Don’t jump to conclusions on the standard of review

“This is one of those cases where some exposition on the topic of the standard of review is necessary to sort out the case.” When a court begins its analysis with that sentence, as the court in Le v. Pham, case no. G041473 (4th Dist. Jan. 6, 2010) did yesterday, you know the opinion is going to be an interesting read — if you’re an appellate attorney, anyway.

Le is a great study in why it is important to think carefully about the appropriate standard of review. Respondents, who had prevailed against a cross-complaint against them, probably thought they had this case in the bag, but because the standard of review was not what they thought it was, judgment on the cross-complaint was reversed.

The Les, a married couple, together owned 50% of the stock in a pharmacy corporation; Pham owned the other 50%. The bylaws obligated the Les to give notice of any proposed sale of their shares to a third party and gave Pham a right of first refusal, but failed to specify a time in which to exercise it. The bylaws also dictated that any sale below the price in the notice was void.

The Les sold their shares to third parties, the Hoangs. Pham, contending the sale was in violation of her right of first refusal and was void because the sale price was below that provided in the Les’ notice, refused to recognize Paul Hoang as a shareholder and would not grant him access to the corporate records or seat him as a director. Paul Hoang did not file a change of ownership form with the California Board of Pharmacy. As a result, the board closed the pharmacy for approximately three months starting in March 2007 and kept it on probation through the end of that year.

The Les and Hoangs sued Pham, contending the sale was valid and Pham’s refusal to give them access to the corporate records was wrongful, that Pham had failed to file proper forms with the state, and that she had converted corporate funds to her own use. Pham cross-claimed, alleging breach of fiduciary duty against the Les and fraud against Paul Haong (based on holding himself out as a shareholder). The complaint and cross-complaint were both alleged derivatively on behalf of the corporation as well.

The case was tried to the court, and the court of appeal summarized the result thus:

After a bench trial, Pham prevailed on the Les’ and Hoangs’ complaint, while the Les and Hoangs prevailed on Pham’s cross-complaint. That is, the court, in its statement of decision, ruled that the Les’ attempted transfer of shares to the Hoangs was null and void because it did not comply with the corporate bylaws. It was obvious, after all, that the Les had attempted to sell the shares to the Hoangs for a better price ($24,000 as distinct from $70,000) and on better terms (installments rather than cash) than had been offered Pham in the notice of intent to sell.

As to Pham’s (and the corporation’s) cross-complaint against the Les for breach of fiduciary duty, the statement of decision concluded that they had “failed to carry their burden of proof.” The trial judge wrote: “Generally speaking, at trial, little evidence was adduced in support of the cross-complaint.” She also wrote, however, that Pham “did not have an adequate opportunity to exercise her right of first refusal” given that Dieu-Hoa Le had “unilaterally demanded that the written offer be made within 10 days.”

Read that carefully. That those facts are undisputed is important.

It’s tough to summarize the point regarding the standard of review any more concisely than the court has already done, so I’ll simply provide the following (and quite long) excerpt. As you read it, I think the lesson will become clear: don’t jump to conclusions on the standard of review.

The obvious starting point is that, since Pham and the corporation are challenging a judgment after a court trial, they initially face the formidable substantial evidence standard of review.

The substantial evidence standard has two components, and both work generally against appellants: First, all conflicts in the evidence must be resolved in favor of the prevailing party; second, all reasonable inferences from the evidence (all conflicts already having been properly resolved) must be drawn in favor of the prevailing party. (See Eisenberg, et al., Cal. Practice Guide: Civil Appeals and Writs (The Rutter Group (2009) ¶¶ 8:38, 8:60, pp. 8-18, 8-8-26.)

We should note, then, that Pham and the corporation are necessarily in the position of saying that the evidence, despite all the resolution of conflicts and having all reasonable inferences drawn against them, nevertheless compels a judgment in their favor, on the two issues they have raised in this appeal: The Les’ fiduciary duty and Paul Hoang’s alleged fraud. Not surprisingly, the brief filed on behalf of the Les and Hoang lavishes attention on the substantial evidence rule. The Les and Hoang are most certainly correct that if we find any substantial evidence obviating either (a) any fraud on Hoang’s part or (b) the existence of a fiduciary duty, or the subsequent breach of a fiduciary duty if there is one, we must affirm the judgment.

However, if one digs a little deeper — for example, by continuing to read the remainder of the respondent’s brief — it turns out that the substantial evidence rule is actually irrelevant in the context of the issue of whether the Les’ owed a fiduciary duty as shareholders to Pham, and whether any such duty was breached. There is no conflict as to the facts of ownership of the corporation: 50-50. There is no conflict in the evidence regarding the sale (or, better, attempted sale) of the Les’ half of the corporation to the Hoangs. And there is no conflict in the evidence as regards the consequences of that attempted sale, namely a cease and desist order from the California State Board of Pharmacy closing the business for about three months beginning in March 2007.

Thus, the Les’ actual argument on the fiduciary duty issue presented in their brief turns out not to be a factual one at all (e.g., the Les don’t say: “there was evidence that we didn’t really own any shares at all, or that we offered our shares to Pham at the same price and terms as we offered to the Hoangs”), but a legal one: The Les assert that by virtue of the undisputed fact that they were 50-percent shareholders in the corporation — that is, were not majority stockholders — they had no fiduciary duties to the corporation or to the other 50-percent shareholder. Of course, when the facts are undisputed and the question on appeal is wholly a legal issue, the proper standard of review is independent review. (E.g., People v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1, 7 (Decker) [because dismissal of attempted murder charges “was based on undisputed facts,” it constituted “a legal conclusion subject to independent review on appeal”].) The trial court‟s comments in its statement of decision, then, that (1) “at trial, little evidence was adduced in support of the cross-complaint” and (2) Pham and the corporation had “failed to carry their burden of proof,” while understandable, miss the mark in analyzing the problem of whether the Les had a fiduciary duty toward Pham as regards the bylaws‟ right-of-first-refusal provision.

The comments were quite understandable if one thinks about how the trial judge experienced the unfolding of the trial. Precisely because the relevant facts involving the attempted sale were undisputed, most of them were presented in the context of the plaintiffs’ (the Les and Hoang) case in chief seeking to validate the sale from the Les to Hoang. The trial was ninety percent over, in terms of counting pages in the reporter’s transcript, when the Les and Hoang rested their case. That case in chief included, for example, calling Pham herself as an hostile witness, and the only witness that Pham and the corporation called after the plaintiffs had rested was the state Board of Pharmacy inspector, who explained why the corporation had had to close down for about three months in 2007. So we can understand that it might not have seemed like Pham and the corporation were producing much evidence on their cross-complaint at trial. Most of the relevant (and undisputed) facts bearing on the legal question of whether the Les had a fiduciary duty and, if so, violated it, had been brought out in the plaintiffs’ case in chief. But just because the undisputed evidence favoring the cross-complaint also happened to come out on the plaintiffs’ case in chief does not mean it was not available to support the cross-complaint.

I don’t find anything surprising about the court’s analysis. But I’m not so ready to call the trial judge’s comments “understandable if one thinks about  the way the trial judge experienced the unfolding of the trial.” Were there no closing arguments or briefs? What about input from the parties regarding the statement of decision? (See Code of Civil Procedure section 632.)

The uncontradicted nature of the evidence seems pretty clear to me. Then again, hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it?