My colleague and sometime coauthor, Travis Graham, is an eccentric civil procedure genius and all-around good guy. Among his other hobbies, Travis collects popular misconceptions of the law. He recently told me about a new urban legend making the rounds: the Nusbaum motion. As I understand it, there is a perception brewing in some corners of the bar that you need to file a dedicated pleading in order to protect against procedural default in the wake of Nusbaum v. Berlin, 273 Va. 385, 641 S.E.2d 494 (2007).
I have no idea whether this is true. (I’ve been burned before.) I hope that it’s not–or if it is true, that people are just talking about a motion to reconsider. Barring extraordinary circumstances, there’s no need to file a separate pleading to secure a ruling and avoid the Nusbaum waiver scenario.
Nusbaum is a fun case. Factually, it’s pretty straightforward. Here, Buzz Aldrin re-enacts the pivotal event in the case:
Buzz took some dramatic license there, but not much. In Nusbaum, the plaintiff’s lawyer bumped or shoved opposing counsel in court, before the jury. The trial court immediately declared a mistrial and assessed costs against the plaintiffs.
A procedural nightmare ensued, as the parties debated sanctions for months. For our limited purposes, it is enough to note that Nusbaum failed to raise certain objections contemporaneously. He moved to reconsider, but told the judge that he was not asking the court to change its ruling. By doing so, he waived his argument for appeal.
Here’s what you need to know about Nusbaum:
- It’s a waiver case. At bottom, Nusbaum is a waiver case. If you file a motion to reconsider to preserve a point for appeal, but then tell the trial judge that you don’t actually want her to reconsider her ruling, you have not preserved your argument. You have waived it. Nothing groundbreaking here. That’s because…
- You always need to get a ruling on your objections. This is true, has always been true, and always will be true. The trial court is entitled to a fair opportunity to rule intelligently on your objections. Otherwise, you will not have anything to appeal. Therefore, you should bject during the proceeding, and later list your key objections on the face of the court’s order. You might even consider adding language to the order itself, acknowledging and ruling on the parties’ respective objections. If necessary, file a motion to reconsider. But unless something goes horribly wrong, you should not need to move the court to rule on your motions or avoid a waiver.
- Don’t go overboard noting objections or doing things “for the record.” The best thing you can do for your prospects on appeal is to win in the trial court. Do what’s necessary in order to preserve error, but don’t lose the case trying to win the appeal. And while we’re on the subject, you should probably delete the phrase “for the record” from your trial vocabulary altogether. It’s a lawyerism. Real people don’t talk that way, unless they’re being pretentious and/or trying to sound like lawyers. Beginning an argument with “for the record” can even suggest that you are just going through the motions to preserve an argument. That is not effective advocacy–and as Nusbaum shows, it may not be effective preservation of error.
- It’s better with Buzz. Frankly, I like the case better when it has Buzz Aldrin punching jerks in the face. (Thanks to my friend, Jerry, for pointing out the clip and sharing his insights, which have informed this post.)