A RULING – ALREADY – ON THE SWEET BRIAR APPEAL[Posted June 9, 2015] This morning, the Supreme Court hands down a decision in a case argued just five days ago: Commonwealth ex rel. Bowyer v. Sweet Briar Institute. This is an appeal of a temporary injunction that the trial court granted in part.
By unpublished order, the justices find that the trial court applied an erroneous legal principle in deciding the injunction request. Specifically, the lower court had held that the law of trusts doesn’t apply to corporations. Citing a number of decisions on related issues, the court concludes that the law of trusts can indeed apply to a corporation, so the court remands the case for reconsideration.
Today’s opinion underscores that, no matter what the justices might have ruled today, it ain’t over in Amherst County:
The proceedings in this case, and indeed in all of the cases filed in response to the announcement of the College’s closing, are ongoing. The parties are engaged in widely publicized, closed-door negotiations. The legal issues are still evolving, and the factual record underpinning the parties’ allegations and defenses has yet to be fully developed. In short, the controversy of the College’s scheduled closing is far from over, and all agree that the ultimate merits of the controversy are not, at least for today, squarely before this Court.
For appellate lawyers, one aspect of the procedural posture is highly interesting. The usual practice for seeking quick review of the grant or refusal of a temporary injunction is to submit a petition for review to a single justice, per Rule 5:17A. The court’s long-standing practice is for that justice to consult a panel of three to decide the matter, and that did happen here.
But instead of deciding the matter, the panel referred the appeal to the entire court. I haven’t seen anything quite like that procedure in all the ten-plus years I’ve been analyzing SCV decisions. I doubt it’ll become routine.
There’s one other matter that warrants mention here, and it relates to the missing standards for deciding temporary injunctions in state-court litigation. This is one area of Virginia caselaw where the page is completely blank, for reasons that I explained here.
I understand that this appeal turned on a narrow and discrete legal issue, so there was no occasion for the court to comment specifically on the standard by which a Virginia trial court should evaluate and decide temporary-injunction requests. The court makes general statements, such as the holding that the trial judge should consider things like “the requesting party’s allegations and the veracity and magnitude of the asserted harm,” but if you’re looking for a detailed set of decisionmaking guidelines like we get in federal court, you’ll come away still hungry. Today’s order notes that there’s no one test or one factor that will be dispositive; it’s up to the trial court to make a considered judgment call.
That being said, it is eminently foreseeable to me that this appeal will land at Ninth and Franklin again, perhaps in the very near future. That’s because the justices signal to the trial judge that they expect prompt action; they do so by extending the existing temporary injunction unto June 24.
If this case does return to the Supreme Court, then the justices may once again hear this issue en banc, giving them a golden opportunity to set out just how a trial court should evaluate and decide temporary injunction requests. Doing that would be an enormous service to the trial benches and the bar of the Commonwealth, who are now left to turn to federal appellate decisions for imperfect guidance.