The Case Method

You have learned or will learn that two very important aspects of an appellate case are the “determinative facts” (those facts absolutely necessary for the court’s decision) and the rule of law that emerges from the case. There is an interdependence among facts, the issues in the case and the “rule of the case” — the rule of law for which the case stands as precedent.

You will see that many facts are mentioned in a legal opinion merely to provide background to what would otherwise be very disjointed recitation. Other facts are in the opinion merely to provide information to the courts thinking, while others cause the court to come into its decision. This last group of facts is often called the “determinative” or the “essential facts.” These facts are essential to the court’s decision because they determined it: if they had been different, the decision would have been different. The determinative facts lead to the rule of the case — the rule of law for which the case stands as precedent.

The discovery of that rule is a most important goal of case analysis. Often where several legal issues are raised together in a case, the court is required to make several rulings and therefore an opinion may stand for several different rules. Asking the following question can identify a determinative fact: If a particular fact had not happened or if it happened differently, would the court have made a different ruling? If so, that fact is one of the determinative facts.

But this is not as alien to your experience as is sounds. Consider the following example:

You have just moved to Denver to go to law school. You have looked for days for an appropriate apartment. Assume the following facts are true.

1. The apartment is located half a mile from the law school.

2. The building appears to be well maintained and safe.

3. It is a studio apartment, with one room, a kitchen and a bathroom.

4. The apartment is on the corner of the building, and the windows on two sides provide ample light and ventilation.

5. It is on the third floor, away from the street, and the neighbors do not appear to be noisy people.

6. The rent is $600 per month, furnished.

7. The landlord will require a year’s lease, and subleasing is not permitted.

8. You have an aunt with whom you get along well and who lives alone in a house 45 minutes by bus from the law school, and she has offered to let you use the second floor of her house during the school year. The house and neighborhood are safe and quiet, and the living arrangements seem satisfactory.

9. You have just made a commitment to work next summer in Austin, Texas.

10. You have taken out substantial loans to go to law school.

11. You neither own nor have access to a car.

Which facts are essential or determinative to your decision? If the apartment was a mile from the law school rather than a half a mile, would your decision have been different? If not the first listed fact could not be determinative and you would not make a decision on it. You can figure out what facts are essential to your decision.

A rule of law depends on a formulation and interpretation of the determinative facts. It is basically a principle that governs how a particular decision is to be made — or, in other words how certain facts are to be treated by the person ,such as a judge , who must make a decision. To establish a rule of the case where it has not been clearly stated by the court, you must consider a formulation using the determinative facts that caused the result.

You may formulate or interpret the determinative facts narrowly and specifically or broadly and generally. In our example a narrow and specific formulation might be:

A law student who has a choice between renting an apartment and living in the second floor of an aunt’s house should choose the latter where the student has had to borrow money to go to law school; when the apartment’s rent is $600 per month but the aunt’s second floor is free except for bus fares; where the student must work in Austin during the summer and where a sublease of the apartment is prohibited in the lease.

Because this formulation is narrowly limited to the specific facts given it could directly govern only in an extremely small number of future decisions. Therefore a broader, more widely applicable formulation would directly govern many other situations:

A student on a tight budget should not sign a year ‘s lease where the student cannot live in the leased property during the summer and a nearly free alternative is available

An even broader and more general formulation would govern an even wider circle of applications:

A person with limited funds should not lease property that person cannot fully use where there is a nearly free alternative.

You can see that rules of the case or rules of law govern decisions based on the essential facts that are the foundation of the decision.

Courts do not often specifically state the issue, the holding, or the rule for which is a case is to stand as precedent, and the determinative facts are not usually labeled as such. Therefore the interpretation of opinions is a difficult and painful task.

The Case Method is designed to help you gain skills at reading cases, distilling rules from those cases, and learning to apply those rules to solve clients’ problems.

“Cases do not unfold their principles for the asking, they yield up their kernel slowly and painfully.” Benjamin Cardozo

(See for more detail: Neuman, Legal Reasoning and Legal Writing,22-26 Little Brown,(1990)

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