Lesson 22 of 21
In Progress

6.2: Relying on & Distinguishing Cases

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Goals:

  • Learn how US attorneys and courts select cases to rely on in a litigation
  • Understand the legal English vocabulary associated with cases that courts must rely on, may rely on, and should not rely on.

Instructions:

  • Read the explanation below and watch the video on binding and non-binding precedent.
  • Answer the questions  that follow to assess your understanding.

Reading:

“Cases Courts Must Follow, Should Follow, and Should Not Follow”

You learned that US lawyers and judges think in terms of cases. And in your previous lesson you saw how writers can use case introduction signals to tell the reader why they are citing to a case. For example, writers use See and See e.g.,  to signal readers that the cases support a proposition and but see or c.f., could indicate cases that provide contrary authority.

Attorneys will always try to cite to law from cases that courts must follow. Case law that judges must follow is called binding precedent or controlling precedent.

As a general rule, cases with similar facts should have similar results.  If an appellate level court decides an issue in one case based on certain facts, an inferior court in the same jurisdiction must reach the same decision if later confronted with a case presenting similar facts. For example, precedent created by a California appellate court will bind a California trial court.

Not all precedent is binding.  Non-binding precedent refers to a prior court’s decision that a court in a later case is free to reject or to accept.  

A decision by a court in another state is non-binding precedent because courts cannot bind courts in other jurisdictions.  For example, a New York court is free to reject precedent from a California court.  Also, the decision of one trial level court in any jurisdiction cannot bind another trial level court in the same jurisdiction, nor can it bind an appellate court.

However, even if a case is not binding, it may still be persuasive. Persuasive authority refers to law that does not control the court, but a court may choose to follow it.

Attorneys also try to find cases that are “on-point”. A case is on-point if it presents similar facts to the case at hand. If a case presents facts similar to the facts of a prior case,  we expect the case to have a similar outcome.

Attorneys and law students in the United States must develop an ability to distinguish cases. To distinguish a case means to show that the facts of one case are dissimilar to the facts of another case and, therefore, the outcome of the cases should be different. A case that is distinguishable is not on-point. Attorneys in a litigation may emphasize that a case is distinguishable and irrelevant by describing it as “inapposite.”

In a US litigation, attorneys always look for the best cases to cite for their clients. Ideally, they want on-point appellate cases from the same jurisdiction as their case. An appellate-level case that is on-point in a US litigation should control the outcome of the dispute. If the attorney cannot find binding authority, they will look for persuasive authority – – cases that are on-point and may convince the judge to reach a favorable decision even if they are not controlling.

Below is a video discussing binding precedent.

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Vocabulary Review

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On-Point

Definition: A case that presents facts and law similar to another case.

Synonym: “On all fours”

Sample Sentences: 

  1. The Davis case is on-point, therefore, our judge is likely to follow its holding.
  2. The Smith case is on all fours with our case – – both cases involve a similar dispute over a similar contract.
  3. I’m not sure the case you are citing is on-point because that case involves careless negligence and our case involves an intentional wrongdoing. 

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Binding

Definition: An appellate-level case that lower courts must follow.

Synonym: Controlling, Direct, Mandatory

Sample Sentences: 

  1. When the Supreme Court rules on a matter of Constitutional law, that ruling becomes binding precedent on all courts in the country.
  2. The Smith case is controlling so we should cite to it when we argue before the Court.
  3. That case is not good for us but at least it’s from another state so it is not binding and our judge is free to reject its holding.

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Persuasive

Definition: Cases that will guide, but not control, a subsequent court’s decision. Cases from different jurisdictions can be persuasive but are not controlling.

Synonym: Non-binding

Sample Sentences: 

  1. Because we cannot find relevant cases from our own state we will need to research persuasive authority from other jurisdictions.
  2. The Richards case is persuasive precedent but I would prefer to cite to appellate cases from our state.
  3. The case might just be a trial-level decision but it is on-point and the court will probably consider it persuasive authority although it is non-binding.

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Distinguishable

Definition: A case that a court should not follow because it presents a different set of facts, therefore, should lead to a different result.

Synonym: Inapposite, meaning inappropriate. This is a stronger word than distinguishable and suggests an utterly irrelevant case . You can also say reliance on a case is inapposite.

Sample Sentences: 

  1. The court should distinguish our adversary’s cases and rule in our favor.
  2. The case law you found is interesting but it is distinguishable and unlikely to persuade the court.
  3. The defendant asked the court to dismiss the plaintiff’s case but the judge decided that defendant’s case law was inapposite and denied the motion.

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Choose the best word to fill in the blank and complete the sentence

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Instructions: 

  • Below are quotes from actual memoranda of law (“briefs”) written by attorneys.
  • Read how they describe cases that they want courts to follow and how they describe cases they think the courts should not follow.
  • Each question will ask you to select a missing word to complete the sentence.
  • Check your answer to see whether your understanding was accurate.

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1. The Supreme Court has held that lower courts must follow its ____ precedents even where – unlike here – a majority of the Court’s members already have criticized a precedent, because the fact that a precedent has been criticized does not mean that it will be overruled. Source: [Answering Brief in Masuo v. American Federation of State (9th Cir. 2021)]

Choose the best word to fill in the blank.

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Explanation: The brief refers to precedent that a lower court must follow. The only choice that refers to precedent that a court must follow is “on-point”.

By definition, courts are not required to follow persuasive, distinguishable, or non-binding precedent.

 

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Hint: The sentence says must follow. Courts do not have to follow perusasive precedent.

 

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Hint: The sentence says must follow. Courts do not have to follow non-binding precedent.

 

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2. Ms. Lin’s case is also ______    _____ Matter of C-C-because Ms. Lin is from Fujian Province, whereas the applicant in Matter of C-C-was from Zhejiang Province. Source: [Reply Brief in Lin v. United States Department of Justice (2d  Cir. 2006)

Choose the best word to fill in the blank.

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Hint: The sentence uses the word whereas to contrast different facts.

 

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Hint: The sentence uses the word whereas to contrast different facts in different cases. Also, Ms. Lin’s case cannot be binding on an earlier case.

 

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Explanation: This sentence explains why the facts in Ms. Lin’s case are different from the Matter of C-C case because the Ms. Lin is from a different part of China.

 

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3. In this case, the district court improperly relied on _____ authorities from both within the district and outside of the district. Source: [Appellant’s Opening Brief in Founder Institute, Inc. v. Sentinel Insurance Co, Ltd. (9th  Cir. 2021)

Choose the best word to fill in the blank.

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Hint: The attorney argues that the trial court’s reliance was improper.

 

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Explanation: The attorney is arguing that the trial court made a mistake by improperly relying on cases that were not binding on the trial court.

 

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Hint: The attorney writes that the trial court’s reliance on the authorities was improper.

 

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4. Logan v. United States represents ____ precedent rather than direct or mandatory precedent. Source: [Appellant’s Brief in United States v. Bridges (6th  Cir. 2011)

Choose the best word to fill in the blank.

[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row column_structure=”1_3,1_3,1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_column type=”1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” custom_padding=”10px||||false|false” border_width_all=”2px” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Choice 1: binding” use_icon=”on” font_icon=”t||divi||400″ button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” subhead_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” background_enable_color=”on” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”#B3A6B5″ global_colors_info=”{}”][/dsm_flipbox_child][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Not Quite” button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” content_font_size=”17px” subhead_text_color=”#fbfbfd” subhead_font_size=”14px” background_enable_color=”off” custom_padding=”15px|4px||4px|false|false” hover_transition_duration=”550ms” hover_transition_delay=”50ms” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”RGBA(255,255,255,0)” global_colors_info=”{}”]

Hint: Which choice means something other than direct or mandatory precedent?

 

[/dsm_flipbox_child][/dsm_flipbox][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type=”1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” custom_padding=”10px||||false|false” border_width_all=”2px” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Choice 2: persuasive” use_icon=”on” font_icon=”t||divi||400″ button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” subhead_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” background_enable_color=”on” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”#B3A6B5″ global_colors_info=”{}”][/dsm_flipbox_child][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Right!” button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_font=”|700|||||||” header_text_color=”#9F6DEC” content_font_size=”17px” subhead_text_color=”#fbfbfd” subhead_font_size=”14px” background_enable_color=”off” custom_margin=”20px||||false|false” custom_padding=”50px|4px||4px|false|false” hover_transition_duration=”550ms” hover_transition_delay=”50ms” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”RGBA(255,255,255,0)” global_colors_info=”{}”]

Explanation: Unlike binding or controlling precedent, persuasive precedent is not mandatory for lower courts to follow.

 

[/dsm_flipbox_child][/dsm_flipbox][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type=”1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” custom_padding=”10px||||false|false” border_width_all=”2px” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Choice 3: controlling” use_icon=”on” font_icon=”t||divi||400″ button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” subhead_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” background_enable_color=”on” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”#B3A6B5″ global_colors_info=”{}”][/dsm_flipbox_child][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Not Quite” button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” content_font_size=”17px” subhead_text_color=”#fbfbfd” subhead_font_size=”14px” background_enable_color=”off” custom_padding=”15px|4px||4px|false|false” hover_transition_duration=”550ms” hover_transition_delay=”50ms” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”RGBA(255,255,255,0)” global_colors_info=”{}”]

Hint: Which choice means something different from mandatory precedent that a court must follow?

 

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5. Defendant’s reliance on Agostini and Browder in its Opposition (p. 9) are thoroughly ____ because those cases deal with Rule 60(b)(6) (post-final judgment) relief and that is not the relief that was sought in this case. Source: [Reply to Opposition in Audain v. American University (Supreme Court of the United States 2001)]

Choose the best word to fill in the blank.

[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row column_structure=”1_3,1_3,1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_column type=”1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” custom_padding=”10px||||false|false” border_width_all=”2px” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Choice 1: inapposite” use_icon=”on” font_icon=”t||divi||400″ button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” subhead_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” background_enable_color=”on” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”#B3A6B5″ global_colors_info=”{}”][/dsm_flipbox_child][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Right!” button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_font=”|700|||||||” header_text_color=”#9F6DEC” content_font_size=”17px” subhead_text_color=”#fbfbfd” subhead_font_size=”14px” background_enable_color=”off” custom_margin=”20px||||false|false” custom_padding=”50px|4px||4px|false|false” hover_transition_duration=”550ms” hover_transition_delay=”50ms” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”RGBA(255,255,255,0)” global_colors_info=”{}”]

Explanation: The brief argues that the Agostini and Browder cases are irrelevant (inapposite) because they concern a case where a plaintiff sought a different kind of remedy (relief).

 

[/dsm_flipbox_child][/dsm_flipbox][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type=”1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” custom_padding=”10px||||false|false” border_width_all=”2px” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Choice 2: persuasive” use_icon=”on” font_icon=”t||divi||400″ button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” subhead_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” background_enable_color=”on” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”#B3A6B5″ global_colors_info=”{}”][/dsm_flipbox_child][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Not Quite” button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” content_font_size=”17px” subhead_text_color=”#fbfbfd” subhead_font_size=”14px” background_enable_color=”off” custom_padding=”15px|4px||4px|false|false” hover_transition_duration=”550ms” hover_transition_delay=”50ms” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”RGBA(255,255,255,0)” global_colors_info=”{}”]

Hint: We would not say reliance is persuasive. A case can be persuasive, but not reliance. What is the writer saying about the Agostini and Browder cases?

 

[/dsm_flipbox_child][/dsm_flipbox][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type=”1_3″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” custom_padding=”10px||||false|false” border_width_all=”2px” global_colors_info=”{}”][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Choice 3: binding” use_icon=”on” font_icon=”t||divi||400″ button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” header_text_align=”center” subhead_text_align=”center” background_color=”#FFFFFF” background_enable_color=”on” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”#B3A6B5″ global_colors_info=”{}”][/dsm_flipbox_child][dsm_flipbox_child title=”Not Quite” button_url_new_window=”1″ _builder_version=”4.18.0″ _module_preset=”default” content_font_size=”17px” subhead_text_color=”#fbfbfd” subhead_font_size=”14px” background_enable_color=”off” custom_padding=”15px|4px||4px|false|false” hover_transition_duration=”550ms” hover_transition_delay=”50ms” border_width_all=”0px” border_color_all=”RGBA(255,255,255,0)” global_colors_info=”{}”]

Hint: We would not say reliance is binding. A case can be binding, but not reliance. What is the writer saying about the defendant’s reliance on the Agostini and Browder cases if those cases deal with a different kind of remedy?

 

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