Law of Case Doctrine

Under the law of the case doctrine, a court is ordinarily precluded from reexamining an issue previously decided by the same court, or a higher court in the same case.[i]

The law of the case doctrine, when applied to the court that made the initial ruling in question or a coordinate court, is a discretionary tool available to a court in order to promote judicial efficiency.[ii]

The law of the case doctrine is a term applied in several distinct circumstances.  The purpose of this doctrine is twofold:[iii]

  • to prevent the continued litigation of settled issues; and
  • to assure compliance by inferior courts with the decisions of superior courts.

The doctrine of the law of the case points that when a court decides upon a rule of law, that decision should continue to govern the same issues in subsequent stages in the same case.[iv]  This rule of practice promotes the finality and efficiency of the judicial process by protecting against the agitation of settled issues.

When the question is a court’s revisitation of an issue previously decided by the same court, the doctrine merely expresses the practice of courts generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided, not a limit to their power.[v]  The law of the case doctrine applies with equal vitality in the context where a party has failed to appeal the initial decision of a district court with respect to a particular issue.

The rules which make up the law of the case doctrine are that:[vi]

  • upon remand for further proceedings, a trial court may not alter the resolution of a legal question previously decided by the appellate court in the matter;
  • upon a second appeal, an appellate court may not alter the resolution of a legal question previously decided by the same appellate court; and
  • upon transfer of a matter between trial judges of coordinate jurisdiction, the transferee trial court may not alter the resolution of a legal question previously decided by the transferor trial court.

To constitute law of the case, an issue must have been previously decided either explicitly or by necessary implication by the same court or a higher court in the identical case.[vii]

However, the doctrine is subject to three exceptions that may arise:[viii]

  • if the decision is clearly erroneous and enforcement would cause manifest injustice;
  • if intervening controlling authority makes reconsideration appropriate; or
  • if substantially different evidence was adduced at a later trial.

Thus, departure from the law of the case doctrine is allowed by the courts only in exceptional circumstances such as where there has been an intervening change in the controlling law, a substantial change in the facts or evidence giving rise to the dispute in the matter, or where the prior holding was clearly erroneous and would create a manifest injustice if followed.[ix]

The law of the case doctrine prevents the parties from seeking appellate reconsideration of an already decided issue in the same case if there is no significant change in circumstances.[x]  The doctrine is one of procedure, not jurisdiction, and it will not be applied where its application will result in an unjust decision, that is, where there has been a manifest misapplication of existing principles resulting in substantial injustice.

Under the law of the case doctrine, a court should not reopen issues decided in earlier stages of the same litigation.[xi]  The doctrine does not apply if the court is convinced that its prior decision is clearly erroneous and would work a manifest injustice.

Further, the law of the case doctrine is inapplicable where the policy of the law has been changed, by legislative enactment or decision of a higher court, while the case is still pending resolution.[xii]

The law of the case doctrine is inapplicable outside the confines of the same lawsuit.[xiii]  Also, a trial court is free on remand to consider any issues not decided by the appellate court.[xiv]  Further, law of the case doctrine does not prevent an appellate court from reviewing the correctness of a lower court’s decision.  Similarly, a federal appellate court will apply the law of the case doctrine in refusing to review a prior decision in the same case rendered by an appellate court of equal rank.

The doctrine of the law of the case operates only against those who were parties to the case when the former appellate decision was rendered.[xv]

[i] Richard v. Ray, 76 Fed. Appx. 669 (6th Cir. Ky. 2003)

[ii] Insurance Co. of N. Am. v. Dynamic Constr. Co., 1997 U.S. App. LEXIS 755 (6th Cir. Mich. Jan. 14, 1997)

[iii] id

[iv] Christianson v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800 (U.S. 1988)

[v] Insurance Co. of N. Am. v. Dynamic Constr. Co., 1997 U.S. App. LEXIS 755 (6th Cir. Mich. Jan. 14, 1997)

[vi] Commonwealth v. Starr, 541 Pa. 564 (Pa. 1995)

[vii] United States v. U.S. Highway 411 South Loudon, 104 Fed. Appx. 467 (6th Cir. Tenn. 2004)

[viii] Sowder v. United States, 251 Fed. Appx. 444 (9th Cir. Wash. 2007)

[ix] Commonwealth v. Starr, 541 Pa. 564 (Pa. 1995)

[x] People v. Boyer, 38 Cal. 4th 412 (Cal. 2006)

[xi] Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203 (U.S. 1997)

[xii] Jordan v. Jordan, 132 Ariz. 38 (Ariz. 1982)

[xiii] Clemons v. Young, 240 F. Supp. 2d 639 ( E.D. Mich. 2003)

[xiv] Richard v. Ray, 76 Fed. Appx. 669 (6th Cir. Ky. 2003)

[xv] Socony Mobil Oil Co. v. State, 248 Ind. 680 (Ind. 1967)


Inside Law of Case Doctrine