same parties in the same case continues to be the law of the case, whether correct on general principles or not, so long as the facts on which such decision was predicated continue to be the facts in the case….” Specialty Restaurants Corp. v. Elliott, supra.