Failure to Brief and the Bounds of Discretion

Two interesting, though not new, appellate angles in Nakamura v. Parker, case no. A115626 (1st Dist. Oct. 22, 2007). It’s an appeal from the summary denial of a temporary restraining order sought under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (Fam. Code, § 6200 et seq.), which had the effect of dismissing the appellant’s entire action.

First Issue: Respondent did not file a brief in the appeal. Automatic reversal, right?

Wrong. While many people — at least among those who don’t practice in appeals — assume that failure to file a respondent’s brief will mean an automatic win for the appellant, that’s not the case. Appeals are all about reviewing for error. Thus, as the Nakamura court reminds us:

Parker’s failure to file a respondent’s brief means that we “decide the appeal on the record, the opening brief, and any oral argument by the appellant” (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.220(a)(2), formerly rule 17(a)), examining the record and reversing only if prejudicial error is shown. [Citations.]

I imagine an unopposed appellant who loses might feel pretty badly about not prevailing, but it may just be that the appeal was doomed from the outset, opposition or not.

In this case, however, no such soul searching is necessary. The Court of Appeal finds that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the restraining order. Which leads us to the second issue.

Second Issue: In an order reviewed for abuse of discretion, how is the scope of the trial court’s discretion defined? Answer: By the scope of the law at issue.

The scope of discretion always resides in the particular law being applied by the court, i.e., in the “legal principles governing the subject of [the] action . . . .” City of Sacramento v. Drew (1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 1287, 1297; County of Yolo v. Garcia (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1771, 1778 [“range of judicial discretion is determined by analogy to the rules contained in the general law and in the specific body or system of law in which the discretionary authority is granted”].) As Nakamura’s petition is not jurisdictionally defective, it may be summarily denied only if the facts she alleged fail to constitute “abuse” within the meaning of the DVPA.

Here, there was plenty in the applicant’s sworn declaration showing that her estranged spouse committed acts constituting abuse justifying a restraining order under the DVPA.

But I have to wonder how much of a victory this is for the current litigant. The denial of the protective order was more than 14 months before her victory on appeal. Usually, there is great urgency to DVPA restraining orders. At least this should help the next victim of abuse. Which is why, I’m sure, amicus briefs were filed by 11 organizations.

UPDATE (10/25/07):  A Bay Area colleague e-mailed me a link to coverage of this case in the San Francisco Chronicle.