The kitchen sink has no place on appeal

We’ve all heard of doctors lamenting the need to order lots of tests for the most mundane symptoms in order to protect themselves from malpractice lawsuits. Are lawyers exhibiting equivalent behavior?

Last week, a post at the Lawyerist blog (Want To Destroy Your Case? Throw In The Kitchen Sink.) featured a federal district court decision adopting the recommendations of the magistrate judge to order sanctions all around in a sexual harassment lawsuit — i.e., all of the attorneys on both sides had monetary sanctions imposed against them. On the plaintiff’s side, the attorneys were sanctioned for what Lawyerist called “evidence-free sexual harassment and retaliation allegations.” On the defense side, the attorneys representing the employer objected that they were being sanctioned merely for aggressively defending their client, but the district court noted that “there is a difference between a vigorous, effective defense and the kind of gross overlitigation and unreasonable and vexatious multiplication of proceedings which occurred here.”

Aside from sanctions, the litigation tactics summarized by the district court ( and detailed in the magistrate judge’s report) posed the risk that the better points in each side’s case got lost in the noise of all the unnecessary chatter.

That risk is also quite high, and arguably higher, when similar tactics are adopted in an appeal. In trial proceedings, various “overlitigation” tactics might be employed piecemeal over time, and the occasional golden nugget has a chance to stand out because it is presented in relative isolation. In an appeal, however, the appellant’s opening brief hits the appellate court with all of his arguments at one time, which might make it harder for the decent argument to stand out from the clutter.

While I suspect that the problem of raising too many issues in an opening brief arises most often when trial attorneys continue to represent their clients on appeal and are unable to “let go” of certain pet issues that have no place in the appellate court, or when the appellant has an inexperienced lawyer or is self-represented on appeal, even veteran appellate lawyers have to struggle with issue selection. Any time I come up with more than three or four arguments to make in an appeal, I get suspicious of my own analysis, and I consider very carefully whether all of the issues should be raised.*

I think that lawyers that forego any careful consideration of how to narrow the issues, and wind up throwing in the kitchen sink, might be depending on the good graces of the appellate court to pluck the meritorious needles out of the legal haystacks presented in their briefs. Appellate judges don’t simply throw up their hands and discount every argument raised by an appellant every time an opening brief contains a lot of different arguments that seem unmeritorious at first. Aside from the matter of professional integrity, there’s also the matter of having to justify their ruling in a written opinion, so you can bet they spend time trying to decide if there is a meritorious argument in the bunch.

Perhaps you’re thinking, As long as the court is going to look for my best arguments anyway, what’s the risk? I’ll throw in everything and let the court sort it out. The risk is that you might actually conceal your best arguments. Appellate judges (and their research attorneys) are smart, but they are not infallible. Clutter your brief enough, and the one argument that actually stood a chance at winning might not be recognized. And, if none of your arguments is any good, I suspect you are better off minimizing their number. A brief containing 15 meritless arguments is probably more likely to draw monetary sanctions than a brief containing just one or two meritless arguments, as the court will consider the former a greater waste of its time and the number of meritless arguments may be seen as evidence of the frivolousness of the appeal.

UPDATE (9/29/15): At his Briefly Writing blog, Alabama appellate lawyer Michael Skotnicki shares some related thoughts. In a post called The Risks of a “Hinge Point” Appellate Argumenthe comments on the ultimate narrowing of issues: asserting a single issue on appeal.

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*In some complex cases, of course, more complex briefing is required. Consider, for example, the brief proffered on appeal by the defense team for former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling: the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals gave them permission to file a brief 58,922 words long — more than four times as long as normally permitted under the rules — which generated quite a bit of buzz on legal blogs. But Skilling was convicted of 19 counts after a three-month trial and the record on appeal approached 47,000 pages; your average appeal is not going to be that complex. (To put the length of Skilling’s brief in perspective, consider that George Orwell’s Animal Farm is less than 30,000 words long, and Lord of the Flies is less than 63,000 words long; of course, some novels are hundreds of thousands of words long.)