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Coordinate Jurisdiction and Law of the Case

by Edward Kang

A vital thing people need to know and understand when dealing with the court system is all the laws and options in operation on a daily basis.  One such law is the “Law of the Case” doctrine.  When a judge determines the outcome of a question in a lawsuit…

Introduction

A vital thing people need to know and understand when dealing with the court system is all the laws and options in operation on a daily basis.  One such law is the “Law of the Case” doctrine.  When a judge determines the outcome of a question in a lawsuit, it becomes the “law of the case,” meaning that outcome will be respected throughout the remainder of that case, and, therefore, is no longer open for discussion unless extenuating circumstances exist.  If no appeal is filed, a binding law thereafter exists in the trial as has been determined by the judge.

The law of the case doctrine encompasses various rules that are in place in order to keep from reopening questions decided by one judge earlier in the phases of a case.  More specifically, a trial court may not change the outcome of a legal question decided earlier as stated above.

The related rule, coordinate jurisdiction rule, is commonly known as a rule in which judges of coordinate jurisdiction sitting in the same case (i.e., multiple courts that have concurrent jurisdiction over the same case) should not overrule each other’s decisions.  The connection between the two rules has long lead to the coordinate jurisdiction rule to be filtered and organized under the law of the case doctrine.

Buyfigure.com v. Autotrader.com

The application of the two rules above is easily delineated in the recent case of Buyfigure.com v. Autotrader.com (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013)The underlying case took place in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and applied in accordance with the coordinate jurisdiction rule because Judge Albert W. Sheppard, the original trial judge, passed away before reconsidering his ruling that summary judgment be denied in the case.  Judge Patricia McInerney, the new judge, then went on to overrule Judge Sheppard’s ruling, much to the anger of Buyfigure.com Inc.

The original case was filed because of previous Buyfigure.com Inc. CEO, Robert M. Hollenshead, and the licensing of his Internet program for guaranteed trade-in values for used cars to Autotrader.com that he originally used to start Buyfigure.com Inc.  Sheppard overruled a motion by the defense for summary judgment based on res judicata/collateral estoppel.  Unfortunately, the judge passed away before considering the defense’s request for reconsideration.  Upon stepping in on the case, Judge Patricia McInerney opted to overrule Sheppard’s decision, which Buyfigure.com Inc. claimed violated the rule of coordinate jurisdiction.  Ultimately, the state Superior Court unanimously ruled that coordinate jurisdiction did not apply in this case as extenuating circumstances existed and the just legal decision would be to overrule the denial of summary judgment.

Conclusion

The law of the case doctrine exists in order to keep cases proceeding forward without delays.  Without such rules as it and the coordinate jurisdiction rule, many cases may hit a wall as legal questions already determined are continually argued throughout the pendency of a case.  In the case above, an extenuating circumstance existed as the judge who made the original ruling on a decision in the case could not reconsider his decision as a result of his passing.  In turn, a new judge stepped in to rule in the case and ended up changing the original ruling.  In this instance, the state ruled that the intervening judge was not out of line in doing so due to their outlook on the decision along with the circumstances surrounding the case.

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