California Supreme Court invites your comment on proposed changes to publication rules involving cases accepted for review

I expect that in this age of electronic research, most lawyers have experienced the frustration of finding the “perfect” case, only to learn it is unpublished and therefore could not be cited as precedent. (See rule 8.1115(a), Cal. Rules of Court.) Even in the “old days,” when research was limited to hard copy books, you could still find the perfect cases whisked out from under you, either because it was later disapproved or, more frustratingly, had been accepted for review by the Supreme Court, which has the effect of automatically de-publishing the case. (See rule 8.1105(e)(1), Cal. Rules of Court.)

That may change. Yesterday, the Supreme Court posted for comment some proposed changes to this scheme.The upshot is that there would be a 180-degree change in the rule, so that published cases accepted for review by the Supreme Court would remain published, with a notation that the case has been accepted for review.

Where things get interesting is in the related issue of the precedential effect of such cases. If cases on review remain published, should they have the same precedential value they had prior to being accepted for review? That’s one proposal (but it also has a provision that the Supreme Court could explicitly limit the precedential value of the decision. The second proposal is that such decisions would not be binding and could be cited only for persuasive value.

The proposal generated quite a bit of buzz on the Los Angeles County Bar Association Appellate Courts Section listerv yesterday. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” caucus seemed to win the day.

Of course, not everyone agrees that the current system “ain’t broke.” There is an organization dedicated to advocacy for publication of all Court of Appeal opinions. Several years ago, a law firm even sued the Supreme Court over its publication rules.

The issue of the precedential value of cases accepted for review is of concern beyond the appellate community, of course. Published decisions of the Court of Appeal, regardless of the district in which the decision was rendered, are binding on trial courts statewide. Where there are conflicting appellate court decisions, a trial court is free to choose which it will apply.

Since conflicts among the Court of Appeal often generate review by the Supreme Court, trial courts are forced under the current rules not to rely on the more recent decision and treat the earlier one as binding. Someone on the listserv pointed out yesterday that this is unfair, and I tend to agree. After all, where review is granted because of a conflict between two cases, the Supreme Court is likely to disapprove one or the other of them rather than reconcile them. In other words, since the fate of both cases lies in the balance, why should one have greater precedential value than the other?

If you wish to offer the Supreme Court your comments on the proposal, you must do so by September 25, 2015.

Update: Horrendously embarrassing typo in headline fixed!

Don’t treat one superior court judge as the reviewing court for another

Writs and appeals are sometimes not the only routes (or even the preferred routes) to relief from an adverse order or judgment. Motions for reconsideration, post-trial motions for new trial or to vacate the judgment, and motions to set aside a judgment all have the possibility of getting you a “reversal” of sorts without ever leaving the superior court.

I’ve written before about how a superior court judge may change a prior interim ruling on his own motion, even when the decision to do so is triggered by a faulty motion for reconsideration. The chief limitation on this practice is that, in most cases, one judge on a superior court cannot reverse the ruling of another judge on the same superior court, at least so long as the original judge is still available, i.e., still on that court. In Marriage of Oliverez, case no. H040955 (6th Dist., July 27, 2015), the court confirms that this rule applies even when the case has been transferred to a new judge for trial.

The original judge in Oliverez had denied husband’s motion pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 to enforce a settlement. The case was then transferred (for reasons the court was unable to discern from the record) to another judge, before whom it was tried. In his tentative ruling, the second judge stated his intent to reconsider the first judge’s ruling on the settlement enforcement motion and later gave formal notice of its intent and afforded the parties an opportunity to brief the issue. The second judge then issued a statement of decision and final judgment, in which he vacated the prior order denying the motion and entered a judgment of dissolution that incorporated the terms of the settlement. Wife appealed.

The Court of Appeal covers the “narrow” exceptions to the general rule that one trial court judge may not reconsider and overrule an interim ruling of another trial judge:

“[W]here the judge who made the initial ruling is unavailable to reconsider the motion, a different judge may entertain the reconsideration motion.” Another exception is when the facts have changed or when the judge has considered further evidence and law. Additionally, a second judge may reverse a prior ruling of another judge if the record shows that it was based on inadvertence, mistake, or fraud. Mere disagreement, as here, with the prior trial judge’s ruling, however, is not enough to overturn that ruling.
(Citations omitted.)

Since the first trial judge in Oliveras was still on the bench, and it was apparent from the second judge’s ruling that he merely disagreed with the first judge on the original evidence and law, the judgment vacating the prior ruling did not fall within the exceptions.

Perhaps the husband saw the writing on the wall. He did not file a respondent’s brief in the Court of Appeal.

So, do you want your superior court judge to reconsider an earlier ruling based on the same facts and law? Knock yourself out with the same judge, but don’t try to turn another superior court judge into a one-judge appellate court.

The appellate angle in Marriage of Davis

Family law attorneys are buzzing this week about Monday’s unanimous Supreme Court decision in Marriage of Davis, case no. S215050 (July 20, 2015). The Metropolitan News-Enterprise summed up the holding this way: “A married person cannot be considered separated, and thus permitted to keep his or her earnings as separate property, while continuing to live with his or her spouse[.]” The court itself referred to its ruling as a “bright-line” rule.

Not so fast, folks. My friend Claudia Ribet has a column in today’s Daily Journal (link requires subscription) discussing the subtleties in the decision and concurring opinion, concluding that it may not even reduce litigation over the “separate and apart” issue very much.

I’ll leave that debate to the family law attorneys for now.

I, of course, am interested in what this decision teaches us about approaching appeals. The obvious lesson is this: an appellant needs to carefully consider the standard of review and, if at all possible, frame an issue on appeal subject to de novo review, in which the appellate court reviews the ruling without any deference to the trial court’s ruling or rationale, as if the case was being decided anew.

As the Supreme Court notes at the outset of its analysis, the date of separation “is normally a factual issue to be reviewed for substantial evidence.” However, the appellant raises an issue of statutory interpretation of Family Code section 771, subdivision(a), thus invoking the more favorable de novo standard of review, and prevails.

In this case, it probably was not too hard for appellant to realize how to latch onto an issue subject to de novo review, since the trial court’s decision went against a court of appeal opinion establishing separate residences a “threshold requirement” of living “separate and apart” for purposes of the statute. Voilà! De novo review of statutory interpretation.

It’s not always that easy. For more difficult cases, see this post and this one.

Congrats and thank you to the new TEN Networks Blog (and welcome, TEN members!)

The TEN Networks, Inc. launched its blog last week, and the editors graciously designated The California Blog of Appeal as one of its Member Blogs of the Month, along with with Elderupdates.com, the blog of Encino elder law attorney Brian Shepphard.

The TEN Networks is the umbrella organization for two business networking groups: The Esquire Network, a fantastic attorney group with a unique meeting structure, of which I am an enthusiastic member; and The Executive Network, which is open to other professionals. I encourage you to check them out.

Finally, how fortuitous (divine?) that TEN’s new blog would honor this one around the time I made my shameless plea for nominations for 2015 Legal Blog of the Year!

Federal Judge: Appellate Judges Know Nothing About Tech

Joel Spector ⓒ2013

Those words after the colon come straight from the headline at Bloomberg News, where you can treat yourself to a 40-minute interview with federal district judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, conducted at the 2015 Big Law Business Summit.

The Bloomberg headline may exaggerate Judge Sheindlin’s position somewhat. Her comments on technology are directed mostly to the technology involved in discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”).

Given that she is referring to ESI discovery, her view on appellate judges’ knowledge is neither shocking nor insulting. As in California sate courts, most discovery rulings are not immediately appealable. They may be reviewed on appeal from a final judgment (which I suspect is a somewhat are occurrence) or by mandamus, which is discretionary. Thus, federal appellate courts are unlikely to see many discovery cases at all, let alone cases involving disputes over ESI discovery. If federal appellate judges are unfamiliar with the technology, it is probably because it rarely comes into play before them.

Shameless request for nominations

Expert witness service The Expert Institute is taking nominations for entries in its 2015 Best Legal Blog Contest.

Do I need to say anything more?

OK, here comes the shameless part.

Whether you are a years-long fanatical subscriber to this blog whose first action every morning upon waking is to grab your iPhone off your nightstand and check your RSS reader to see if there are any updates to this blog, or someone who just came across this blog yesterday, give some thought to nominating this blog. If you do, you should nominate it in the “niche” category. (If Best Blog By A Guy Who Does The Best He Can With The Time He Has Blogging About Things Like Appellate Procedure, Legal Research, Legal Writing, Technology in the Law, Significant Substantive Developments In The Law, And Court News Off-And-On Since 2007 is not a niche, I don’t know what is.)

To reach the contest nomination page, click the image above or the second link in this post. Or click here, here, here, or here. Or, if you like, here.

I’ll even let you click there to nominate other blogs. Just this once.

Overcoming the abuse of discretion standard on appeal of an attorney fee award: what did the trial court actually do?

Respondents use the “abuse of discretion” standard for all it’s worth when defending against appeals, and they should. Often, it’s one heck of a shield. But there are limits to relying on the this standard of review, and the Court of Appeal will reverse in appropriate circumstances.

One such example is last week’s decision in McKenzie v. Ford Motor Co., case no. G049722 (4th Dist., July 10, 2015). Plaintiff rejected one settlement offer in this “lemon law” case, but settled a few months later. The settlement was entered as a judgment. It required Ford to buy back the “lemon” automobile and allowed the plaintiff the option of accepting payment of $15,000 for attorney fees or instead roll the dice with a fee motion. Plaintiff moved for nearly $48,000 in attorney fees, and appealed when the trial court awarded only $28,350.

The trial court explained its award by noting that it deemed all of the fees incurred following the plaintiff’s rejection of an initial settlement offer to be unreasonable, because the only difference in the initial offer and the settlement entered into was the provision allowing him to file an attorney fee motion. To the trial court, this indicated that the 42 hours billed to the case following the plaintiff’s rejection of the earlier settlement offer “amounted to ‘plaintiffs’ counsel exaggerating the amount of their fees to increase their prized fees.’” (Gee, attorneys concerned about getting paid. Who’d of thunk it?)

The Court of Appeal reverses, finding fault with the trial court’s reason for limiting the fee award. Its analysis is helpful to anyone facing the daunting “abuse of discretion” standard of review.

First, the Court of Appeal notes that the trial court erred as a matter of law in characterizing the differences between the initial settlement offer and the eventual settlement, because (1) the trial court was wrong about the first offer not including an option for plaintiff to accept $15,000 or make a fee motion; the settlement and prior offer were actually identical in this regard; and (2) there were many other material differences not noted by the trial court. “The trial court’s erroneous comparison of Ford’s initial compromise offer with the offer McKenzie later accepted fatally undermines its conclusion that the entire amount of hours billed by McKenzie’s counsel in the wake of that initial offer was unjustified.”

Second, the Court of Appeal demonstrates the limits of its duty to indulge all reasonable inferences in favor of the ruling:

Ford counters by first emphasizing our obligation to indulge all inferences in favor of the trial court’s ruling, and pointing out the trial court is not required to explain in detail the basis of its fee decision. Ford urges us to construe the court’s reduction of McKenzie’s fee as reflecting an assessment of the usual lodestar factors considered in determining fee amounts — e.g., the complexity of the case, the expertise of McKenzie’s counsel, and the early stage at which the case was settled — and a resulting determination that $28,350.08 was simply an overall “reasonable” fee for the work performed.

However, while we could certainly do that in the absence of any specific analysis provided by the trial court, we cannot ignore the court’s reasoning when detailed in the order. In this case, the court was quite explicit in explaining the basis for reducing McKenzie’s fees — rather than imposing a general reduction on the fees requested from the outset, on the basis the rates charged by McKenzie’s counsel were too high or the overall time claimed was unreasonable given the complexity of the case, the court characterized its reduction as “based on redaction of fees for duplicated and unnecessary services and billing performed after defendant’s service of its CCP Section 998 offer.” The court awarded McKenzie 100 percent of the fees he requested for the period before Ford’s initial offer, but found the entirety of “the subsequent billing was unreasonable” and excised that specific portion of the fees from McKenzie’s award. When the court states its reasons explicitly, we cannot infer its exercise of discretion rested on a wholly different basis.

(Italics did not appear in the trial court analysis and were added by the Court of Appeal.)

In short, what the court actually did is what matters for the abuse of discretion standard. As the court points out, it may be impossible to know what the court actually did. Had the record in McKenzie not made clear the basis of the court’s exercise of discretion, plaintiff probably would have been sunk on appeal, unless there was no rational basis for the amount of the award.

Having the trial court’s analysis in the record made all the difference in this case. Keep that in mind when your next fee motion approaches.

The deadline for filing the memorandum and affidavits in support of a motion for new trial is not jurisdictional

Some parties try to make jurisdictional issues out of non-jurisdictional ones. You can hardly blame them, given the fatal nature of jurisdictional defects.

One recent attempt — but ultimately an unsuccessful one — was in Kabran v. Sharp Memorial Hospital (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 1294, in which the appellant (Sharp) claimed that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to grant a new trial. That’s a somewhat surprising contention, seeing as how the respondent timely filed her notice of intention to move for a new trial (Code Civ. Proc., § 659, subd. (a)) and the court granted the motion within the 60-day jurisdictional deadline (Code Civ. Proc., § 660) on a ground stated in that notice.

With those two conditions satisfied, where did the appellant look for a lack of jurisdiction? At the respondent’s interim filing of her supporting memorandum and affidavits, that’s where. Unlike most motions, the initial filing in a motion for new trial is not a notice of motion and a supporting memorandum (plus affidavits, if any). Instead, all the moving party has to file is a notice of intention to move for a new trial, specifying the statutory grounds on which the motion will be made and whether the motion will be made upon affidavits, or the minutes of the court, or both. (Code Civ. Proc., § 659, subd. (a).) The supporting memorandum and affidavits are not due until later, and it was the untimeliness of that filing that the appellant attacked in Kabran.

Unfortunately, appellant Sharp came armed mostly with authorities holding that an untimely filing of the notice of intention precludes jurisdiction to grant a new trial. Sharp claimed that two of the cases supported applying the same rule to the deadline for filing the motion, memorandum, and affidavits, but the Court of Appeal rejects that characterization of the cases. It finds that the first “did not involve any issue concerning the filing of the supporting motion and affidavits.” (Emphasis added.) It concludes that the other case, Erikson v. Weiner (1996) 48 Cal.App.4th 1663, is on point but but runs counter to a long string of cases by which “[i]t has long been held that the time limits for filing affidavits and counteraffidavits for new trial motions, though ’strict’ [citations], are not jurisdictional.” (Emphasis in original.) The court offers a more detailed criticism of Erikson, but I’ll leave that to your reading of Kabran.

Egregious attorney misconduct at trial leads to reversal on appeal

When I was a young lawyer, a mentor told me to practice as if the rules will always be strictly enforced against me and my client, yet never enforced against the other side. I always took that as a bit of rhetorical flourish meant to emphasize careful compliance with the rules and to be ready for anything from the other side, but my mentor’s admonition appears to have been manifest in the trial leading up to Martinez v. State of California Dept. of Transportation, case no. G048375 (4th Dist., June 12, 2015, certified for publication July 7, 2015). The misconduct paid off in the short term by getting a defense verdict, and it even survived a mid-trial motion for mistrial and a new trial motion, but it was a short-lived victory, as the Court of Appeal reverses.

Here’s how the Court of Appeal summed it up:

Generally, what happened is this: Defendant’s attorney Karen Bilotti would ask a question in clear violation of the trial court’s in limine orders [i.e., orders precluding certain evidence at trial]. The question would usually have the effect of gratuitously besmirching the character of plaintiff Donn Martinez. An objection from Martinez’s counsel would follow. The trial court would sustain the objection. Bilotti would then ask the same question again. The trial court would sustain the objection again. And the same thing would happen again. And again. And again. And again.
***
While Judge Di Cesare showed the patience of Job – usually a virtue in a judge – that patience here had the effect of favoring one side over the other. He allowed Bilotti to emphasize irrelevant and inflammatory points concerning the plaintiff’s character so often that he effectively gave CalTrans an unfair advantage. Imagine a football game in which the referee continually flagged one team for rule violations, but never actually imposed any yardage penalties on it. That happened here and requires reversal.

The court even gives a tally of the misconduct: eight improper statements during opening argument, ten references during cross reference of plaintiff to the off-limits subject of his prior termination from a school district, another 13 forbidden references to the termination — 12 of them after sustained objections! — during cross-examination of plaintiff’s wife, and five improper statements during closing arguments. Counsel also sprinkled Nazi references liberally because the plaintiff’s motorcycle bore a logo for Set Free ministries — a religious organization that ordained plaintiff after a year of bible study — that included a Nazi-style helmet.

The court also summarizes the misconduct by type and, noting that appellant claimed there was even more misconduct, writes: “But we see no reason to go further. Suffice it to say we found enough to establish attorney misconduct at least five pages ago.”

Of course, the misconduct alone is not enough for reversal. Before the court can reverse, it must find that the misconduct was prejudicial. That’s not hard for the court to do in this case. See the case for more dateline the nature of the misconduct and why it was prejudicial, and the trial court abused its discretion in denying a motion for new trial.

The court’s characterization of the trial judge as “patient” has to be the understatement of the year. The trial judge denied a mid-trial motion for mistrial, and even after the attorney continued in her misconduct after that, the trial judge refused to grant a new trial motion after the defense verdict.

The reversal on appeal is not the only adverse consequence of the misconduct. The Court of Appeal also orders the clerk to send a copy of the opinion to the State Bar, “notifying it the reversal of the judgment is based solely on attorney misconduct.”

Don’t give up when your motion to dismiss an appeal is summarily denied

The term “summary denial” sounds pretty bad when you are the party seeking relief. It has an air of finality. Sheesh, not even a hearing on the merits!

But a summary denial is not final in every context. This was recently pointed out in Ellis v. Ellis (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 837, in which the respondent moved to dismiss the appeal as untimely. The court summarily denied the motion. After the appeal was fully briefed, however, the court advised the parties to be prepared to address the timeliness of the appeal at oral argument, heard argument, and ultimately granted the motion. While I am sure the respondent would have preferred such a ruling prior to briefing the appeal on the merits, I doubt he minded too much that he was put through that time and expense. A win is a win.

At the point in its opinion that it mentioned its summary denial, the court added this footnote: “Of course, a summary denial of a motion to dismiss an appeal does not ‘preclude later full consideration of the issue, accompanied by a written opinion, following review of the entire record and the opportunity for oral argument.’ [Citations.]”

Of course? Maybe people steeped in appellate procedure are familiar with this principle, but I think it would come as a surprise to most people. Now you know, and now you, too, can say of course.

How the nature of your appellate challenge can affect whether your appeal is dismissed for failure to obey trial court orders

The disentitlement doctrine allows a court of appeal to dismiss an appeal as a sanction for the appellant’s refusal to comply with trial court orders that remain in force while the appeal is pending. The lesson to be learned from today’s decision in Ironbridge Global IV, Ltd. v. ScripsAmerica, Inc., case no. B256198 (2d Dist., June 30, 2015) comes from its discussion of how the right kind of appellate challenge to a trial court order — specifically, a jurisdictional challenge — can serve as a defense to the imposition of a dismissal sanction under the disentitlement doctrine. Unfortunately, for the defendant-appellant here learns that calling a challenge a jurisdictional one does not make it so. The Court of Appeal characterizes the defendant’s challenge as a non-jurisdictional one, and dismisses the appeal for the defendant’s violation of the trial court order from which it appealed.

A settlement reached by the parties required defendant to issue plaintiff shares in the defendant corporation, and to issue plaintiff additional shares in the event the value of the shares decreased. The court approved the stipulation and retained jurisdiction to enforce its terms. About six months later, plaintiff applied ex parte for an order compelling the defendant to transfer additional shares to plaintiff and enjoining defendant from issuing shares to anyone else until it until it did so. The court ordered defendant to issue the additional shares within 24 hours and not to issue shares to anyone else until it complied.

In the defendant’s appeal, plaintiff moved to dismiss under the disentitlement doctrine, providing SEC filings showing that defendant had transferred more than 8 million shares to third parties in violation of the injunction. Defendant filed a “paltry” 1-1/2 page opposition to the motion citing “no authority whatsoever,” contending that the order was in excess of the trial court’s authority in that (1) the trial court could not enjoin issuance of shares to third parties because there was no such prohibition in the settlement, and (2) the court could not compel the issuance of shares to plaintiff on an ex parte basis.

The Court of Appeal isn’t buying it. The court acknowledges that “[a] person may refuse to comply with a court and raise as a defense to the imposition of sanctions that the order was beyond the jurisdiction of the court and therefore invalid,” but notes also that a person “may not assert as a defense that the order merely was erroneous.” (Internal quotations and citations omitted.) It finds that the defendant’s challenge falls into the latter category.

First, the court notes that a trial court has continuing power to enforce a stipulated  judgment entered in settlement of a case (Code Civ. Proc., § 664.6) and the power to “compel obedience to its judgments, orders, and process” in proceedings before it (Code Civ. Proc. § 128, subd. (a)(4)). Combined, those powers gave the trial court “authority to fashion orders to enforce compliance with a stipulated judgment.” Though the court does not state so explicitly, its point seems to be that the prohibitory injunction against issuance of shares to third parties was was a permissible coercive measure to enforce the settlement regardless of whether the stipulated judgment addressed such transfers.

The defendant’s challenge to the ex parte nature of the order is dispatched more easily. The settlement itself authorized the court to enforce the settlement on an ex parte basis.

Here, the parties requested that the court retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement. The stipulation also provided that it could be enforced on an ex parte basis. There is no question that the court had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter, and that the parties expressly authorized the court to enforce the settlement on an ex parte basis. We find no procedural irregularity or other defect that would support a credible claim that the order was either void or voidable. Defendant’s appeal merely challenges the order as erroneous.

The lesson here, of course, is that if you are unable or unwilling to comply with a trial court order that remains in force pending an appeal from it, you had better be sure that you have a serious jurisdictional challenge to make against it. Do not convince yourself that your challenge on the merits is a jurisdictional one just because you do not want to obey the order, because the Court of Appeal will look beyond the label on your argument. Absent a solid jurisdictional challenge, disobedience of the trial court order can put your entire appeal at risk.

UPDATE: For those interested in reading more about the disentitlement doctrine, see the article referenced at Southern California Appellate News.

No judicial notice for a law of physics, but for a different reason than you might expect

I had to take the “high track” physics courses as part of my electrical engineering major curriculum at Canoe U. In fact, I liked my physics classes more than my engineering classes, and regret to this day I did not major in physics. So the discussion in Bermudez v. Ciolek, case no. G049510 (2d Dist., June 22, 2015), in which the court refuses to take judicial notice of a law of physics, caught my eye.

Bermudez is an automobile accident case, in which defendant Ciolek was the driver of a car that collided with a second car driven by defendant Heacox, which in turn struck plaintiff, who was on the sidewalk. Though the jury found both drivers negligent, it found only Ciolek liable for plaintiff’s damages.

Ciolek contended on appeal that these findings were inconsistent, i.e., that Heacox’s neglignce must have been a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries because, absent such negligence, the second vehicle’s ricochet would have been different. Ciolek contended, in the words of the court, that the jury’s findings were irreconcilable “because they ignore the laws of physics by which our universe is governed.”

In support, Ciolek requested that the court take judicial notice of the law of conservation of momentum. Here is an apparent excerpt from Ciolek’s brief, which attached equations and examples:

The law of conservation of momentum provides that in a collision, momentum is conserved; the combined momentum of two colliding objects going into the collision must equal the momentum coming out of it. The momentum of an object equals its mass multiplied by its velocity; velocity is a vector, which in turn is composed of both speed and direction.

Here is a simple demonstration of the principle:

Instinctively, how this principle would have affected the collision sounds like expert witness territory to me. Sure enough, the lack of expert testimony on the issue at trial plays a part in the court’s decision not to take judicial notice, but the basis for its ruling is far more fundamental and needs to be kept in mind by every appellant . . . and you don’t need to know a lick of physics to understand it:

Ciolek’s argument is certainly interesting. Of course, it is not the argument she made at trial. At trial, she claimed Heacox was the sole cause of the collision (and therefore the harm to Bermudez). Ciolek did not ask the trial court to take judicial notice of the law of conservation of momentum and to instruct the jury on its meaning. Ciolek did not ask her accident reconstruction expert to evaluate and opine on the effect of Heacox’s speed on the ricochet. [Footnote.] Faced with a result she did not expect (though it was consistent with the result requested by Bermudez’s counsel and Heacox’s counsel in their closing arguments), Ciolek now suggests the jury reached an illogical verdict based on the supposed common sense of the law of conservation of momentum.

We reject Ciolek’s request to essentially retry the case on appeal and we deny her request for judicial notice as irrelevant to the issues before us. “It is a firmly entrenched principle of appellate practice that litigants must adhere to the theory on which a case was tried. Stated otherwise, a litigant may not change his or her position on appeal and assert a new theory. To permit this change in strategy would be unfair to the trial court and the opposing litigant.” (Brown v. Boren (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 1303, 1316.) It would be fundamentally unfair to both Heacox and Bermudez to grant a retrial to Ciolek because she wants the chance to try a different theory the second time around.

In short, shifting gears at the appellate level is not allowed. It’s surprising that Ciolek would make an argument like this, given that the appellate court did not even deem this a close call.

My blog post on reading briefs from a screen is now an article (and welcome, Citations readers!)

Your humble appellate blogger working on his next article

A special welcome to anyone arriving here after reading my article in the June issue of Citations, the Ventura County Bar Association’s monthly publication. Maybe “iPad Judges” are Not Such a Good Idea is my adaptation of my post last month of the same name, citing studies showing that readers tend to comprehend and retain material better when reading from paper than from a screen. (The article is also scheduled to run this month in the Appellate Law Journal from Counsel Press.)

I’ve since posted some comments on a related issue: whether laptops help or hurt students in the classroom.

It is about time I get back to blogging about the law. Don’t be a stranger!

(By the way, if you still have your paper copy of Citations, make sure you check out the back cover. [No, it's not about me.])

The blog will be down for maintenance starting later today

I’ll be taking the blog offline some time this afternoon or this evening to update some of the software on the back end. I don’t know if it will be down for a few hours or a few days — it all depends on how smoothly things go. Wish me luck and pray that I don’t hopelessly screw everything up.

Does classroom laptop use inhibit law school learning?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about whether it was a good idea for judges to read appellate briefs on iPads or other screens, pointing out studies regarding decreased comprehension and retention reading from a screen compared to reading from paper. Thus, it does not surprise me at all that use of laptops in classrooms (especially law school classrooms) has some serious implications for learning. Take a look at this abstract of The Dynamics of the Contemporary Law School Classroom: Looking at Laptops Through a Learning Style Lens, by Regent University law professor Eric A. DeGroff:

The Millennial Generation is at ease with modern technology and with juggling multiple tasks. Many of them, however, come to law school less prepared in other ways for the rigor of legal education. Their learning styles, visual orientation, short attention spans, and previous learning experiences make them less suited for the focused and reflective thinking that are critical to learning legal analysis and linear reasoning. Research strongly suggests that some learning styles are more compatible than others with the discipline of analytical thinking and the demands of legal education. Students with learning styles less compatible with law school expectations face significant challenges even under the best of circumstances. This article suggests that the use of laptops in the classroom may exacerbate the challenges these students already face.

The article addresses the laptop issue in the context of learning styles and the dynamics of the learning process. It briefly discusses the history of the laptop issue, traces a significant body of research over the last several decades documenting the distracting effect of laptops even when used in connection with classroom activities, and presents the results of the author’s experimentation with a no-laptop policy in his first-year Property course. The author does not suggest removing laptops from the law school experience entirely, but recommends that professors of first-year doctrinal courses consider the adoption of a no-laptop policy for their classes.

When I saw that abstract in my Social Science Research Network email update, I was reminded of a Washington Post article I read more than five years ago: “Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls.” The article noted that some professors (including law school professors) had banned laptops from their classrooms, mostly because of the diversions that WiFi access created:

Wireless Internet connections tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming — all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student’s attention.

“This is like putting on every student’s desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone, and saying, ‘Look, if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it,’ ” [Georgetown law professor David] Cole said.

As readers of my “iPad judges” post may suspect, though, I think the problem goes far beyond the diversions presented by a WiFi-enabled laptop. As the abstract to Professor DeGroff’s article points out, the technology generation may be arriving at law school with shorter attention spans, suggesting that the technology created problems long before the students ever arrived on campus. But where I think the WaPo article really hits the nail on the head is with this observation (my emphasis):

Cole has banned laptops from his classes, compelling students to take notes the way their parents did: on paper.

***

Cole surveyed one of his Georgetown classes anonymously after six weeks of laptop-free lectures. Four-fifths said they were more engaged in class discussion. Ninety-five percent admitted that they had used their laptops for “purposes other than taking notes.”

Even when used as glorified typewriters, laptops can turn students into witless stenographers, typing a lecture verbatim without listening or understanding.

I did quite well in law school, and I remember going minutes at a time in classes without writing anything down, because I realized the value of the class was in the give-and-take of the “Socratic Method” dialog that I so relished (yet so many of my classmates loathed and feared).* After some meaningful dialog, I was able to distill key points and limit my notes accordingly.

In other words, I actually thought during class. I hope students are still doing that.

_______________________________

*Not everyone is enamored of the Socratic Method.

DigitalDemocracy.org: an experiment in legislative transparency

Imagine if you could go to a website, type in a term, and find every mention of that term in hearings in the California legislature . . . and not only that, but have the site take you directly to video of the hearing with a rolling transcript and information on legislators and lobbyists. That would be pretty cool, right?

One-week old DigitalDemocracy.org does that:

Try it out! I searched for “vape” to find testimony and argument regarding proposed regulation of e-cigarettes, and turned up testimony from representatives of the Smoke-Free Alternative Trade Association and Mount Sinai School of Medicine . . . plus argument from a bunch of dang politicians.

Speaking of dang politicians, the project was spearhead by partners from opposite sides of the political aisle: Democrat Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and Republican former state Senator Sam Blakeslee.

Don’t get too excited that this will revolutionize your research of legislative history, though. At least, not yet. As of now, the site is only a one-year beta covering only the 2015 legislative year.

Besides, the ability to search legislative history doesn’t seem to be the point. The purpose seems to be to make government more transparent and to give ordinary citizens a window into the legislative process that will allow them to act on issues currently under consideration. (Recent coverage in my local paper includes this article and this column from the paper’s Sacramento correspondent, which give one a feel for the purpose of the project.)

However, if DigitalDemocracy.org carries on past its one-year beta period and maintains its full catalog, I think it will become a valuable tool for legislative history research. It does, after all, also catalog reports, analyses, and drafts of bills (example here) that are available from official sites like Official California Legislative Information or California Legislative Information. The hearing videos and transcripts make those official sites seem awfully dry.

Maybe “iPad Judges” aren’t such a good idea?

I’m no Luddite. I own a PC, a Macbook, an iPad, an iPhone, and a Kindle. (I’m not in the market for an Apple Watch, though.) Yet, I’m not thrilled that more and more judges (supposedly) are reading briefs and reviewing appellate records on iPads and other electronic devices.

The issue was brought to mind today by a lively exchange on the Los Angeles County Bar Association listserv for the Appellate Courts Section. The discussion is about the technical requirements for electronic filing or submission of briefs, petitions, exhibits, etc. in the Court of Appeal. There is predictable grumbling over the inconsistency in the rules from district to another, but mostly the discussion is over the page numbering requirements, which are designed to make sure that the page number of a PDF file corresponds to the page number of the physical document. Here’s how appellate attorney Robin Meadow of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, LLP, helpfully and succinctly explained it (my emphasis):

To elaborate a little:  This is all about reading briefs on-screen. PDF programs, whether on computer or tablet, allow you to specify a page to go to, but as Ed notes this is always the page of the PDF.  Under the old system, page 20 of a brief is something like page 30 of the PDF, because the PDF numbering includes the cover page, certificate of interested parties, TOC and TOA.  So, you have to guess at the page number to put in, or count the initial pages and then calculate the PDF page number every time.  Under the new system, there is one and only one page 20, whether you’re looking at a paper copy or the PDF.

Aside from court-imposed rules, there have been several articles about how to best prepare documents to be read by appellate justices on an iPad or other electronic device. A few months ago, Appellate Law Journal from Counsel Press (that is just a reference, not an endorsement) led me to another article on how best to format briefs for reading on tablets: Maximizing Your Appellate Brief for the iPad. That post references the Columbia Business Law Review article that I wrote about in January of last year. I will be the first to admit there are some advantages to having a text-searchable brief, but does that come at a cost?

Consider this summary of a Norwegian study at Science Nordic:

Neo-Luddites rejoice: numerous studies show that when you read a text on paper your understanding is deeper and longer lasting than if you read that same text on a computer.

Of course, if you read the text on a screen you can probably recount what you read. But you cannot as readily make use of the content in other contexts. You haven’t comprehended it as deeply and assimilated it as substantially.

Digital information isn’t just a fleeting phenomenon on your computer screen. It disappears more quickly from your memory, too. Screens are best for superficial and speedy reading.

I have felt this intuitively for some time, so I avoid doing extended reading on screen when comprehension and retention are necessary. For perusing blogs or short letters, my iPad is fine. It also suffices for novels and other lengthy leisure reading. But if I need to read a brief or a case or something else that makes comprehension and retention important, I print it out and read it off the paper, marking it up with a pen as I go. Call me a tree-killer, but I’m not about to give up this practice. I’ve tried reading PDFs on my screen and annotating them with PDF editing software as I go along, but it’s just not the same for me. I’ll stick with reading from paper; the  electronic file is always available if I need to search for something in the original text (though it’s no help in searching my notes, or course).  I wonder how many of our appellate justices feel the same way. (I hope none of the justices ever says to me at oral argument, “So, Mr. May, I read your brief on my iPad. You got a problem with that?”)

Getting back to the study: I am curious whether the study looked only at persons old enough to have grown up reading off the printed page. Perhaps today’s youth, who may have done a majority of their reading from screens, will develop so that they actually read better from a screen than from a printed page.

In a viral YouTube video [see below] from October 2011 a one-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine—or so a title card would have us believe.

The girl’s father, Jean-Louis Constanza, presents “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” as naturalistic observation—a Jane Goodall among the chimps moment—that reveals a generational transition. “Technology codes our minds,” he writes in the video’s description. “Magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives”—that is, for people who have been interacting with digital technologies from a very early age.

That’s a cute anecdote — or a horrifying one, depending on your perspective — but despite that introduction, the subhead of that piece at Scientific American notes that “research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages” over reading on a screen, and describes them in ways that suggest the printed page is advantageous even for those raised reading from screens.

For more articles and commentary on the subject, click here.

Update: I re-drafted this post as an article.

A break for some shipmates and a lesson on drilling down on the standard of review

As a graduate of the “Boat School” (or “Canoe U”), I went on alert as soon as I spotted a case in yesterday’s advance sheets regarding whether some local county employees’ time as U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen (don’t call them “middies”) could enhance their county retirement credits. My shipmates came out on the winning end of things, and the opinion offers a lesson on appellate procedure.

The issue in Lanquist v. Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Association (case no. B251179, 2d. Dist., March 16, 2015) is succinctly stated in the first paragraph of the opinion:

Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Association (VCERA) permits employees to purchase retirement service credit for time spent in military service. It excludes time spent as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy (Academy).Our interpretation of a Ventura County Board of Supervisors’ resolution, adopting the County Employees Retirement Law (CERL), leads us to the opposite conclusion.”Military service” includes service as a midshipman.
The journey for the plaintiff employees started with their applications to purchase credits for their time at the Academy, then wound through assorted administrative proceedings that denied their applications. The plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court, which denied the petition.

On the ensuing appeal, the trial court’s decision is reviewed de novo. That does not mean, of course, that the underlying administrative decision is likewise reviewed de novo. De novo review of the trial court’s decision means that the appellate court has to put itself in the shoes of the trial court and review the administrative decision under the standard of review that the trial court was required to apply. Normally, review of such a quasi-legislative administrative body’s decision is limited to whether the decision  was “arbitrary, capricious, lacking in evidentiary support, or contrary to procedures provided by law.” (Citations omitted.) But here, the plaintiffs got a break from the fact that the administrative body had construed a statute rather than exercise discretionary rule-making power. Thus, the ruling was subject to heightened review: “We tak[e] ultimate responsibility for the construction of the statute, [but] accord[] great weight and respect to the administrative construction.” (Citation and internal quotation marks omitted.) Under that level of scrutiny, the administrative body’s interpretation of the statute did not hold up, and the plaintiffs’ time as midshipmen was held to be subject to the retirement service credit purchase scheme.

That’s a welcome surprise, given that time for service at the Academy is not counted toward time in service for purposes of calculating military retirement pay for retiring officers. Presumably, the federal statutes cited by the court in its analysis apply with equal force to graduates of other service academies and thus former Zoomies, Woops, and Coasties working for Ventura County are likewise eligible for this program.***

The larger lesson to be drawn is that one should not be automatically discouraged by the default standard of review. Take a careful look at the case to see if a more favorable standard of review can be invoked. And kudos to these plaintiffs, both of whom were self-represented but only one of whom is an attorney.

***Believe me, use of these nicknames is all in good fun — there is a healthy respect for each other among the academies, but the good-natured rivalries among them can make it look otherwise. Stanford-Cal, Alabama-Auburn, and other college rivalries have got nothing on Army-Navy. Go Navy! Beat Army!

Do longer briefs correlate to success for Appellants?

I cannot think of a single writing seminar I have attended or book I have read that did not emphasize succinctness. Now comes a paper published at the Social Science Research Network, “Too Many Notes”? An Empirical Study of Advocacy in Federal Appeals (download link),which, if this excerpt from the abstract is any indication, appears to raise a statistical challenge to that line of thinking, at least in the Ninth Circuit:

Given the central role of written briefs in the process, we should examine seriously the frequent complaint by appellate judges that briefs are too long and that prolixity weakens persuasive power. In a study of civil appeals in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, we discover that, for appellants, briefs of greater length are strongly correlated with success on appeal. For the party challenging an adverse decision below, persuasive completeness may be more important than condensed succinctness. The underlying cause of both greater appellant success and accompanying longer briefs may lie in the typically complex nature of the reversible civil appeal. In light of our findings, the current proposal to reduce the limits on number of words in federal appellate briefs may cut more sharply against appellants.

Every opening brief presents a struggle between “persuasive completeness” and a “condensed succinctness.” The ideal opening brief, of course, is complete and succinct. Sometimes, that can be accomplished, but not always (just ask Jeff Skillings’s lawyers), and maybe not even often, especially if one measures succinctness in absolute terms. But aside from rule-imposed limits, I think the the length of a brief has to be judged relative to its completeness — the number of issues raised and how complex the issues are. A brief of 7,000 words may be quite verbose if it raises only one or two simple issues, while a brief of 14,000 words may be a concise presentation of far more numerous and complex issues.

Update: the article has triggered this discussion thread at LinkedIn.

Can your trial judge give you a boost toward getting appellate review of a non-appealable order?

In theory, at least, the answer is yes, in some circumstances, by certifying the non-appealable order pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 166.1. Yesterday’s opinion in Audio Visual Services Group, Inc. v. Superior Court, case no. B256266 (2d Dist., Jan. 22, 2015) is a reminder that this tool for obtaining early appellate review is at the disposal of parties aggrieved by a non-appealable order and reluctant to petition for writ relief because of the generally long odds against having a writ petition heard on the merits.

Section 166.1 provides:

Upon the written request of any party or his or her counsel, or at the judge’s discretion, a judge may indicate in any interlocutory order a belief that there is a controlling question of law as to which there are substantial grounds for difference of opinion, appellate resolution of which may materially advance the conclusion of the litigation. Neither the denial of a request for, nor the objection of another party or counsel to, such a commentary in the interlocutory order, may be grounds for a writ or appeal.

Audio Visual Services Group cites Lauermann v. Superior Court (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 1327, 1330, fn. 6: “The intent is evidently to encourage the appellate court to review the issue on the merits if the losing party files a petition for extraordinary relief.”

Why do I qualify my answer to the the question posed in the title of this post? It is because I wonder how often such certifications actually convince the appellate court to review a petition on the merits when it would not have done so otherwise. After all, every writ petition tries to convince the court that the particular circumstances are “special” enough to warrant appellate review, frequently citing the same factors stated in section 166.1 (particularly when it comes to orders overruling demurrers or denying summary judgment or summary adjudication).

So, does the concurrence of the trial judge offer any real assistance? It is a question I will pose in future discussions with appellate justices. But until then, my approach is that it sure can’t hurt.

If you think your case has been helped or hurt by a section 166.1 certification, let me know in a comment to this post.

Update: AAAArrrggghhh! I cannot get comments opened up in Wordpress at the moment. No matter how many times I change the setting, comments remain closed. But I would still like to hear from you if you have experience with section 166.1 influencing your case. Email me at gregATgregmaylaw.com. I will update the post, as appropriate, to reflect your experience.

Don’t lightly assume that you’ve extended your time to appeal with a post-trial motion

The parties in your case have stipulated to have their case tried before a temporary judge (pursuant to Cal. Const., art. VI, § 21) and filed all trial-related papers (trial briefs, closing briefs, and requests for statement of decision) directly with the temporary judge at his alternative dispute resolution service.

So, where should you file your motion to vacate the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure sections 663 and 663a? The answer is: with the clerk of the superior court. (As all documents should be, pursuant to Cal. Rules of Court, rule 2.400(b).)

The appellant in Gonzalez v. Aroura Loan Services, LLC, case no. B247366 (2d Dist., Nov. 17, 2014) learned that lesson the hard way, but not through having its motion to vacate denied. In fact, the judge never even ruled on the motion. But the appellant suffered another consequence from filing its motion to vacate directly with the temporary judge instead of with the clerk of the superior court. Its appeal was dismissed as untimely because the improperly filed motion to vacate did not trigger the extension of time to file the notice of appeal described in rule 8.108(c), California Rules of Court.

Rule 8.108(c) extends the time to appeal whenever a party files “a valid notice of intention to move — or a valid motion — to vacate the judgment.” (Emphasis added.) The court held that the motion to vacate filed directly with the temporary judge was not valid because section 663 directs that the moving party ” shall file with the clerk and serve upon the adverse party a notice of his or her intention, designating the grounds upon which the motion will be made[.]” (Emphasis added.) Thus, the rule 8.108(c) extension was never triggered. Without that extension, the appellant’s notice of appeal was untimely.

I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is that a party file its notice of appeal on time. Gonzalez has more to say on this broader topic, which I will save for another post.

New blog to cover California Supreme Court

I received an invitation yesterday afternoon to attend a reception to celebrate the launch of a new blog “focused on providing substantive coverage of issues concerning the Supreme Court of California,” and billed as a joint project of the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law and the Hastings Law Journal: SCOCAblog.

I don’t know if I was randomly chosen for an invitation or I was invited because I am a blogger on appellate issues. It’s nice to think it is the latter, and to think that maybe if I throw a link or two to SCOCAblog from time to time, the bloggers there might return the favor.

Oddly, yesterday I wasn’t able to find any trace of news about the impending launch other than what is contained in my invitation. I found nothing about it at the website for either of the endeavor’s partners, and going to SCOCAblog.com in a web browser brought up the same generic page brought up for any other inactive URL; there was no “coming soon,” “under construction,” or other message hinting that SOCAblog was on its is way. You would have thought it was a big secret.

This morning is a different story. Though yesterday’s invitation announced a launch date of November 24, 2014, the blog appears to have launched ahead of schedule.

What can Ernest Hemingway teach you about legal writing?

Hemingway portrait

Ernest Hemingway

In a Wall Street Journal article last month, “Why Adverbs, Maligned by Many, Flourish in the American Legal System,” Ernest Hemingway is cited twice as an example of an effective writer who eschewed adverbs. This colorful start to the article expresses the view of many lawyers:

No part of speech has had to put up with so much adversity as the adverb. The grammatical equivalent of cheap cologne or trans fat, the adverb is supposed to be used sparingly, if at all, to modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. As Stephen King succinctly put it: “The adverb is not your friend.”

In large part, the article explains the need for adverbs in legislation and notes the significance they can have in the construction of a statute.

Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, is regarded by scholars as the dean of legal prose. He says legislators and adverbs need one another.

***

Says Mr. Garner: “No legislative drafter ever says: Did I pull my readers in? That’s something Stephen King has to ask.”

Ah, back to that age-old rule: know your audience when you are writing. (More on what the article teaches about that at the product liability blog Abnormal Use.) The article moves on to the more contentious issue of the use of adverbs in persuasive writing and the use of adverbs by judges:

“When you’re drafting an opinion, it’s just so tempting to use an adverb, so satisfying. It says exactly what you mean,” Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said. “I don’t think any of us can follow the rule as religiously as Hemingway did. I wish I could.”

Unlike his peers, Justice Antonin Scalia is unapologetic. One legal linguist marveled at his “caustic exploitation” of adverbs in his opinions, which crackle with phrases like “blatantly misdescribes,” “most tragically” and “judicially brainstormed.”

Unsurprisingly, the participants in a LinkedIn thread that started with a reference to the article tended to concentrate on the use of adverbs in persuasive writing, and expressed their overall disdain for adverb use. There was general agreement that adverbs like “clearly,” “obviously,” and the like signaled weak arguments. The article offers statistical support for that view, with a caveat (again, relevant to the “know your audience” maxim):

According to a 2008 study by two scholars at the University of Oregon School of Law and Brigham Young University, lawyers who stuff so-call intensifier adverbs in their legal briefs—words such as “very,” “obviously,” “clearly,” “absolutely” and “really”—are more likely to lose an appeal in court than attorneys who avoid those “weasel words,” as Mr. Garner described them. But notably, the study found that the habit can actually work in a lawyer’s favor if the presiding judge really likes to use those adverbs, too.

Which leads me back to Hemingway. In the LinkedIn thread, California attorney Steven Finell praises Hemingway for more than just adverb avoidance, crediting him for precise writing without adverbs and using adverbs effectively: “Lawyers can learn a lot from reading Hemingway: short sentences, powerful verbs and nouns–and descriptive adverbs and adjectives.” Finell’s post provides great examples of precise adverb-free writing.

I’ve never read Hemingway. I might give him a try.

How to make your mediation brief effective

There are some big differences between appellate mediation and mediation while your case is still pending in the trial court. But appellate and trial lawyers can both benefit from reading mediator Rande Sotomayor’s excellent article, “Effective Mediation Briefs,” in this month’s California Lawyer. I know Rande through my networking group, The Esquire Network (there’s my full disclosure), and have seen her present on other topics. I know her to be a very thoughtful mediator, and it shows in this article.

What I found particularly persuasive was her advice that lawyers should get over their penchant for keeping the entirety of their mediation briefs confidential:

Many lawyers submit “confidential” briefs to the mediator, hoping to avoid premature disclosure of their position. But if the brief is confidential, how can the information impress the folks sitting across the table?

A productive strategy is to deliver the message ahead of time, thereby promoting a worthwhile – and mutual – premediation evaluation of the case.

This approach conveys not only your (hopefully) winning arguments, but also what it will take to persuade your client to settle. Sharing a thoughtful brief in advance also allows everyone to discover unanticipated areas of agreement. Then, the parties can drill down to the real areas of disagreement at the heart of their dispute.

A lot of lawyers are going to have a problem with this advice, out of fear that the adverse party will approach the mediation as a chance to learn how best to manage the case rather than as a meaningful effort toward settlement. You can mitigate the chances of this by making your mediation brief effective in other ways (more tips on that in the article).
Lawyers may likewise fear tipping off the other side even if they are confident the other side is engaging in mediation in good faith. But is there any real danger here? Any opposing counsel worth his salt is going to figure out the bulk of your strategy anyway, either through papers filed during the course of the litigation or through effective discovery:
An interrogatory is not objectionable because an answer to it involves an opinion or contention that relates to fact or the application of law to fact, or would be based on information obtained or legal theories developed in anticipation of litigation or in preparation for trial.

(Code Civ. Proc., § 2030.010, subd. (b).) Similar information can be obtained through requests for admissions. (Code Civ. Proc.,  § 2033.010.) Unless you plan to stonewall or be cagey in discovery — or your opposing counsel is not sharp enough to utilize all the discovery tools at his disposal — you are not going to keep your strategy a complete secret anyway.

I think the advice to disclose one’s position goes double for appellate mediation, especially for the appellant. The appellant might have been on an equal footing with the respondent during the trial court proceedings, but with statewide reversal rates hovering around 20%, the appellant starts out as a huge underdog in the appeal.  The appellant’s most important task during the mediation is to convince the respondent that the appellant’s chances of succeeding are far higher than that 20% average. An appellant can’t do that without disclosing at least some of his strategy. I don’t worry about giving the respondent additional lead time to consider those arguments before my appellant’s opening brief is filed. The easy availability of extensions and the “grace period” for filing the respondent’s brief is going to give the respondent plenty of time in any event.

Rande’s piece has a lot of great tips. Read it for advice on how to communicate with the mediator and the adverse party, through your mediation brief and otherwise.

Opposing the pro se appellant

I think a lot of people might think that any time the appellant is a lay person representing himself (i.e., appearing “pro se”), the respondent has a pretty easy time of it. Is that the case?

I was reminded of this issue by an article on pro se plaintiffs in the Daily Recorder (subscription only link) titled “Pro Se Suits No Picnic for Defense Lawyers,” which described the difficulties of litigating against pro se plaintiffs at the trial court level. I think some of those difficulties can carry on through appellate proceedings, but overall I think a defendant-respondent in the court of appeal has an easier job opposing a pro se plaintiff-appellant in the Court of Appeal than the defense lawyer has in the trial court.

First, let’s look at how the article characterized suits brought by pro se plaintiffs: “Suits filed by the unlawyered are often frivolous. Some allege outlandish conspiracy theories, while others fail to make a recognizable legal claim.” None of that is likely to get any better by the time the case reaches the Court of Appeal (except, perhaps, where the pro se plaintiff has successfully amended the complaint to state a cognizable cause of action). The appellant’s opening brief may likewise be frivolous and a conspiracy theorist’s dream, but on appeal, there is an extra tool to combat those characteristics: the standard of review, which can often render irrelevant whole swaths of argument devoted to contested versions of the facts.

The article goes on to note that suits brought by pro se plaintiffs can be lengthy and costly because such plaintiffs are usually unwilling to settle and the trial court gives the pro se plaintiff leeway in complying with the rules of court that the court would not grant to a represented litigant. I have not seen either of those factors affect an appeal much.

Settlement on appeal is not unheard of, but it is far less frequent than in trial court in any event (it is not even always discussed), so a particularly stubborn plaintiff is not likely to skew settlement statistics in appellate proceedings. In fact, a pro se plaintiff-appellant might even be more willing to settle on appeal (and for a nuisance value) than he was in the trial court if he can be made to realize that the reversal rate is less than 1-in-5.

I haven’t seen pro se appellants given extra leeway, either (though I am always sure to cite case authority stating that they should not be given any). While it is true the Court of Appeal will make sure that pro se appellants get a fair shake, that approach usually manifests itself not in granting leniency with rule compliance, but in giving the the pro se appellant a respectful hearing, even where it is obvious he is wasting the court’s time. There are usually so few procedural steps in an appeal that there are few occasions for the appellant to invoke leniency in any event. The closest I ever saw was a pro se appellant who moved for leave to file an opening brief of nearly 50,000 words — the length of a short novel, and more than three times the usual limit. She was denied relief.

I think one of the biggest challenges in opposing pro se appellants can be to decipher their arguments. Briefs I have seen from pro se appellants (not always in cases in which I represent the respondent) tend to be long-winded, repetitive, and convoluted. A respondent must spend a good deal of time untangling the opening brief to clarify the arguments being made before starting on the respondent’s brief. If a respondent forgoes that initial analysis, he risks drafting a respondent’s brief that is likewise wordy, repetitive, and convoluted — at least in its first draft.

I can’t quantify this next point or offer any specific evidence for it (other than the anecdotal evidence in the article of pro se plaintiffs’ general unwillingness to settle), but I believe that pro se appellants are far more likely than represented appellants to appeal for reasons so personal and important to them that they are blinded to the realities of an appeal. Thus, I think they are more likely to pursue frivolous appeals, make arguments that don’t take into account the standard of review (even if they are familiar with the concept of a standard of review), and even appeal in situations where success could make them worse off.

All that said, one should resist the temptation to think that all pro se appellants are doomed to failure. Sometimes, they win, even against big companies with top-notch representation.

Doesn’t anybody read the rules?

When is a brief written by a lay person likely to be of comparable quality to a brief written by lawyer for the other side in the same case? When both briefs stink:

Brooks’s opening brief on appeal includes a statement of facts without any citation to the record. In the argument portion of the brief, references to facts are occasionally, but not consistently, supported by citations to the record. ECG’s respondent’s brief, which relies extensively upon facts developed at trial, does not include a single citation to the record. The failure to include citations to the record violates rule 8.204(a)(1)(C) of the California Rules of Court: Briefs must “[s]upport any reference to a matter in the record by a citation to the volume and page number of the record where the matter appears.” Although these failures subject the briefs to being stricken, we have elected to disregard the noncompliance. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(e)(2)(C).)

(In re Marriage of Brooks and Robinson (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 176, 180 fn. 1.) Maybe stink is a strong word. It’s possible the briefs made excellent points and were terrible only in their failure to comply with the rule requiring citations to the record. But still . . . the odds that neither side would comply with such a basic rule strike me as being quite low. Here, one of the parties (Brooks) was self-represented, but I’m betting that somewhere out there are cases with lawyers on both sides of the appeal filing non-conforming briefs.

This sounds like the beginning of a pitch urging you to employ an appellate attorney, doesn’t it?

You know what I do when I have a question about procedure? This is a really radical concept for some . . . I look up the applicable rule. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist — or even an appellate lawyer — to realize that’s a good idea.

When winning is risky

Sometimes, an appeal doesn’t make sense to me. This can be true even if there are better-than-average odds of winning. When an appeal doesn’t make sense to me, I ask why the party wants to appeal. I’m sure that most of the time, the reaction is to think, “Isn’t it obvious? Because I lost!” But to my mind, that’s not always a good enough reason. As a matter of effective client relations, I get curious about motives when it seems to me, as an outsider, that a win on appeal would yield a negligible benefit or even risk making the appellant worse off.

An example of the latter situation is Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Ottovich, case no. A136607 (1st Dist.  June 30, 2014), where I think the appellant potentially had a whole lot to lose by winning the appeal.

The appellant was the defendant below, where the trial court struck his answer and entered his default as sanctions for discovery misconduct. Judgment for more than $240,000 was entered after the prove-up hearing. The defendant successfully moved to set aside the default judgment (and underlying default) based on the plaintiff’s failure to serve a statement of damages, but the court left the answer stricken, granted summary judgment on liability based on the allegations of the complaint, and held a jury trial on damages, which resulted in a judgment for the plaintiff of only $8,500. If I were the defendant, I think I would have been thankful for avoiding that judgment of nearly a quarter million dollars, counted my blessings that my liability was only $8,500, and called it a day.

Not so for the appellant here, who contended that when the default judgment was vacated, his answer was revived as a matter of law. Clearly, the appellant wanted the issue of liability tried, and wanted to pay zero.

The appellant lost his appeal, but suppose he had won. What’s the up side? Sure, the case gets to proceed on the merits. But appellant, if found liable, would be facing a new damages determination. Who’s to say that a less-friendly jury or better lawyering for the plaintiff the next time around wouldn’t result in a judgment against the appellant far in excess of $8,500?

I have to think there was something besides money driving the decision to appeal in this case. . . or maybe I’m wrong about the process after reversal and there would be some way to avoid having damages tried again (if you think so, shoot me an email, and I will happily correct the post, if warranted). But going solely by what I can glean from the decision, I would have advised against the appeal.

Any litigation, including an appeal, involves risk. Consider that reversal rates hover around 20% and that you may be throwing good money after bad. There is enough risk in the possibility of losing. Why pursue an appeal where winning could make you worse off?

Sometimes the standard of review is better than you might first think

Clients (and their lawyers) can be disheartened when they conclude that the ruling they want to challenge on appeal is subject to review for abuse of discretion — a standard of review that is indeed daunting. But keep in mind that rulings ordinarily subject to review for abuse of discretion may be subject to the much more appellant-friendly de novo (or independent) standard of review, in which the court of appeal decides he issue without any deference to the trial court.

The defendant-appellant in Children’s Hospital Central California v. Blue Cross of California, case no. F065603 (5th Dist. June 9, 2010) was able to take advantage of this situation. Blue Cross had a contract with the state to provide a managed care plan for Medi-Cal recipients. Plaintiff hospital and Blue Cross had a written rate agreement that lapsed, and did not enter into a new agreement for about ten months. In the interim, the hospital kept providing services and Blue Cross paid the hospital more than $4 million based on government Medi-Cal rates, but the hospital contended that the reasonable value of the services provided was nearly $11 million, and sued to recover the difference.

Blue Cross contended that the trial court improperly limited the evidence of the reasonable value of the services by denying Blue Cross’s discovery motion to compel the production of the hospital’s written agreements with other insurers and granting the hospital’s motion in limine to preclude any evidence of the rates accepted by or paid to Hospital by other payors, the Medi-Cal and Medicare fee for service rates paid by the government, and Hospital’s service specific costs. The hospital contended that reasonable reimbursement rates were governed solely by the six factors set forth in a regulation.

Normally discovery rulings and evidentiary ruling are subject to review for abuse of discretion. Here, however, Blue Cross benefited from a de novo standard, because the basis for the trail court’s rulings — its conclusion that the evidence was irrelevant — is an “analysis of the substantive law governing the case,” making it a legal issue subject to independent review.

The abuse of discretion standard is full of nuance. Don’t let it automatically discourage you from pursuing an appeal. Instead, consider the actual error to be asserted to see if it comes within independent review.

The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court as courts of first resort?

Well, this is unusual. We usually refer to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court as “reviewing courts” because they review the decisions of lower courts. But yesterday’s decision in Disenhouse v. Peevey, case no. D063799 (4th Dist. June 3, 2014) discloses a rare instance in which either of these courts is the court of first resort.

The Public Utilities Commission allegedly refused to allow the plaintiff to attend a commission meeting because of plaintiff’s affiliation with the Sierra Club. She sued in superior court to enjoin the meeting, on the ground that her exclusion violated the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, then filed an ex parte application for a mandatory injunction requiring the commission to open the meeting to the public. The trial court held that it lacked jurisdiction and dismissed the complaint.

On appeal, the Fourth District, Division One, holds that the complaint was properly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The Open Meeting Act requires meetings of state bodies to be open to the public, and Government Code section 11130 provides that “any interested person may commence an action by mandamus,injunction, or declaratory relief for the purpose of stopping or preventing violations or threatened violations of [the Act].” But the California Constitution, at article XII, section 5, “confers plenary power on the Legislature to ‘establish the manner and scope of review of commission action in a court of record’ [citation],” and  the legislature did so in Public Utilities Code section 1759, which gives only the Supreme Court and the court of appeal “jurisdiction to review, reverse, correct, or annul any order or decision of the commission or to suspend or delay the execution or operation thereof, or to enjoin, restrain, or interfere with the commission in the performance of its official duties[.]”

The court notes there is no real conflict between the Open Meeting Act and the Public Utilities Code provisions. They can be read harmoniously because the Open Meeting Act makes mandamus a means of enforcing the Act, and the Public Utilities Code authorizes a mandamus action to be brought in the court of appeal or Supreme Court.

A substantial evidence argument works on appeal

Substantial evidence challenges don’t succeed very often on appeal, so I sat up and took notice when I saw a successful challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence in today’s decision in Martinez v. County of Ventura, case no. B244776 (2d. Dist April 8. 2014). The Court of Appeal reverses a judgment for the public agency defendant that had successfully asserted a design immunity defense at trial to avoid liability for a defectively dangerous roadside condition that contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries. The burden of proof was on the county to establish that they had made a discretionary design decision in installing the type of roadside drain at issue. However, they were unable to produce any plans for the type of drain involved or any evidence that someone with discretionary authority had actually approved the design.

The substantial evidence standard my not require much evidence to affirm a judgment, but it requires enough that a rational factfinder could reasonably reach the conclusion supporting the judgment. Here, “[t]he evidence showed that the maintenance workers simply built and installed the drains in the field as they saw the need for them.”  A county official testified that he had approved the design, but that county did not have discretionary authority under the law, nor was there any evidence that the official that did have discretionary authority had delegated any authority to the testifying official.

Too many parties (and, unfortunately, even some lawyers) do not understand the substantial evidence standard of review. (That’s a subject for another post.) Some write it off from consideration because it is usually very difficult to win. But Martinez reminds us that the argument should not be overlooked just because it is usually difficult.

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This blog is brought to you exclusively by attorney Greg May, an "of counsel" attorney with Jones & Lester, LLP in Oxnard, California, who can handle your appeal anywhere in California.

The views expressed on this blog are those of Greg May only, not the views of the Jones & Lester partnership or any other attorney in the firm. The content offered on this blog is provided solely for purposes of news and commentary. It is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such.

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