The kitchen sink has no place on appeal

We’ve all heard of doctors lamenting the need to order lots of tests for the most mundane symptoms in order to protect themselves from malpractice lawsuits. Are lawyers exhibiting equivalent behavior?

Last week, a post at the Lawyerist blog (Want To Destroy Your Case? Throw In The Kitchen Sink.) featured a federal district court decision adopting the recommendations of the magistrate judge to order sanctions all around in a sexual harassment lawsuit — i.e., all of the attorneys on both sides had monetary sanctions imposed against them. On the plaintiff’s side, the attorneys were sanctioned for what Lawyerist called “evidence-free sexual harassment and retaliation allegations.” On the defense side, the attorneys representing the employer objected that they were being sanctioned merely for aggressively defending their client, but the district court noted that “there is a difference between a vigorous, effective defense and the kind of gross overlitigation and unreasonable and vexatious multiplication of proceedings which occurred here.”

Aside from sanctions, the litigation tactics summarized by the district court ( and detailed in the magistrate judge’s report) posed the risk that the better points in each side’s case got lost in the noise of all the unnecessary chatter.

That risk is also quite high, and arguably higher, when similar tactics are adopted in an appeal. In trial proceedings, various “overlitigation” tactics might be employed piecemeal over time, and the occasional golden nugget has a chance to stand out because it is presented in relative isolation. In an appeal, however, the appellant’s opening brief hits the appellate court with all of his arguments at one time, which might make it harder for the decent argument to stand out from the clutter.

While I suspect that the problem of raising too many issues in an opening brief arises most often when trial attorneys continue to represent their clients on appeal and are unable to “let go” of certain pet issues that have no place in the appellate court, or when the appellant has an inexperienced lawyer or is self-represented on appeal, even veteran appellate lawyers have to struggle with issue selection. Any time I come up with more than three or four arguments to make in an appeal, I get suspicious of my own analysis, and I consider very carefully whether all of the issues should be raised.*

I think that lawyers that forego any careful consideration of how to narrow the issues, and wind up throwing in the kitchen sink, might be depending on the good graces of the appellate court to pluck the meritorious needles out of the legal haystacks presented in their briefs. Appellate judges don’t simply throw up their hands and discount every argument raised by an appellant every time an opening brief contains a lot of different arguments that seem unmeritorious at first. Aside from the matter of professional integrity, there’s also the matter of having to justify their ruling in a written opinion, so you can bet they spend time trying to decide if there is a meritorious argument in the bunch.

Perhaps you’re thinking, As long as the court is going to look for my best arguments anyway, what’s the risk? I’ll throw in everything and let the court sort it out. The risk is that you might actually conceal your best arguments. Appellate judges (and their research attorneys) are smart, but they are not infallible. Clutter your brief enough, and the one argument that actually stood a chance at winning might not be recognized. And, if none of your arguments is any good, I suspect you are better off minimizing their number. A brief containing 15 meritless arguments is probably more likely to draw monetary sanctions than a brief containing just one or two meritless arguments, as the court will consider the former a greater waste of its time and the number of meritless arguments may be seen as evidence of the frivolousness of the appeal.

UPDATE (9/29/15): At his Briefly Writing blog, Alabama appellate lawyer Michael Skotnicki shares some related thoughts. In a post called The Risks of a “Hinge Point” Appellate Argumenthe comments on the ultimate narrowing of issues: asserting a single issue on appeal.


*In some complex cases, of course, more complex briefing is required. Consider, for example, the brief proffered on appeal by the defense team for former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling: the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals gave them permission to file a brief 58,922 words long — more than four times as long as normally permitted under the rules — which generated quite a bit of buzz on legal blogs. But Skilling was convicted of 19 counts after a three-month trial and the record on appeal approached 47,000 pages; your average appeal is not going to be that complex. (To put the length of Skilling’s brief in perspective, consider that George Orwell’s Animal Farm is less than 30,000 words long, and Lord of the Flies is less than 63,000 words long; of course, some novels are hundreds of thousands of words long.)

Sixth District Court of Appeal offers the legislature some advice on amending the anti-SLAPP statute

232/365 - Smack!

A different kind of SLAP (Photo courtesy of Gabe via Compfight)

If you just lost your appeal, handled by attorneys at a high-powered law firm, with fees approaching – oh, heck, who knows, but three lawyers billing at a “BigLaw” firm have to run up a pretty hefty bill on a case potentially worth billions of dollars – you might not be happy with language in the introduction of the opinion characterizing your appeal as “utterly without merit” and noting that the court declined imposing sanctions only because the court did “not wish to further delay the long-overdue trial of the merits of [the] action.”

That’s exactly how the court opened its opinion in Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Oracle Corp., case no. H039507 (6th Dist. Aug. 27, 2015). If you guessed that the case is an appeal from the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16), give yourself a gold star. (Or maybe not — I mentioned anti-SLAPP in the title of this post, after all.)

The opinion is a good read if, like many, you believe that use of the anti-SLAPP statute has gotten out of hand. Indeed, the opinion cites another case’s reference to the “explosion of anti-SLAPP motions.” There’s simply too much in the opinion to try to summarize it here, so I’ll refer you to it for the nitty-gritty, and note just a few highlights.

On what does the Court of Appeal blame this explosion? The availability of immediate appeal when the motion is denied, that’s what:

A major reason for this explosion is that the statute rewards the filer of an unsuccessful anti-SLAPP motion with what one court has called a “free time-out” from further litigation in the trial court.The statute does this by entitling the unsuccessful movant to immediately appeal the denial of such a motion—even one like Oracle’s, which wholly lacks merit, attacks only a small part of the plaintiff’s case, and is heard nearly two years into the lawsuit, and on the day before a scheduled trial. Such an appeal automatically stays all further trial proceedings on causes of action “affected by the motion.” This means that however unsound an anti-SLAPP motion may be, it will typically stop the entire lawsuit dead in its tracks until an appellate court completes its review.

(Footnotes and citations omitted.)

The court argues that the anti-SLAPP “cure” is worse than the disease it was meant to address — the filing of meritless suits designed to chill participation in the public arena. “It is as if a city had decided to cure an illness afflicting a few of its residents by lacing the water supply with a chemical that would indeed cure those sufferers, but would sicken a larger number of previously healthy citizens.”

The opinion closes with the court’s recommendation for amendment of the anti-SLAPP statute:

In this regard, we offer the suggestion that one simple fix might substantially reduce the motivation to abuse the anti-SLAPP procedure: Limit the right to  interlocutory appeal to denials, and allow them only where the motion (1) is filed within the allotted 60 days, and (2) would—if granted—dispose of the entire action. Where either of those conditions is lacking, the motion can rarely if ever achieve any real saving of time or money, and an appeal can only have the opposite effect. Such an amendment would limit invocation of the statute to cases where it may serve its stated purpose and greatly reduce its tactical utility in many if not most of the situations where it is now being most sorely abused.

As a “BigLaw” refugee, my favorite part of the opinion is the court’s lament that sanctions for frivolous appeals are not a very good deterrent against abuse of the anti-SLAPP statute:

But a prompt dismissal, even of a frivolous appeal, is not always feasible. In this case, HP’s motion to dismiss the appeal was supported by four volumes of exhibits, which Oracle answered with another five volumes, with the result that the motion essentially duplicated the appeal itself. Top-drawer legal representation, such as both parties have engaged here, can obscure the core frivolousness of an appeal beneath layers of artful obfuscation which only the most painstaking examination can peel away. And where the stakes are high enough—as they certainly are here, judging from the multi-billion-dollar figures put forward by HP’s experts on damages—the threat or even the certain prospect of sanctions may not alter the economic calculus that makes an anti-SLAPP motion, and ensuing appeal, so attractive.

(Emphasis added.) Sounds like Maybe Oracle got its money’s worth after all.

One last thing. Remember how it looked like Oracle had dodged the bullet of having to pay Hewlett-Packard’s attorney fees, since the Court of Appeal declined to impose sanctions? If I were Oracle, I wouldn’t quite count on it.

The consequences of reluctant unanimity in appellate decisions

Through LinkedIn, I ran across an interesting appellate blog, Briefly Writing. In a post yesterday, blogger Michael Skotnicki shared his alarm at learning from the Eleventh Circuit’s chief judge that panel judges that initially dissent will “routinely” change their votes in order to make the decision unanimous (presumably, only once it is apparent that the majority judges cannot be persuaded to come around to the dissenter’s point of view). Skotnicki believes the practice harms appellate counsel because a losing client may think that the unanimity of the decision suggests he got bad advice or bad advocacy during the course of the appeal, and a wining client may think that unanimity is evidence that the lawyer’s assistance wasn’t that valuable.

I think there are broader implications. Skotnicki notes that the chief judge said this practice results from a sense of comity among the judges and the desire to strengthen precedent. I don’t begrudge any judge the desire to strengthen precedent through unanimity — a desire that has been expressed by Chief Justice John Roberts of the United Stated Supreme Court —  but I think that how a panel gets to a unanimous opinion matters a lot. If an initial opinion that splits a panel can be re-drafted in a way that accommodates a dissenter without unduly weakening the central point of the initial majority– a tall order, I’ll grant —  then the resulting unanimity is well-achieved.

However, changing votes based merely on comity and a desire for strengthened precedent are bad, not just for the lawyers, but for the system. Split decisions are significant in at least two common scenarios.

At the federal level, where circuit precedent may only be changed through en banc review, the dissent can have an impact on whether the circuit will rehear the case en banc. Whether en banc review is sought of the split decision itself or of a later unanimous decision compelled by a split-decision precedent, it seems to me that a principled dissent can influence can make the difference as to whether or not en banc review will be granted, and even have an impact on the ultimate decision reached on en banc review.

In California appellate courts , where a panel is free to depart from decisions by other panels, even those in its own district (that may shock some of you non-California lawyers, but it’s true), a well-reasoned dissent may be just what convinces the appellate court that the precedent was wrongly decided.

I cannot imagine that comity and a desire to strengthen precedent are ever the only reasons for a dissenting judge or justice to change his or her vote, in the Eleventh Circuit or anywhere else. Maybe there was more to the chief judge’s comments on that topic?

Bad reasons to appeal may be hiding the good one(s)

I’d love to have a nickel for every prospective client who has called me about appealing his case for the wrong reason. I don’t mean that he’s misidentified the best legal issue to raise, or even that his appeal has a very low probability of success. I mean reasons wholly apart from the merits of their case.

When one of these prospects calls, he doesn’t know he wants to appeal for the wrong reason. It’s up to me to deliver the bad news, usually.

You’re probably thinking that this is the part where I tell you not to call me if you’re motivated by any of these bad reasons. But the news isn’t always bad. (More about that below.) Bad reasons don’t mean you have no case. A bad reason just is never (or almost never) enough on its own.  So even if you’re motivated by a bad reason, you should get advice on whether you have a good reason to appeal or, perhaps, attack the judgment in a post-trial motion.

What are some of those bad reasons? A partial list includes:

  1. My attorney committed malpractice! (Maybe so, but . . . )
  2. I hate my ex! (This one comes up all the time in family law cases.)
  3. It’s a matter of principle! (Isn’t it always?)
  4. There was a conspiracy! (“My opponents’ attorney and the judge were always sharing knowing looks . . . “)
  5. The judge hated me! (Judges are overworked and underpaid; don’t take it personally.)
  6. My opponent lied! (This is where the prospective client gets a crash course from me in standards of review.)
  7. The judge believed my ex because she wore a short skirt and low-cut top when she testified! (Really.)
  8. The jury was a bunch of idiots! (Not helpful, even if true, unless . . . )

Notice how they all have exclamation points? The client who wants to appeal for one of these reasons is always emphatic about it, on a mission because anyone with half a brain can see that he is a victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. It’s just so obvious.

But again, just because your reason for wanting to appeal may not be good doesn’t necessarily mean that you have no valid ground to appeal. You can hate your trial attorney, hate your ex, be self-righteous, and be 100% correct that every single witness for the other side lied and all their documents were forgeries, and still have a good — or at least reasonable — case. Get advice. Once your appellate lawyer points out you’re concentrating on the wrong thing, you can start discussing the right things.

In future posts, I’ll expand on some of these bad reasons to appeal, and even talk about some rare exceptions where one or more of these reasons might actually be a good point to raise on appeal.

Big city justices roll into Napa

The First District Court of Appeal convened yesterday in Napa to hear two criminal cases at a public auditorium before about 400 high school students. The justices also treated the students to a Q&A session.

Given that most people’s exposure to the law through the entertainment media nearly always involves a trial, this session strikes me as an excellent opportunity to educate the public about appeals. After all that exposure to movie-version trials, one suspects that the typical student, unless adequately briefed on the proceedings beforehand, would walk away from an appellate hearing saying to himself, “That’s it?” I’m curious whether that sentiment came out during the Q&A or in the preparation leading up to the event.

Also anticipating that sentiment was the reporter who wrote the article run by the Napa Valley Register the day prior to the session, who apparently had brief experience covering appellate decisions, and offered this comparison of trial and appellate proceedings:

While jury trials have some drama, what with the grilling of witnesses and introduction of eye-opening evidence, trials also can be tedious.

At the court of appeals, it is literally stand and deliver.

A lawyer has 20 minutes or so to persuade the court he or she is right, with the other side firing back from steps away. Either side can be undone by the justices, who can ask whatever they want whenever they want of whomever they want, making hash of a lawyer’s best-laid plans.

This actually strikes me as a a pretty fair layman’s synopsis of the differences between trial and appellate proceedings. It’s no doubt enough to scare some people out of ever considering appellate practice (probably the same people who prayed all during law school that their professors would not call on them in class). For the well-prepared appellate advocate, it not only can be a great challenge, it can also be quite enjoyable.

By itself, however, the comparison does not answer the “that’s it?” query. There are plenty of subtleties (and a heck of a lot of preparatory work!) involved in every oral argument. I will continue to write on those topics, but you can see what I mean by some of my earlier posts on the topic of oral advocacy.

The Mindset of Appellate Judges

Here is a well-stated look into the minds of appellate judges, from a 2-year old column by Howard Bashman:

One essential trait that an appellate lawyer must possess is the ability to think about legal issues from the perspective of judges who serve on appellate courts. Appellate courts are not only responsible for trying to reach the correct result in the cases on appeal, but their rulings often create precedents that will govern other cases that don’t even exist yet. Thus, an appellate lawyer must be cognizant not only of how existing precedent will affect an appellate court’s view of a newly filed appeal, but also about how the precedent created in the course of deciding the new case will affect the future direction of the law.  

Not every appeal has such an issue.  If all appeals did, you wouldn’t see so few decisions published.  But this is a question that must be part of every case evaluation and, if such an issue is present, the question of “what if” must be anticipated and answered before it is asked.

Does it Matter Who’s On Your Panel?

Our local appellate court in Ventura (Second District, Division Six) can be a good place to hang out if you’re looking for a chuckle. I don’t think I’ve ever left a session there without having at least once laughed, or at least smiled — just not in my own case. No, I don’t laugh at anybody . . . I laugh with them.

At a recent session, a somewhat mischievous question from the presiding justice brought some grins to those waiting and provided food for thought.

Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert is well known for his wit, and recently it even came out during the criminal case calendar. Usually, all four justices in the division are on the bench, and Justice Gilbert will announce with each case called which of the four justices are on the three-justice panel for that case. One appellant’s counsel took the podium and asked if Justice Gilbert could repeat which of the three justices were on the panel. After repeating the names, Justice Gilbert asked the attorney how she was going to do anything different now that she knew. It seemed like a mischievous question.

Wanting to know who’s on your panel, though, isn’t all that bizarre a request, especially if you’ve become familiar (or at least think you have) with the idiosyncrasies of each justice. Everyone’s heard experienced (and sometimes not-so-experienced) attorneys offer such sage wisdom as “If you draw Justice Razzamatazz, remember that he’s still bitter that the Supreme Court reversed him in Folder v. Screen, so he’s susceptible to arguments that situations shouldn’t be be governed by Folder.” True or not, attorneys act on such “revelations.” (One of the other Justices even quipped in response to Justice Gilbert’s question that if swing Justice Kennedy were on the panel, he’s the only justice the lawyer would have bothered to address.)

In fact, Justice Gilbert may have inadvertently been on to something. A while back, Tom Caso highlighted a study noting that certain substantive areas of the law draw more opinions from some judges more than others. In the words of the author “opinion specialization [is an] unmistakable part of every day judicial practice.” Tom took note of the practical implications:

If true, this suggests a more focused approach for the federal appellate lawyer. One of the difficulties for the appellate practitioner is not knowing the audience for the brief. If, however, opinions are assigned based on the specialities of the individual judges, the brief can be written with those individual judges in mind. This population of potential opinion writers is still larger than the ultimate panel that will hear the case. Nonetheless, by studying whether a particular subset of judges in your circuit write most of the opinions in your area of the law, you have the opportunity of focusing your presentation to address the concerns of those particular judges.

I think a lot of lawyers put too much stock in what they think they know of a judge’s biases. Most of the time a lawyer expresses a negative opinion about the judge, I find it is due to sour grapes over a loss.

However, a judge’s legal approach to things is certainly a fair factor to take into account. For instance, it’s probably not wise to rely on the aforementioned “Justice Razzamatazz’s” purported “bitterness,” but it strikes me as practical to look at his reasoning in the Folder case to see if you can craft an argument that is more likely to persuade him.

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Why Some Lawyers and Their Clients are Reluctant to Engage Appellate Counsel, Part 4: “This Case Needs a Specialist.”

(NOTE: This post is the fourth in a series. To read the announcement of the series and/or leave your ideas for subsequent installments, click here.)

Today’s post looks at another ability-related reason the trial lawyer decides to handle the appeal. He — and in this case, I’m referring to a trial lawyer that specializes in some substantive area of the law — thinks to himself:

“This case needs a specialist.”

The trial lawyer who says that rarely means an appellate specialist. Instead, the ace employment lawyer (to use just one example) thinks, “This employment case needs an employment lawyer like me on appeal, I can’t pass it off to an appellate lawyer.” Let’s take a look at that assumption.

Does the Case Require a Specialist?

First, let me make clear that I use the term “specialist” throughout this post in the generic sense. That is, I use it not to refer to someone who is certified as a specialist by her state bar, but to refer to someone who devotes most of their practice to a certain area of the law.*

Let’s assume you’ve got a construction case handled by a construction law litigator, and now it’s time for the appeal. The lawyer who fits the type I’m describing thinks that he’s too indispensable to the appeal to hand it off to an appellate lawyer.

He may be right. (Another thing you may not have expected me to write in this series.) He may be almost indispensable in a particular case. But does that mean he should handle the appeal himself?

Probably not. Specialized knowledge of the substantive law can certainly have its advantages on appeal. That’s why a smart appellate lawyer consults with the trial attorney in any case. But specialization can breed the same sort of tunnel vision as that bred by an intimate familiarity with the case: namely, an inability to let go of (or even recognize) weak arguments, a failure to recognize good ones, and keeping too many arguments. (See Part 3 of this series for more on those problems.)

How could a specialist confuse good arguments with bad ones? Because he fails to appreciate the differences between trial practice and appellate review. Great trial arguments based on your version of the facts won’t be worth much (if anything) if the jury didn’t ultimately agree with your version of the facts. Those arguments may have seemed awfully compelling presented to a jury, and the trouble is that the trial lawyer (and especially his client) may be so aghast at the jury’s refusal to agree with his set of facts that he refuses to let the argument go on appeal.

The Client Perspective

Clients hunger for specialists. (If you don’t believe me, believe this guy.) The sad part is, the typical client’s hunger for a specialist will usually lead the client to assume that the specialist he hired for his case in employment law, school law, personal injury law, construction law — you get the picture — is the right attorney to take that case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

It’s also possible that the client regards a long-time attorney client relationship with his law firm as a second, and equally important, form of specialization. A client that has had all its legal work, from regulatory compliance to the occasional (or not so occasional) lawsuit, handled by the same lawyer or firm for the last decade or more may view the trial lawyer (and the trial firm) as “specialists” in the client’s needs, regardless of the substantive area of the law at issue. An individual client whose solo lawyer has likewise addressed his needs over the years — wrote his will, handled his divorce, represented him in that drunk driving case, for example — may have the same mindset.

The “Last of the Generalists”

Both lawyers and their clients who are enthralled by the idea of having a specialist handle the appeal may tend to think in terms of the wrong specialties. It is not specialization in the client or in the substantive area of the law that usually matters most. It is the knowledge of appellate practice that can make the difference on appeal.

What does the client (and his or its lawyer) really need to consider? I think the answer, or at least a good chunk of it, was well expressed several months ago by D. Todd Smith of the Texas Appellate Law Blog. Writing on the related issue of whether in-house counsel should stick with big firms for their appeals, Todd wrote:

Appellate lawyers are perhaps the last of the generalists. Although appellate practice has gained notoriety as a specialty, it focuses less on the substantive law than on the lawyer’s research and writing ability, knowledge of appellate procedure, and familiarity with the court hearing the case. Because appeals are limited to the trial record, knowledge of the client’s business and history are not as important as the ability to guide the client through the appellate process with the goal for that specific case in mind.

I love that expression: “the last of the generalists.” Though it is not, of course, true in a technical sense — especially in smaller towns — I think it captures where appellate lawyers fit into a legal world increasingly dominated by specialists in various substantive areas of the law. Whether a client’s case was handled by a specialist in dog bites, toxic torts, automobile accidents, tax, employment, malpractice, wills and estates, business litigation (contact the tax dept. of Michigan Small Business services for details), or any of the myriad of other specialties, the appellate lawyer is ready to tackle it.

Try Working Together

For those lawyers and clients who just can’t bear to “hand the case off” to a new lawyer for the appeal, there is always the option of working with the appellate lawyer. Shared work arrangements can be customized to a given case. Increased expenses to the client may be surprisingly nominal, since the typical appellate lawyer usually confers to some degree with the trial lawyer in any event.

* NOTE: I provide the above definition of “specialist” because my own jurisdiction is quite picky about the term. The last I checked, a California lawyer may not refer to himself as a “specialist” unless he has been certified as a specialist by the state bar. That rule applies, at least, to areas in which the bar certifies specialists; I’m not sure whether it applies if the bar does not offer certification in one’s “specialty.” Hence, my generic use of the term in this post.

Why Some Lawyers and Their Clients are Reluctant to Engage Appellate Counsel, Part 2: “It’s Just Litigation.”

(NOTE: This post is the second in a series. To read the announcement of the series and/or leave your ideas for subsequent installments, click here.)

In my first post in this series, I broke down lawyers’ reasons for not engaging appellate counsel into two broad categories: those related to ability and those related to economics. Today, we will examine a reason related to ability:

It’s just litigation”, or “Hey, I’m a litigator, and appeals are litigation, so I can do it.

Are appeals litigation?  Well, let’s see.  Adverse parties?  Check.  Legal and/or factual disputes?  Check.  Courtroom and judges?  Check.  Judgments?  Check.  Yeah, I’d say that appeals are litigation.

That said, they are a continuation of litigation, and with crossing the boundary from trial court to court of appeal, the parties and their attorneys enter a new realm.  That realm has multiple judges hearing the same case, no juries, no discovery, few motions, and an emphasis on persuasive writing that is rivaled in the trial court only on dispositive motions.

As I  noted in my first post, many lawyers are comfortable, and  quite able, on both sides of the divide.  Neither this post nor any other in the series is meant to deride the skills of trial lawyers.

But there are pitfalls that await the lawyer who assumes appellate practice is no different than trial practice.  Perhaps the biggest is the standard of review.

Pitfalls in the Standard of Review.

The trial lawyer entering the appellate landscape for the first time may have difficulty navigating through it.  That can result in wasting time (and, for the client, hourly fees) on useless activities or argument, even a failure to even recognize the burden he or she faces on appeal.

One such useless exercise in the court of appeal that happens with shocking regularity is to argue to the court as if the three justices are a jury: this witness is believable, this one is not; that evidence should be disregarded; the other side’s story makes no sense, etc.  How do I know this happens?  I’ve talked to a couple of appellate justices — not a large enough sample to be of statistical significance, admittedly — who told me this happens regularly. Not necessarily frequently, but regularly.

This approach betrays the lawyer’s lack of familiarity with the most fundamental brick in the appellate arsenal: the standard of review.  Which is why I was so stunned by the justices’ revelations, even though I have seen appellant’s briefs that didn’t even mention the standard of review.  (Occasionally, you might even see a court neglect to state it!)

Simply put, an appeal isn’t your second chance to try the case.  It’s merely an opportunity to convince the court of appeal that the trial court erred and that the error prejudiced your client.

Of course, the evidence in the trial court can come into play in the court of appeal, just in a different way (usually).  But even in cases of substantial evidence review — in which the court of appeal will reverse if there is no substantial evidence to support a finding required by the judgment — persuasion based on credibility is generally out of place.

What’s more, unfamiliarity with the standards of review on appeal might cause a lawyer to miss good arguments entirely.  An undue concentration on the evidence produced at trial may lead the trial attorney to miss important issues preserved for appeal on a less deferential standard of review, and thus presenting a greater chance of success on appeal.  Is there a legal issue you’ve missed because you are so wound up in the presentation of evidence at trial?  If so, you’ve missed an opportunity to obtain “de novo” review, under which the court gives no deference to the trial court — your best shot at success.  In fact, that legal issue may be hidden within a more deferential standard — whether the trial court abused its discretion, or whether substantial evidence supports the judgment, may in turn rely on a question of law subject to de novo review.

Simply put, the simplicity of the standard of review structure — de novo review, abuse of discretion, and substantial evidence — masks a lot of nuance not readily discernible to someone unfamiliar with appellate practice.  It’s far more than a “smell test”.  Indeed, parties regularly argue over the applicable standard, either because the nature of the issue is misleading or because the applicable standard for a given judgment has not been established (such as here, here, or here, for example).  If it were really simple all the time, would there be a book on the subject?

I haven’t discussed some other pitfalls, mostly for the sake of brevity (if you can call this post brief).  Perhaps I will give this particular reason for not engaging appellate counsel — “it’s just litigation” — a few more posts of its own.


Finally, the trial lawyer may find that he or she simply does not like the appellate process.  As I noted in my first post:

Some trial lawyers just plain don’t like doing appeals.  For some, it may be because appeals lack everything they like about litigation: frequent confrontation, lots of court appearances, sleuthing through discovery, and lots of twists and turns.  Appellate practice usually isn’t a hotbed of excitement.

If your strengths lie in frequent confrontation, then maybe apeals aren’t for you, either as a matter of preference or a matter of skill set.  (This is especially true if you don’t like spending time in the law library or writing, but I’ll address that preference in a future post.)

The Client’s Perspective.

The client consideration that parallels the lawyer’s belief that “it’s just litigation” is really an absence of consideration.  That is, many clients may see no difference at all between their trial court action and the appeal.  The client is only likely to note the differences if the lawyer points them out.  And if the lawyer doesn’t see them, the lawyer cannot point them out.  Under these circumstances, the only time many clients are likely to seek an appellate attorney is if the client is genuinely displeased with the trial lawyer’s services.

However, I think this situation is changing over time.  I suspect that clients, like all consumers, are becoming more and more knowledgeable all the time about the services they receive.  The inquiries I receive from lay readers of my blog tell me that clients are learning that there is a difference between trial work and appellate work.

Clients almost always want a specialist when one is available.  An employment discrimination plaintiff doesn’t seek a personal injury lawyer when a plaintiff’s employment lawyer is available.  Over time, I expect more and more clients will seek new representation on appeal, and won’t need their trial lawyers to put them on notice of the differences between trial and appellate work.  They will challenge their trial lawyers’ unspoken assumption that the trial lawyer is always the right person to handle the appeal.

(NOTE: To access all posts in this series to date, click here.  Finally, allow me to again solicit your participation.  If you’d like to offer a topic for a post in this series, leave your comment in this post or, preferably, in the post announcing this series.  And don’t hesitate to repeat a topic someone has already left.  That will tell me there is greater interest in that topic.)

Client parallel: unawareness of appellate specialization

Gee, We’re Smart!

At his Legal-Writing Blog, Wayne Schiess shares some observations from one of his students, who aspires to be an appellate lawyer and worked in the appellate practice department of a law firm.  See the professor’s post for all the details, but among the student’s observations:

I realized why appellate lawyers at law firms are stereotypically labeled as the smartest lawyers at the firm. The fact that they can come to work, day in and day out, and spend hours thinking and writing at such a level makes them nothing less than brilliant, if you ask me.

I can’t figure out why, but that was my favorite part.

Actually, I think it’s a case of comparing apples to oranges.  I spent more than a decade litigating in trial courts, so I have a feel for both sides of the coin, and I think that whatever you like to do tends to be less mentally taxing than other things.

For example, one of the most mentally exhausting activities, in my experience, is listening to deposition or trial testimony.  Maybe that makes me odd, but trying to listen intently to every word, for hours on end, to make sure that a potentially significant disclosure doesn’t slip by used to leave me absolutely drained at the end of the day.

Egghead (Batman)Image via Wikipedia

By contrast, I can spend 12 straight hours in the library and emerge fresh as a daisy.  In a networking group I’m currently checking out, I jokingly tell people that on appeal, they want an egghead like me precisely because eggheads like me like spending all our time reading and writing.  And, as I point out here, some trial attorneys find appellate work just plain boring.

To each his own.

Hat tip: Texas Appellate Law Blog.

A Disregard for Fiduciary Duties that is “Without Precedent”

Picture this:

You represent the defendant in a lawsuit.  You don’t have time to handle his case — indeed, you admit as much on the record — and the court imposes terminating sanctions against your client for failing to respond to discovery.  Because of your admission, your client is allowed to obtain new counsel, but new counsel is unsuccessful in getting the sanctions order vacated, and a default judgment of $730,000 is entered against your client, who then promptly sues you for malpractice and, while that suit is pending, appeals the default judgment.  What do you do, besides give notice to your malpractice carrier?

If you’re the defendant’s first attorney in Styles v. Mumbert, case no, H029767 (6th Dist. July 15, 2009), you get the plaintiff in the original case (Styles) to assign her default judgment to you (for some undisclosed consideration), then, represented by another lawyer in your firm, you move the court of appeal to substitute you in as respondent in your former client’s (Mumbert’s) appeal from that judgment.  The court of appeal resists the invitation, concluding the opening paragraph of its opinion thus: “Finding that the proposed substitution violates multiple rules of Professional Conduct as well as the Business and Professions Code, we will deny the motion.”

The absurdity of the possible outcomes!  The court says it much better than I could:

If we allowed [attorney] Pagkas to substitute himself as respondent, in place of Styles, on appeal Pagkas would have to argue that the default judgment, for which he may be professionally responsible, should be reversed. He would argue that the appeal should fail, so that he could collect on the default judgment. This is directly contrary to Mumbert’s interest. While a reversal here would be to Pagkas’s absolute benefit in the legal malpractice action, reducing any potential damages for professional negligence owed to Mumbert, Pagkas appears to prefer the prospect of collecting the large default judgment from Mumbert. In fact, if the substitution were allowed, it is conceivable that Pagkas could prevail in both the malpractice action and in this appeal, leaving him with huge windfall at the expense of his former client. Pagkas’s disregard for his ongoing fiduciary duties to his former client in favor of his own personal gain is without precedent.

Unsurprisingly, Mumbert asked for sanctions for having to oppose the motion, and got them.  On sanctions:

Pagkas’s actions make a mockery of the Rules of Professional Conduct. We cannot conceive of, and the case law is devoid of, a scenario which could do more violence to the attorney-client relationship and the public trust in the legal system, than what Pagkas and his firm have done and seeks to do.  Despite the well founded opposition to the motion, citing to the relevant Rules of Professional Conduct and supporting case law, Pagkas and his attorney continue to urge that we grant the motion without cogent argument or cite to relevant supporting authority. Under these circumstances, sanctions are appropriate.

What of the original plaintiff?

Respondent Delia Styles, having sold her interest in this action, and having failed to file a respondent’s brief, is ordered to show cause within 15 days from the date of this opinion why her default should not be entered and the appeal proceed without opposition.

I think Ben Shatz might have had to create a new category just for this case if it had been decided before Whittier Law Review published his study of appellate sanctions.

UPDATE (7/16/08): Tulane University Law School professor Alan Childress at Legal Profession Blog offers his thoughts, as well as a clever follow-up post.

Listen to the Court the First Time

More chutzpah on appeal, this time in United States v. Collins, case no. 05-4708 (7th Cir., Dec. 14, 2007). A little out of my usual jurisdiction, but so outrageous I had to tell you about it (and once again sponge off the great work at Decision of the Day).

I’ll tell you only that this time the attorney gets spanked for making the exact same argument the court had described as “unbelievably frivolous” in a prior case involving the same attorney.

The argument? Go to this post at Decision of the Day, where you’ll also find a link to a page that shows the lawyer in Collins is not alone . . . and that the same argument is now being made in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chutzpah on Appeal

Chutzpah” is about the most polite word I could come up with for the appellant’s audacity in United States v. Moreland,  case no. 05-30541 (9th Cir., Dec. 13, 2007).

Moreland apparently swindled people out of $73 million, so I’m going to assume he had a little bit of money, legitimately earned, set aside for his defense.  Yet he fought tooth and nail to proceed pro se, which is where all his problems started.

The decision is covered very well, and in some detail, in this post at Decision of the Day, which begins:

In my line of work, I see all kinds of appellate arguments: brilliantly creative, colossally stupid, and everything in between. I enjoy the wacky ones the most, because they tend to inspire spirited opinions, which in turn gives me something interesting to blog about. But occasionally, an appellant makes a wacky argument that really gets under my skin. The Ninth Circuit dealt with three such examples in a decision issued yesterday.

Worthy reading.  And it’s worth noting that Moreland was represented on appeal.  I have to wonder if his lawyers winced as they filed the brief.

Using the Court of Appeals as a Crystal Ball

“Don’t do it” is the friendly advice from the Ninth in Global Horizons, Inc. v. U. S. Dept. of Labor, case no. 07-15116 (9th Cir. Dec. 13, 2007).  At the  end of its opinion affirming the denial of a preliminary injunction, the court notes that the appellant, Global Horizons, would have been better off pressing on with its permanent injunction claim while the appeal was pending rather than dragging its feet in the district court while hoping to get the Ninth Circuit’s views on the merits of the case:

Finally, we recognize that in the eleven months since Global Horizons filed the present appeal, the company has taken very few steps to move its application for permanent injunction forward in the district court. . . .  Twenty-five years ago in Sports Form, we admonished parties for appealing a preliminary injunction “in order to ascertain the views of the appellate court on the merits of the litigation.” 686 F.2d at 753. We repeat our concern. Because of our limited scope of review and the paucity of the factual record on a preliminary injunction application, our disposition “may provide little guidance as to the appropriate disposition on the merits” and will often “result in unnecessary delay to the parties and inefficient use of judicial resources.” Id. Given the purported urgency of Global Horizons’ claims, the company would have been better served to pursue aggressively its permanent injunction claim in the district court, rather than apparently awaiting the outcome of this appeal.

Consumer Attorneys Sue Supreme Court over Case Publication Rules

Newport Beach personal injury firm Bisnar | Chase announced on its California Injury Blog that it has filed suit against the California Supreme Court and a district of the Court of Appeal. While not 100% clear from the post, it appears that the firm is representing a personal injury client who alleges his due process and equal protection rights were violated by the Court of Appeal’s failure to publish its decision reversing a judgment after jury verdict in his favor against Southern California Edison. Specifically, it appears the Court of Appeal — presuming I tracked down the right decision on Westlaw — reversed the award because it found as a matter of law that the Edison employee who injured the plaintiff was not acting within the scope of her employment at the time (currently responsible – Orlando attorney Harvey Cohen).

Writes John Bisnar in the post:

When an appellate court issues a decision like that, it used to be a traditional expectation to express that in a written opinion, elaborating the reasoning behind that decision. Unfortunately, most recent rules imposed by the State Supreme Court have changed that expectation. Now, only opinions that “make law” are published.

Actually, the standards for publication have recently been liberalized. Changes to California Rule of Court 8.1105(c) that took effect last April were, according to this December 2006 press release from the Judicial Council, intended to:

clarify the criteria for publication for both justices and attorneys, better ensure the publication of all those opinions that may assist in the reasoned and orderly development of the law, and improve public confidence in the publication process.

The Bisnar | Chase blog post does not specify the actual causes of action pleaded in the complaint or the relief sought. If I can get my hands on a copy of the complaint, I’ll fill you in.

UPDATE (10/19/07): Welcome to everyone following the link from Appellate Law & Practice, and thanks to “S. COTUS” for the link.

I didn’t realize when I put up this post that Howard Bashman pointed out this lawsuit more than a week ago at How Appealing. When he saw my post, he was kind enough to e-mail a link to news coverage by McClatchy that explains at least part of the relief sought by the plaintiff. Before I was able to update this post with information from the article, I saw that the suit is the subject of Bashman’s column this week. He bases his analysis, however, on the McClatchy piece and the attorneys’ blog post, not the actual complaint.

Now I’m really interested in seeing this complaint. I’ll check its availability on PACER over the weekend. Look for another update before Monday.

UPDATE (10/20/07): This is frustrating. I found the case on PACER for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Califronia: Hild v. California Supreme Court, case no. 3:07-cv-05107-TEH, assigned to District Judge Thelton E. Henderson. Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero recused himself. The docket sheet describes the case as one for declaratory judgment.

That’s the best I can do from the information on PACER, because the complaint is not downloadable. (This is a pet gripe of mine. The documents in any given PACER docket that are downloadable seem completely random. Documents critical to understanding the case, like a complaint, are sometimes not downloadable, while documents relevant to nothing but scheduling are. Does anybody know if this is deliberate, or what PACER’s policy is?)

In any event, the McClatchy piece and Bashman’s column (definitely worth a read) together suggest that the plaintiff is seeking publication of his appellate court decision in order to increase the odds of Supreme Court review and perhaps even a right to have the appeal reheard on new briefs that include citations to unpublished cases and treating those cases as precedential. But I have to say that requires some reading between the lines and may not be accurate at all.

I’ve requested a copy of the complaint from Bisnar | Chase. If anyone knows somebody who may have a copy of the complaint — perhaps a reporter at the Daily Journal? — I’d appreciate it if you would e-mail me contact information for that person. Surely, there must have been an article in the Daily Journal about this case. I don’t have an account with them, so I would appreciate it if someone could e-mail me a link to news coverage in the Daily Journal — or any other source for that matter.

UPDATE (10/22/07): A colleague was kind enough to send me the October 5 Daily Journal article about this lawsuit.  About the only new thing I learned from it is that the suit apparently claims that under the liberalized guidelines I mentioned in the original post, the Court of Appeal should have published the Hild decision because it “‘dramatically broke new ground’ holding the facts of the unintentional accident were ‘indistinguishable as a matter of law’ from rape/sexual battery and intentional tort cases.”  (That quote is from the article, apparently quoting from the complaint.)

This will be one to watch, but absent new developments, I don’t think I’ll be adding anything.

One for the Little Guy . . . So Far

Professor Martin at California Appellate Report notes an interesting angle that I missed in Holcomb v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., case no. G037638 (4th Dist. Sept. 20, 2007): Holcomb is a pro se appellant who prevails against a corporate giant on the appeal.

Mr. Holcomb succeeds in partially reversing the trial court’s order sustaining Wells Fargo’s demurrer. There’s still a long road ahead for his case, of course. Time to look for a lawyer, I think.

Peremptory Challenges to Appellate Justices and Posting of Draft Appellate Opinions

Don’t get too excited!  The title of this post does not reflect changes to the Code of Civil Procedure. 

Instead, the title summarizes two of Nine Ideas for Improving the Administration of Justice offered by Los Angeles attorney Edwin B. Stegman in his guest column in the September 2007 California Bar Journal.  Specifically, Stegman suggests the following:

3.  We desperately need a CCP §170.6-type peremptory challenge of incompetent and unreasonable appellate justices and divisions.


7. Before oral argument, attorneys should be permitted to review research attorneys’ notes and appellate draft opinions. There is no advantage to secrecy. In some courts, research attorneys make the decisions. Sometimes they make mistakes. Litigators should have an opportunity to discover the mistakes and point them out to the judge. Furthermore, oral arguments would be more focused, saving time.

Let’s take these one at a time in the extended entry. . . .
Read More »

Prawfsblog Looking for Worst Legal Arguments

Here’s our second contest of the day related to bad legal skills.  Well, not a contest really, since there doesn’t appear to be a plan to announce a winner or award prizes. 

Prawfsblawg is soliciting examples of “the weakest legal argument you’ve ever heard.”  Add your contribution to the comments at this post at Prawfsblawg.  As of this posting, there were 56 comments already.

Appellate practice offers a whole new area of bad argument: the argument that was proper at trial but has no place at all in the court of appeal even if legally correct.  Using emotion-laden arguments, arguing credibility and relative weight of the evidence are some examples.

I haven’t seen it much, but a couple of justices have told me that an unbelievable number of attorneys attempt to re-try their cases in the court of appeal rather than argue the applicable standard of review.  What might have been a great, compelling argument in the trial court may be entirely inappropriate in the Court of Appeal.  But that doesn’t stop lawyers inexperienced in appeals from making them.

UPDATE (8/15/07): Oh, yeah. Thanks to Appellate Law & Practice for the link.

En Banc Ninth Circuit Resolves Intra-Circuit Split on Standard of Review in Confrontation Clause Challenges

In United States v. Larson, case no. 05-30076 (August 1, 2007), an en banc Ninth Circuit court resolves a 3-way intra-circuit split on the standard of review to apply in Confrontation Clause challenges. Citing one line of Ninth Circuit cases applying de novo review, another reviewing for abuse of discretion, and a third applying a “combination” of these two standards, the courts states that it is adopting the last of these, but its analysis seems less than clear to this reader . . .

Read More »

Some Appellate Law Reminders Coming Up

Last week saw several published decisions with good discussions of appellate procedure and jurisdiction.  The most in-depth is the Ninth Circuit case I blogged about here, but there are several California decisions to note.  I finally got a chance to catch up on some of them over the weekend, and will post about them in the next few days. (They ought to remain good law for at least that long!) They are great reminders of some lesser-known rules applicable in unusual situations.

FRCP Amendments Approved and Transmitted to Congress

The Supreme Court approved amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and transmitted those amendments to Congress on April 30.  They will take effect December 1, 2007 unless Congress legislates their rejection, modification, or deferral. 

Rules 1-86 were “restyled” — revised with the intent to make them easier to read and understand without substantively changing them.  For example, rule 59, governing new trial motions, is amended so subsection (a) is changed from a single, lengthy paragraph into paragraphs (a)(1)(A), (a)(1)(B), and (a)(2).  Not only easier on the eyes, but much easier to comprehend.

The amendments contain substantive changes as well, but none directly relating to the rules regarding entry of judgment and post-trial practice.

Helpful links to the advisory committee reports, including a side-by-side run-down of the style changes between old and proposed new rules, are provided here and here courtesy of Professors Counsellor and Ryan at Baylor Law School (blogging at Civil Procedure Prof Blog), and Professor Spencer at the University of Richmond School of Law (blogging at Federal Civil Practice Bulletin), respectively.

Is it Futile to Cite Federal District Court Opinions? (Updated)

At How Appealing, Howard Bashman gives us this post about citing to district court opinions. He quotes a Seventh Circuit opinion decided yesterday that admonishes lawyers not to cite district court opinions, because they “lack authoritative effect,” and instead to incorporate “into their own presentations” whatever persuasive rationale is offered in the opinion.

Bashman appears to doubt lawyers will heed this advice:

The reality is that advocates will always regard a legal proposition that a judge has accepted — even if only a “lowly” federal district judge — as potentially more worthy of another court’s credence than a proposition for which no authority is cited.

I think he’s right. And opposing lawyers will always feel compelled to respond on the merits rather than point out the cited case’s lack of authoritative effect.

UPDATE (5/4/07): I got to thinking about this post last night and had some thoughts for updating it today. It could wait until my thoughts formed more completely. After all, the blog was only in its fourth day and had a total of 20 or so hits. Then I woke up to see the avalanche of hits from the How Appealing blog (thanks for the traffic, Mr. Bashman) and wished I stayed up late last night to update.

There’s a good reason lawyers will always feel compelled to respond to the merits of a cited district court opinion. They should — at least if the merits were presented. The key is to stick to the merits without fighting over the significance that the point has been adopted by a district court.

Take a close look at where the Seventh Circuit drew the line. Here is what Chief Judge Easterbrook’s opinion said:

Finally, the litigants have debated at length the significance of Chicago Truck Drivers Health & Welfare Fund v. Teamsters Local 710, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42877 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 4, 2005), which discusses the handling of stock received in demutualization and the importance of truck drivers integrity, even using resources as truck accident attorneys Fielding Law in case of injuries during work. It is a pointless debate. The Teamsters’ plans have terms different from those of the Professional Benefit Trust. What’s more, decisions of district judges have no authoritative effect. [Citations.] District judges’ opinions often contain persuasive observations, but these can be incorporated into the parties’ briefs. It is never helpful to have an [sic] lengthy exchange on what a particular district court’s opinion “really means” and whether that case was correctly decided. The parties should learn what the opinion has to teach and weave its wisdom into their own presentations.

What’s the difference between arguing “whether the case was correctly decided” and “weaving its wisdom” into a brief, after which the parties will debate that wisdom? The only difference seems to be an actual citation to the opinion. Thus, the bottom line appears to be that the court wants to hear an argument about the merits of a position taken by a district court, but it doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) care that a district court has actually adopted that position.

Fight over the merits of an idea, proposition, argument or what have you all you like. Just don’t slug it out over the significance of a district court having said it.