After a taxing trial, lawyers must focus on what occurs at the judgment stage and after the court enters the verdict. The post-trial phase can be critical, and a great deal of work remains.
After the court renders a verdict, the prevailing party typically drafts a motion for judgment, which includes a proposed judgment under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 305. However, any party can draft a motion for judgment, asking the court to sign the proposed judgment on the verdict.
Courts treat a motion for judgment on the verdict as an affirmation that the jury findings are supported by the evidence. The opposing party must reserve the right to attack the judgment. A motion for judgment on the verdict may waive the right to present certain challenges on appeal, so attorneys representing the unsuccessful party should sign "approved as to form only" to ensure no court can construe the judgment as a consent judgment. The motion for judgment preserves error in case the trial court modifies or rejects the proposed judgment.
A judgment is the official declaration that the issues in a suit have been resolved. It must be sufficiently definite and certain to define and protect the parties’ rights. It becomes effective at the rendering stage. Under TRCP 306 it must include the parties’ full names as stated in the pleadings, the capacities of each party, a declaration of the legal effects of facts and a statement of finality. It needs a date line, a signature line for the judge and signature lines for all attorneys.
The judgment also should note damages and interest, attorney fees when appropriate, costs and any other relief to which the successful party is entitled. The damages section should specify the amount to be recovered or, alternatively, provide a means for calculating that amount. If the amount awarded is uncertain, the judgment is interlocutory.
An interlocutory judgment does not resolve all claims or dispose of all parties in a suit. Under Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code 51.012 and 51.014, only a final judgment is appealable. Additionally, a final judgment bars re-litigation of other claims and issues arising from the matter.
The timetable for an appeal begins to run once the judge signs the judgment. To preserve the right to appeal, the party should state in the proposed judgment that it disagrees with the other party’s proposed judgment, it agrees only to the form of the proposed judgment, and it plans to challenge judgment on appeal. A party must file a notice of appeal with the trial court and a copy with the appellate court clerk under Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure 25.1(a) and 25.1(e), respectively.
Both parties want the judge to sign the judgment immediately: the successful party to enable enforcement and the unsuccessful party to begin the appeal process or file other post-judgment motions. Once the judge signs the judgment, the court clerk enters it in the court’s minutes. Then, under TRCP 306a(3), the clerk gives the parties immediate notice, by first-class mail, that the court signed a judgment or an appealable order. The judge’s plenary power to change the judgment is calculated from the date the judge signs the final judgment.
After the judge signs the judgment, it’s time to file motions to correct, sever, nonsuit or modify the judgment. A post-judgment motion filed within 30 days of the judge signing the judgment that seeks a substantive change will extend the court’s plenary power. Such motions include a motion for new trial, a verified motion to reinstate, and a motion to modify the judgment, which encompasses a motion for sanctions, a motion for remittitur and a motion for judgment non obstante verdicto (JNOV). If no party files any post-judgment motions, the court loses plenary power within 30 days of signing the judgment, and it becomes final.
• Motion for new trial (MNT) (TRCP 306c and 320-329b): The MNT challenges factual and/or legal sufficiency points. It gives a trial court a final chance to correct errors that occurred during the trial, preserves error for appeal, and extends the trial court’s plenary power and appellate deadlines. A party must file the MNT within 30 days after the court signs the judgment or other order. TRCP 329b(c) gives the court 75 days from signing the judgment to rule on the MNT.
The party can include a motion for remittitur in the MNT or seek remittitur through a separate motion. A remittitur motion, governed by TRCP 320 and 324(b)(4), involves asking the court to reduce an excessive damages award. The movant should include a suggested reduced amount and file the motion within 30 days of the court signing the judgment.
• Motion to modify the judgment (TRCP329(b)(g)): This motion challenges substantive or judicial errors and clerical errors in a judgment, such as punctuation, grammar and spelling mistakes. Filing it will extend the appellate timetables and the court’s plenary power if the motion seeks a substantive change and is timely filed (within 30 days of the court signing the judgment). The court must rule on this motion within 75 days after signing the judgment, otherwise TRCP 329b(c) deems the motion overruled by operation of law.
• Motion JNOV (TRCP 301): A motion for JNOV challenges legal sufficiency points, such as no evidence, conclusive evidence, legal bar or immaterial jury finding. It must identify the problematic findings, state specific grounds for disregarding the jury’s findings, and request that the court sign either a judgment on the remaining findings or a judgment contrary to all the findings, if the party wants the court to dismiss all findings.
The party should file a proposed judgment with the JNOV motion and secure a written order. Like a motion for new trial, the party must file the JNOV motion within 30 days after the date the court signed the judgment. The judge must rule on it within 75 days of signing the judgment.
Additionally, the losing party can file a motion to disregard the jury findings. It’s similar to the JNOV motion, except that it asks the court to disregard some of the jury answers and render judgment on the remaining ones.
• Motion for judgment nunc pro tunc (TRCP306a(6) and 329(b): This motion asks the court to correct a clerical error in the judgment after the court’s plenary power has expired. Typically, the clerical error does not reflect accurately the original judgment rendered, i.e. an incorrect date, a mathematical error in the amount of damages, or a mistake in party names or designations. There is no deadline to file a motion for judgment nunc pro tunc, and a party can file it as early as the day after the court loses plenary power.
Other motions include a motion for judgment on agreement, a motion to extend post-judgment deadlines, and verified and unverified motions to reinstate. These are all part of the trial lawyer’s arsenal in seeking the best outcome for the client, even after the trial has concluded.