Standards of Review on Appeal: Pre-Trial and Trial Rulings

The posts on standards of review have covered the difference between questions of law and issues of fact, and between actions that are tried at law and in equity. This post explains the standards of review for certain pre-trial and trial rulings.

Rule 12(b)(6) Motions to Dismiss

In 2007 and 2009, the United States Supreme Court issued decisions that overruled the 50-year old standard for reviewing a federal Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. A plaintiff in federal court must now plead sufficient facts to show that liability is plausible. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

South Carolina has not addressed whether it will adopt the federal plausibility standard. The test has drawn strong criticism, and state high courts are split on whether to adopt it. See, e.g., Hawkeye Foodservice Distrib. Inc. v. Iowa Educators Corp., 812 N.W.2d 600 (Iowa 2012)(declining to adopt Iqbal and citing decisions in accord); Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422 (Tenn. 2011)(same).

Until South Carolina weighs in, the older and familiar standard should continue to apply. Under it, the appellate courts independently review the complaint to determine if the facts alleged and the inferences reasonably deducible therefrom will entitle the plaintiff to any relief on any theory of the case. If so, the Rule 12(b)(6) motion must be denied. Grimsley v. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, 396 S.C. 276, 281, 721 S.E.2d 423, 426 (2012).

Motions for Summary Judgment

The appellate courts also independently review the record to determine if summary judgment was proper. If the non-movant carries the burden of proof by the normal preponderance of the evidence, he or she can defeat summary judgment by pointing to a mere scintilla of evidence in his or her favor. Hancock v. Mid-South Management Co., Inc., 381 S.C. 326, 673 S.E.2d 801 (2008).

Trial motions

Much more deference is paid to the trial judges when they rule on discovery and trial motions. Such rulings are generally reviewed only for an abuse of discretion. And an abuse of discretion does not occur unless the trial judge’s ruling is controlled by an error of law or is without evidentiary support. See, e.g., Fairchild v. South Carolina Dep’t of Transp., 398 S.C. 90, 727 S.E.2d 407 (2012)(rulings on discovery); Wilder v. Blue Ribbon Taxicab Corp., 396 S.C. 139, 719 S.E.2d 703 (Ct.App. 2011)(evidentiary rulings); Winters v. Fiddie, 394 S.C. 629, 716 S.E.2d 316 (Ct.App. 2011)(jury instructions).

Has anyone asked the South Carolina trial courts to adopt or reject the federal Iqbal standard?  Please let us hear from you. You can reach me at www.attorneyroberthill.com.

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