Phillips v. Bramlett
Supreme Court of Texas, No. 12-0257 (June 7, 2013)
Justice Boyd (Opinion)
In Phillips, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to fill in a few heretofore blank corners of appellate procedure. When the life cycle of a case extends beyond an initial appeal, the Court held, (1) a court of appeals does have jurisdiction to review the new judgment (the “remand judgment”) entered by a trial court after the Supreme Court has reversed an original judgment and remanded to that trial court for entry of judgment; (2) postjudgment interest should be calculated from the date of the original judgment, rather than the second or remand judgment, at least where no further evidentiary proceedings occur; and (3) when the appellate courts have reversed a trial court’s judgment in its entirety, that trial court lacks authority to “vacate” its original judgment on remand, but such error is likely harmless (as it was here).

In a healthcare liability case, Bramlett secured a judgment on a jury’s verdict for actual damages and for exemplaries based on gross negligence. Phillips appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the gross negligence finding and reduced the actual damages, but otherwise affirmed the judgment. The Supreme Court then held that the award of actual damages exceeded the statutory cap and that no exception applied. Bramlett had not sought review of the appeals court’s take-nothing judgment on punitives. After the Supreme Court remanded for entry of a new judgment consistent with its opinion, the trial court entered a new judgment consistent with the statutory cap and awarded postjudgment interest from the date of that “remand judgment.” It also “vacated” its original judgment, which had included certain findings dedicated to supporting an exception to the cap that the Supreme Court had rejected. Bramlett appealed, arguing that postjudgment interest should be calculated from the date of the original judgment and that trial court should not have vacated its original judgment, which contained findings Bramlett hoped to use in a separate lawsuit. Phillips moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the Supreme Court had exclusive jurisdiction to enforce its mandate. The appeals court denied the motion to dismiss and sustained both of Bramlett’s appeal points. The Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals’ decision, with a couple of wrinkles.

First, the Court distinguished between a lower court’s “jurisdiction” and its authority to act under the Supreme Court’s mandate. The Court agreed that the lower court’s authority is circumscribed by the mandate, but explained that such limitations do not affect the lower court’s “jurisdiction,” per se.

The Supreme Court went on to explain that, once a trial court has issued a new judgment pursuant to the mandate of a higher court, the appropriate court of appeals does have jurisdiction to entertain an appeal from that “remand judgment,” just as with respect to any final judgment.  The Supreme Court’s authority to enforce its judgment and mandate, the Court said, does not deprive the courts of appeals of jurisdiction to review remand judgments, or the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction then to review an appeals court’s treatment of a remand judgment.

On the issue of the trial court’s “vacating” its prior judgment, the Supreme Court found an arguable procedural error, but one that had no consequence in this case. Combining the original rulings of the appeals court and of the Supreme Court, the original judgment had been reversed in its entirety and therefore was “without effect.” As such, there was nothing left for the trial court to “vacate.”

Finally, the Court held, “when an appellate court remands a case to the trial court for entry of judgment consistent with the appellate court’s opinion, and the trial court is not required to admit new or additional evidence to enter that judgment, as [was] the case here, the date the trial court entered the original judgment is the ‘date the judgment is rendered,’ and postjudgment interest begins to accrue and is calculated as of that date.” Often this is a meaningless distinction, because prejudgment and postjudgment interest generally accrue at the same rate. Here, however, prejudgment interest is subject to the statutory damages cap, while postjudgment interest is not; so, the distinction had a concrete effect for Bramlett. The Court added, however, that it was not declaring that postjudgment interest always accrues from the date of an original judgment rather than a remand judgment, especially where the remand judgment results from further evidentiary proceedings—a decision it left for another day.