Chapter 5 Thinking about Primary Sources as a Researcher
Case briefs can be written in a variety of different formats but their purpose is the same. Briefs allow you to outline the important aspects of a case. As we go through the format and procedure of briefing a case, follow along with the sample brief provided after this section. We will use the following format to brief Whalen v. Union Bag Paper Co., 208 N.Y. 1 (N.Y. 1913):
1. Heading 2. Facts 3. Procedural History 4. Legal Issues 5. Holding or Decision 6. Reasoning 7. Dissenting Opinions
After reading the court’s opinion, you can then go back and sort the information in it into these seven categories. As stated above, the heading identifies the parties involved in the case. For your brief, identify the plaintiff, defendant, and court in which the case is being heard. Also include the full citation of the case and any parallel citations as well as the authoring judge
In the Facts section, summarize the facts of the case as stated in the opinion. Only include facts relevant to the legal reasoning and decision of the case. Superfluous facts will not help you to understand the legal issues of the case. This section should include a statement of why the plaintiff has brought action against the defendant and what remedies they seek.
In the Procedural History section , note the disposition of any prior proceedings and how the case reached its present court, for example, if the case is before the U.S. Supreme Court, was the case appealed as of right or did the Supreme Court grant a writ of certiorari to review the lower courts’ decisions. Include decisions from lower courts such as trial and appellate courts. This will be important to understand the present court’s decision as it relates to previous lower court decisions.
In the Legal Issues section, Legal Issues should be phrased as a specific question that requires a “yes” or a “no” answer. The Legal Issues are the key questions which the court must answer in order to reach its decision on the case. Sometimes the court itself explicitly sets forth the legal issues it will address in its opinion. Other times the legal issues must be discerned from the main points that the court addresses in reaching its decision In the Holding or Decision section, give the factually specific answer to the Legal Issues question.
In the Reasoning section, provide the court’s rationale for the decision reached. Did the court base its decision on older legal principles, i.e., previously established good law, or did it create new legal principles? How did this case transform existing law in this jurisdiction? Remember that dicta in a judicial opinion are statements that are irrelevant for the holding.
In the Dissenting Opinions section, discuss the alternative views on this case provided by other members of the court.
The first case that you will brief is Whalen v. The Union Bag and Paper Co. Find it on the companion website and read it. Before you begin to brief, it is important to understand all of its components and where they came from. To begin, our case heading clearly identifies the Appellant, Whalen, and the Respondent, The Union Bag and Paper Company. The Appellant is the party who lost in the previous round and who is now bringing the case to the appellate court. This means that the appellant is not necessarily the original plaintiff and the respondent is not necessarily the original defendant. Many times the words “Appellant” and “Respondent” will not appear in the heading of the case but the Appellant is the party whose name is listed on the left side of the “v.” and the Respondent’s name is listed on the right. Sometimes there are multiple appellants and respondents.
On our companion website is Whalen as published in three different reporters. The reason we have included three versions of the same case is to show how three different publishers present the same legal opinion. The three versions of Whalen posted on our companion website are:the print version from New York Reports (the official reporter for New York Court of Appeals Cases), the Lexis’ online version, and the print version of Northeastern Reporter . In the Lexis online publication of Whalen, you will see a number of “Headnotes.” On Westlaw, you will see “Keynotes.” Headnotes and Keynotes are topic headings that are meant to assist readers in doing further, related research. Headnotes and Keynotes are inserted by publishing companies and are not part of the official opinions of courts. You will also note that the New York reporter does not include Headnotes, Keynotes, or similar headings in its published opinions.
Following the heading and the Headnotes and Keynotes, if any, many cases include a section that sets forth the case’s “Prior History.” The Prior History section may be followed by several paragraphs that summarize the opinion. This summary is often referred to as the “Syllabus” or is a perfunctory statement. In Whalen the “Syllabus” section is specifically identified as such. It is important to note that summary sections are NOT written by the court. Like Headnotes and Keynotes, these summaries are written by the authors of the reporter and should not be cited. Indeed, these summaries must be viewed with some skepticism as they may contain material irrelevant to the holding (i.e., dicta).
After the summary sections or syllabus, the attorneys and judges are listed. Sometimes these sections will also include an Issue Statement. In Whalen, an Issue Statement is given for each party. In some cases, an Issue Statement may appear after the judges are named and this statement summarizes what issues the court had to decide. Counsel is listed first for the Appellant and then for the Respondent. The judges are listed first as all of the judges that tried the case followed by the judge (or judges) that wrote the opinion.
The following section is the Opinion. In this section the court briefly presents the case, discusses the applicability of precedents and persuasive authority, and arrives at a decision. In the Whalen case, the first paragraph of the Opinion summarizes the facts of the case. These facts have been previously tried in court and are not now being debated. The facts are given only at a level of detail necessary for the reader to follow the legal reasoning of the court. The second paragraph of the opinion gives the procedural history of the case. This paragraph presents the previous findings from the trial court and Appellate Division. It also states the plaintiff’s reasoning for appealing the lower courts’ decisions.
The third and fourth paragraphs delve into the court’s reasoning in deciding this case. The court reasons by precedent, or the use of previous legal decisions as authority in deciding similar cases. The court explores the first issue at hand in the third paragraph. This paragraph discusses the standard by which a court should decide whether to grant injunction, specifically whether an injunction should be granted if the defendant’s cost of complying with the injunction is greater than the cost of the harm to the plaintiff if the injunction is denied. An injunction is a legal order to stop a certain activity. In this case, a farm owner sought to stop the Union Bag and Paper Company from polluting a stream running through his property with chemicals and debris from the operation of its paper mill. Here, the damage caused to the farmer’s property was small compared to the cost to the paper mill of abating the pollution. The court cites two cases (Strobel v. Kerr Salt Co. and Sammons v. City of Gloversville) in deciding this issue and states the opinion that “such a balancing of injuries cannot be justified by the circumstances of this case.”
The fourth paragraph covers the issue of whether an injunction can be denied once an unlawful invasion of the plaintiff’s rights has been established. Again, a previous case is cited (Weston Paper Co. v. Pope) and is used as an analogy for deciding the case “at bar,” meaning the case presently before the court.
The sixth paragraph briefly states the court’s agreement with the case cited above in the fifth paragraph and its application in the present case. The seventh paragraph sets forth the New York Court of Appeals’ final decision as it related to the decision of the Appellate Division below. The New York Court of Appeals reverses the Appellate Division’s decision and grants the injunction sought by the Appellant farm owner.
In reading the Opinion section of Whalen, it is important to note that not all Opinion sections will follow the same format. Sometimes sections within the Opinion will be labeled, such as a “Facts” section, and many times the Opinion section will be much longer than in Whalen. Opinions can also contain errors- either by the court or the reporter. It is important to cite these followed by [sic] to indicate the mistake is within the text being cited.
The Opinion section in Whalen is the final section but can be followed by concurring or dissenting opinions. A concurring opinion is one that agrees with the majority’s decision in the case but does so for reasons that differ from those given by the majority.
Whalen was decided over one hundred years ago in 1913. Since that time, it has been cited in over 30 cases. By using Lexis’ Shepardizing system or Westlaw’s citator, you can find all cases in which Whalen has been mentioned. Additionally, both of these case citators will indicate whether citing references have followed, distinguished, or overturned a specific case.
Based upon the above, write a brief of Whalen v. The Union Bag and Paper Co. and then, after it is written, compare it to the sample brief below. Make corrections as you compare. Finally, reflect on why this case is so important for Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co.
Case Brief: Robert E. Whalen, v. The Union Bag and Paper Company, 208 N.Y. 1; 101 N.E. 805; 1913 N.Y. LEXIS 1013 (Court of Appeals of New York, 1913)
1. Heading. Robert E. Whalen, v. The Union Bag and Paper Company, 208 N.Y. 1 (Court of Appeals of New York, 1913) a. Plaintiff: Robert E. Whalen b. Defendant: The Union Bag and Paper Company c. Court: Court of Appeals of New York
2. Facts. Riparian owner Robert E. Whalen started an action against the Union Bag and Paper Company to restrain the defendant from continuing to pollute the stream. The plaintiff owns a farm containing part of the stream which is being polluted by the defendant’s pulp mill a few miles upstream. Large quantities of waste from the mill had been placed in the stream over a period of time. This waste, along with discharge from other industries along the stream, greatly diminished the purity of the water. The pollution from the mill was destructive to both plant and animal life. Damages to the farm were awarded at a rate of $312 a year and reduced by the Appellate division to $100 a year. The mill employs 400-500 workers and represents an investment of over one million dollars.
3. Procedural History. This is an appeal by the plaintiff from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial Department (New York). The Appellate Court had amended the trial court’s decision and reversed the grant of an injunction.
4. Legal Issues. The main issues in this case are: a. Is there a level of injury necessary to be considered great enough to grant an injunction? b. Can injunction be denied if injury has been found?
5. Holding or Decision. The court decided: a. Is there a level of injury necessary to be considered great enough to grant an injunction? No, there is no rule for determining when an injury is great enough to necessitate an injunction. b. Can injunction be denied if injury has been found? No, a balancing of injuries cannot justify denying injunction when substantial injury has been found.
6. Reasoning or Dicta a. Is there a level of injury necessary to be considered great enough to grant an injunction? If a balancing of injuries is used to determine the granting of injunction, when followed to its logical conclusion “it would deprive the poor litigant of his little property by giving it to those already rich.” In Weston Paper Co. v. Pope, it was decided that the large monetary value of the plant should not allow it to escape the consequences of polluting a stream. The slight injury to the plaintiff in comparison to the large expense of injunction to the defendant is not sufficient reason to deny injunction. b. Can injunction be denied if injury has been found? It was found that the defendant’s injuries were not unsubstantial and the nuisance would continue into the future if an injunction was denied. The evidence establishes an unlawful invasion of the plaintiff’s rights by the defendant and therefore injunction cannot be denied. 7. Dissenting Opinions None.