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Court: Lawyer Led Trial Judge Astray in Winn-Dixie Case

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 06, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

How good is it when your lawyer can get a judge not to follow the law for you?

Not very good, according to a federal appeals court. While a BigLaw partner might have impressed his clients in the trial court, it backfired at the U.S Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate judges had ruled earlier in the case, and sent it back to the trial judge with instructions. The judge didn't follow them in Winn Dixie Stores v. Dolgencorp.

Meant It the First Time

In a suit claiming Big Lots and Dollar General violated lease agreements at stores in Florida, the appeals panel had remanded and directed the trial judge to apply definitions of "groceries" and "sales area" in Winn-Dixie Stores v. 99 Cent Stuff-Trail Plaza..

But Brian P. Watt, a partner at Troutman Sanders, persuaded the trial judge not to apply the precedent to all the stores. Instead of 41 stores, he said it applied to only 14.

When the case came back to the Eleventh Circuit, the judges were not happy to see it. They meant what they said the first time.

"We really did mean it. And we still do," they said. "A district court can, of course, wax eloquent about how wrong the appellate court is, but after the waxing wanes the mandate must be followed."

Led Astray

The appeals court blamed the defendants' attorney for leading the trial judge astray. The lawyer added "mischaracterization to defiance," the panel said, by arguing its earlier instructions did not apply.

The Eleventh Circuit said its instructions were clear and "did not leave room for confusion or genuine doubt." The jurists said there was "no imprecision in those instructions, no room for evasive interpretation."

"This is one of those rare cases where the attorneys representing one side successfully urged the district court to act contrary to our mandate," they said. "Of course, we reverse that part of its judgment."

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