Category Archives: Appellate Procedure

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

What happens when standards of review collide?

Sometimes . . . nothing. As in Pielstick v. MidFirst Bank, case no. B247106 (2d Dist. Mar 26, 2014), in which the court was asked to reverse the trial court’s refusal to allow a plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss his suit after the hearing on demurrers had begun. First issue: what standard of review applies?

There is some conflicting authority as to the appropriate standard of review for a request to voluntarily dismiss a case pursuant to section 581. The majority of cases apply a de novo standard, reviewing the issue as a matter of law where it involves the application of undisputed facts to the statute. [Citations.]

However, in Tire Distributors, Inc. v. Cobrae (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 538 (Tire Distributors), Division Eight of this District held that an abuse of discretion standard is more appropriate, noting that “every court to consider the issue has based its holding on the facts and circumstances surrounding the dismissal, evaluating whether allowing the dismissal to stand would be unfair or would endorse dishonest litigation tactics.”

This conflict doesn’t turn out to be a problem for the court at all, as it concludes: “We find that we need not resolve the apparent conflict between the cases cited above. Under either standard, no error occurred.” (Emphasis added.)

Once again, an appellate court demonstrates that it will not decide issues unnecessary to the resolution of the case.

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?

Thoughts on publication of opinions imposing appellate sanctions for frivolousness

This recent Southern California Appellate News post by Ben Shatz led me to a case that got me thinking further about the utility of publishing opinions imposing appellate sanctions. More than six years ago, I posted in response to a law review article that Ben co-authored with another, which surveyed the cases imposing appellate sanctions. As I recall, the article limited the time frame of the survey to the period since unpublished decisions became available online, since so many of the decisions imposing sanctions are never published. That led me to write:

I was struck by how many of the cited cases were unreported.  The Court of Appeal should want to publicize the conduct that leads to sanctions, because this would inform and deter.  It could be that sanctions are so rare (awarded in approximately 1 out of every 500 cases during the studied period) that the Court of Appeal finds additional deterrence unnecessary.

My thinking at the time was that, as a rule of thumb, opinions imposing appellate sanctions should generally be published, but I hadn’t really taken into account the criteria for publication. The mere imposition of sanctions does not automatically fit within any of the established criteria for publication in rule 8.1105(c)(6), Cal. Rules of Court. I was thinking in the abstract that publication should be encouraged, even if it meant amending rule 8.1105.

However, I think my initial concerns were probably misplaced. Educating attorneys on what is and is not sanctionable was the intent behind my initial thought that sanctions decisions should be published, but is that really needed? Consider the standard for frivolousness:  ”whether any reasonable person would agree that the point is totally and completely devoid of merit.” In other words, no reasonable person would agree that the point is not frivolous. Doe we need guidance on that?

That standard for frivolousness is at odds with the idea that any sanctions decision would be a close call. Publication of an opinion imposing sanctions for frivolousness might frequently undermine the very basis for the imposition of sanctions, because it would suggest that the imposition of sanctions was a close enough call that it requires an explanation justifying publication under rule 8.1105. Those should be rare occasions, indeed.

If you have thoughts on this, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Make the argument yours, not someone else’s

You represent an appellant in a state court action who claims the action is precluded by a prior federal court action because the plaintiff split his cause of action between the two lawsuits. Your first argument is under the longstanding “primary rights” standard applied by the California courts. Your second is that the court should apply the federal “transaction” standard, which is far more favorable to your position. Only one standard can apply, and you are asking the appellate court to apply a federal standard not previously applied by the California courts. Throw into the mix the fact that the continuing vitality of the California “primary rights” standard was recently reaffirmed by the California Supreme Court, and you can see you’ve got your work cut out for you.

That is the uphill climb that appellant faced in FujiFilm Corp. v. Yang, case no. B243770 (2d Dist., Jan. 24, 2014). The Court of Appeal rejects the invitation to apply the federal “transaction” standard and holds that under the California “primary right” standard, there was no splitting of the cause of action, and thus no preclusion.

One can debate the best way to argue for application of the federal standard — if at all — in such circumstances. Perhaps unique underlying facts or the federal-state dichotomy between the two actions would give an opening to argue that the federal standard should be applied in this particular instance. But nothing like that is mentioned in the Court of Appeal’s rather uncharitable assessment of the appellant’s effort (emphasis mine):

Appellant urges that we apply the “transaction” doctrine of federal law, instead of California’s primary rights theory, to find Fuji wrongfully split its cause of action. We need not linger on appellant’s request, however, because she does not cite any California authority applying the transaction doctrine to define a cause of action. Instead of pertinent case law to support her position, her appellant’s brief relies solely on an eight-and-a-half page block quotation from a 15-year-old law review article. But our Supreme Court as recently as three years ago affirmed that the primary rights theory applies in California. [Citation.] We are not free to depart from binding Supreme Court precedent, and we decline appellant’s invitation to make new law by adopting the federal transaction doctrine. [Citation.]

That’s some quotation!

Was the appellant just trying to tee the case up for review by the California Supreme Court? We’ll see. I’ll update this post if a petition for review is filed.

UPDATE (3/28/2014): The remittitur issued today. No petition for review was filed with the Supreme Court.

Emotional interest falls short of legal standing to appeal dependency ruling

As a general rule, only a person “aggrieved” by a judgment has standing to appeal from it. Is a mother without reunification services “aggrieved” by a judgment granting her 18-year-old child’s request for the termination of dependency jurisdiction? The Court of Appeal answers “no” in In re J.C., case no. G048720 (4th Dist. January 21, 2014), and dismisses the appeal.

J.C., the child of divorced parents, had been living with her father before being declared a dependent of the court a few months after her 15th birthday, when the court found that her father failed to ensure she attended school or get treatment for a psychiatric condition. After treatment at a facility, J.C. was placed in foster care and continued to improve. On her 18th birthday, she asked the court to terminate dependency jurisdiction (though she could have remained a dependent until age 21) so she could return to living with her father. Her mother appealed.

Emotion naturally runs high in dependency cases, but standing based on emotional concern for a child is not enough to confer legal standing to appeal:

Mother asserts she has standing because the termination of jurisdiction resulted in J.C. living with father, and mother worries father will neglect J.C.’s psychiatric treatment, which will damage mother’s relationship with J.C. That interest, while perfectly understandable on an emotional level, does not confer legal standing.

The court does not casually dismiss mother’s interest here. The opinion walks the reader through the standing analysis rather clearly, starting with the proposition that while standing to appeal is liberally construed, only a person “aggrieved” by a decision may appeal from it. That requires a court to “precisely identify [the appellant's] interest in the matter.”

The court noted that a parent’s interest in the companionship, care, custody and management of a child “is no longer paramount” once reunification services end; at that point, “the focus shifts to the needs of the child for permanency and stability.” Mother this faced an uphill battle to prove standing because her interest had been “significantly reduced” upon the termination of reunification services

But it was the fact that J.C. had turned 18 that ultimately precluded standing. The Court stated that J.C.’s decision to ask for termination of dependency jurisdiction was an exercise of her “rights and responsibilities that come with adulthood” and thus not subject to parental oversight — a point illustrated by the fact that mother was not even entitled to notice of the hearing on J.C.’s request for termination of dependency jurisdiction.

Judge’s disqualification results in new trial for failure to issue a statement of decision

Appeals based on a trial court’s refusal to issue a statement of decision require some soul searching. Usually, a successful appeal will merely result in the case being remanded to the trial court to issue a statement of decision, and the successful appellant may find himself no better off than he was before.

But what if the judge that tried the case is not available to issue the statement of decision? In Wallis v. PHL Associates, Inc., case no. C066545 (3d Dist., October 17, 2013), you will find out. The judge who conducted the bench trial in Wallis was peremptorily disqualified after the bench trial. Since he was thus unavailable to prepare a statement of decision, the Court of Appeal decides that “the only appropriate appellate remedy in this case is a remand for a new trial on the equitable causes of action.”

A standard of review that’s a mouthful

Appellate Attorney Jeanne Collachia is both witty and correct with this statement on her website: “Just like there are three things you need to know about real estate, there are three things you need to know about appeals — Standard of Review — Standard of Review — Standard of Review.” Naturally, I have stressed the standard of review too, with many posts at least touching on subtleties in the standard of review or disputes over which standard applies. Determining the applicable standard can sometimes be tricky. Sometimes, multiple standards apply, each applicable to a different stage of reasoning.

Now, imagine you’re an accountant representing himself on a writ of administrative mandamus, challenging the revocation of your Certified Public Accountant license. You’re not a lawyer, so you would probably appreciate an easy-to-understand, easy-to-apply standard of review. But you wouldn’t get it, as the self-represented plaintiff and appellant in Cassidy v. California Board of Accountancy, case no. G046663 (Fourth District, Sept. 9, 2013, publication ordered Oct. 16, 2013, learned the hard way:

When considering a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus, a court (whether a trial court in the first instance or an appellate court on appeal from the trial court‟s decision) considers the administrative agency‟s findings and decision to determine whether they are supported by the evidence and may also consider whether the agency abused its discretion in imposing its penalty. (Cal. Administrative Hearing Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 2d ed. 2010) § 8.107, p. 495.)
Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 delimits the scope of the trialcourt‟s inquiry. The trial court considers whether the respondent agency lacked jurisdiction; “whether there was a fair trial; and whether there was any prejudicial abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion is established if the respondent has not proceeded in the manner required by law, the . . . decision is not supported by the findings, or the findings are not supported by the evidence.” (Id., subd. (b).) In reviewing the findings, the trial court exercises its independent judgment if statutorily required to do so or if the administrative decision involves a “„fundamental vested right‟” (2 Cal. Administrative Mandamus (Cont.Ed.Bar 3d ed. 2011) § 16.52, p. 640), such as revocation of a professional license (Bixby v. Pierno (1971) 4 Cal.3d 130, 146). In such cases, “abuse of discretion is established if the court determines that the findings are not supported by the weight of the evidence.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5, subd. (c).) Nonetheless, “[i]n exercising its independent judgment, a trial court must afford a strong presumption of correctness concerning the administrative findings, and the party challenging the administrative decision bears the burden of convincing the court that the administrative findings are contrary to the weight of the evidence.” (Fukuda v. City of Angels (1999) 20 Cal.4th 805, 817 (Fukuda).) “The scope of the trial before the superior court is not an unqualified or unlimited trial de novo, but the trial proceeds upon a consideration of the record of the administrative proceedings which is received in evidence and marked as an exhibit.” (Borror v. Department of Investment (1971) 15 Cal.App.3d 531, 537; see also Helene Curtis, Inc. v. Los Angeles County Assessment Appeals Bds. (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 29, 37 [in Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5 proceeding, evidence limited to administrative record with the narrow, discretionary exception set forth in subd. (e) for evidence that could not reasonably have been produced or was improperly excluded at administrative hearing].)
An appellate court applies the following standards of review to a trial court‟s denial of a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus. First, if the trial court exercised its independent judgment, we review the record to determine whether the court‟s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, resolving all evidentiary conflicts and drawing all legitimate and reasonable inferences in favor of the court‟s decision. (Fukuda, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 824 [“Even when, as here, the trial court is required to review an administrative decision under the independent judgment standard of review, the standard of review on appeal of the trial court‟s determination is the substantial evidence test”]; Bixby v. Pierno, supra, 4 Cal.3d 130, 143, fn. 10 [“After the trial court has exercised its independent judgment upon the weight of the evidence, an appellate court need only review the record to determine whether the trial court‟s findings are supported by substantial evidence”].) Second, “to the extent pure questions of law (e.g., jurisdiction) were decided at the trial court upon undisputed facts, a de novo standard will apply at the appellate level.” (Anserv Ins. Services, Inc.. v. Kelso (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 197, 204.) Third, we review de novo whether the agency‟s imposition of aparticular penalty on the petitioner constituted an abuse of discretion by the agency. (Antelope Valley Press v. Poizner (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 839, 851; Szmaciarz v. State Personnel Bd. (1978) 79 Cal.App.3d 904, 921.) But we will not disturb the agency’s choice of penalty absent “an arbitrary, capricious or patently abusive exercise of discretion” by the administrative agency. (Cadilla v. Board of Medical Examiners (1972) 26 Cal.App.3d 961, 966.)
So, how do you suppose this pro per appellant fared? Unsurprisingly, the Court of Appeal observed that “On appeal, Cassidy in many respects misapprehends the scope of our review.” No doubt, he considered it “legalese.”

Appellate lessons abound in case involving a creative but dubious argument on how a tentative ruling should affect appellate review

Last year, I wrote about a dubious but creative argument by a respondent that a party’s submission to a tentative ruling on a motion forfeited that party’s right to challenge the motion ruling on appeal. As you might remember, that went nowhere.

The latest creative (and dubious) use on appeal of a tentative ruling — again unsuccessful — comes in Meddock v. County of Yolo, case no. C070262 (3d Dist., filed Sept. 10, 2013, ordered published October 4, 2013). Meddock appealed from a summary judgment for the defendant. His argument on how the tentative ruling on the defendant’s summary judgment motion should play into the appellate court’s analysis, and the court’s rejection of that argument, appear in footnote 4 of the opinion:

Quoting the generality that “doubts” about summary judgment should be resolved against granting it (see, e.g., Hamburg v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 497, 502 (Hamburg)) and noting that the tentative ruling was in his favor, Meddock asserts the trial court must have had doubts, and therefore summary judgment was improper. Meddock cites no authority to support this argument. To agree with his argument would defeat the purpose of tentative rulings, that is, to focus the parties on the dispositive issues before the court (see Younger, Cal. Motions (2011–2012) Tentative Rulings, § 4.53, p. 132) and would preclude us from exercising our independent review to determine whether triable issues of fact exist. (See Hamburg, supra, 116 Cal.App.4th at pp. 502–503.) Moreover, the theory on which the tentative ruling was based — that the pavement contributed to the accident — has been abandoned by Meddock, as we have explained ante.

To my mind, the court should have given more emphasis to the point that the appellant’s argument is inconsistent with the independent review of a summary judgment. It does make the point, noting that accepting the appellant’s argument “would preclude us from exercising our independent review to determine whether triable issues of fact exist” — another way of saying that the trial court’s doubts are irrelevant because the trial court’s exercise of discretion is not at issue in the independent review afforded a summary judgment — but it is a shame to see the point buried in the middle of the footnote. As correct as the other points in the footnote may be, they are just gravy.

The other appellate lessons in this case have nothing to do with the trial court’s tentative ruling, but it is unusual to see so many strung together in one case:

  1. Make it or waive it. Meddock had multiple arguments he could have made in opposition to summary judgment, but explicitly disclaimed several at the summary judgment hearing and made no attempt to argue them on appeal, so they were deemed abandoned.
  2. Watch what you concede on a summary judgment motion. Parties sometimes concede facts on summary judgment knowing that the concession will not bind them at trial. But why do so when the moving party fails to provide supporting evidence for them? Here, the decision notes that both sides made unsupported factual assertions, but the court accepted them as true since the parties agreed on them.
  3. Keep your standards of review straight. Appellant wasn’t the only party to advance an argument inconsistent with the standard of review. The respondent argued that evidentiary gaps in the record must be construed in its favor. This argument apparently relied on the general rule that an appellate court “must draw reasonable evidentiary inferences in favor of the judgment,” but that rule has no application in the independent review afforded a summary judgment.

Supreme Court reverses Kurwa v. Kislinger – there are limits to the manufacture of appellate jurisdiction

Even most non-appellate lawyers are familiar with the “one final judgment rule,” under which a judgment is not appealable unless it disposes of all of the claims between the parties to the appeal. Plaintiffs who have had some (but not all) claims dismissed after a demurrer or summary adjudication either have to defer appellate review of the ruling until the remaining claims have been resolved, or dismiss the remaining claims with prejudice so as to create a judgment that disposes of all claims and is thus appealable. (Of course, the plaintiff also has the option of petitioning for writ relief from the summary adjudication order.)

In Kurwa v. Kislinger (2013) 57 Cal.4th 1097, the parties tried to preserve their defamation crossclaims against each other by stipulating to dismiss them without prejudice and waiving the statute of limitations, so that they could be revived after the appeal of the ruling knocking out the plaintiff’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty and related claims. Prior to the Court of Appeal decision in Kurwa, a consistent line of cases starting with Don Jose’s Restaurant, Inc. v. Truck insurance Exchange (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 115 had held that such an arrangement did not create an appealable judgment because there was no finality in the disposition of the dismissed claims. The Court of Appeal in Kurwa, however, departed from this reasoning and concluded that dismissals without prejudice and with waivers of the statute of limitations create an appealable judgment because there are no longer any claims “pending” in the trial court.

The Supreme Court reverses in a unanimous decision:

We disagree with the appellate court below, and agree with Don Jose’s and the decisions following it, including Abatti [v. Imperial Irrigation Dist. (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 650] . When, as here, the trial court has resolved some causes of action and the others are voluntarily dismissed, but the parties have agreed to preserve the voluntarily dismissed counts for potential litigation upon conclusion of the appeal from the judgment rendered, the judgment is one that “fails to complete the disposition of all the causes of action between the parties” (Morehart [v. County of Santa Barbara], supra, [1994] 7 Cal.4th [725] at p. 743) and is therefore not appealable.

The Court of Appeal below was correct that causes of action the parties have dismissed without prejudice are no longer pending in the trial court, in the sense that no immediate action remains for the trial court to take on such counts. But where the parties, by waiver or agreed tolling of the statute of limitations or a similar agreement, have arranged for those causes of action to be resurrected upon completion of the appeal, they remain “legally alive” in substance and effect. (Hill v. City of Clovis, supra, [1998] 63 Cal.App.4th [434] at p. 445.) The rule of the lower court, under which a voluntary dismissal is considered to dispose of a cause of action regardless of any agreement facilitating its future litigation, elevates form over substance and permits parties to evade the one final judgment rule of section 904.1, subdivision (a), through what the Don Jose’s court aptly called an “artifice.” (Don Jose’s, supra, 53 Cal.App.4th at p. 116.)

The Abatti case mentioned by the Supreme Court was decided after the Court of Appeal had decided Kurwa and represents a middle ground. In Abatti, judgment was entered after the plaintiff dismissed claims without prejudice and without any waiver or tolling of the statute of limitations. This absence of an agreement assuring that the dismissed claims could be litigated following the appeal was a distinguishing feature in the eyes of the Abatti court:

[C]laims that are dismissed without prejudice are no less final for purposes of the one final judgment rule than are adjudicated claims, unless, as in Don Jose’s Restaurant and its progeny, there is a stipulation between the parties that facilitates potential future litigation of the dismissed claims.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court specifically states that it agrees with Abatti even though its Kurwa opinion explicitly limits the issue before the court to those cases that, unlike the dismissals without prejudice in Abatti, include stipulations to keep the dismissed claims alive:

This case poses the question whether an appeal may be taken when the judgment disposes of fewer than all the pled causes of action by dismissal with prejudice, and the parties agree to dismiss the remaining counts without prejudice and waive operation of the statute of limitations on those remaining causes of action.

In an amicus brief, the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers raises a point that has always bugged me. The one final judgment rule is frequently cited as a means to avoid piecemeal litigation, but that is only true of litigation in the Court of Appeal. It necessarily means that cases may have to be tried piecemeal. The Academy argued that a rule on finality should promote efficiency at the trial level as well as the appellate level by allowing the parties “as much autonomy and choice as possible.” The Supreme Court isn’t buying it:

We are not free, however, to adopt whatever rule we find best balances the interests of party autonomy or trial and appellate efficiency. Unlike jurisdictions that provide for trial courts’ selective entry of final judgments on fewer than all claims for relief (see, e.g., Fed. Rules Civ.Proc., rule 54(b), 28 U.S.C.) or for interlocutory appeals in the discretion of the reviewing court (see, e.g., 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b)), California law provides no case-by-case efficiency exception to the one final judgment rule for appealability. Where unusual circumstances justify it, review of interlocutory judgments may be obtained by petition for writ of mandate, but not by appeal. ([Code Civ. Proc.,] § 904.1, subd. (a); Morehart, supra, 7 Cal.4th at pp. 743-744.) The question is thus not what rule will best serve litigants and trial courts, but what rule is most consistent with the policy against piecemeal appeals codified in section 904.1 and vindicated in Morehart.

I think the court paints a somewhat rosy picture of writ review here by referring merely to “unusual circumstances” without mentioning that those circumstances are found present in less than 10% of writ proceedings. Nonetheless, a prospective appellant who values the claims disposed of by the trial court more than his remaining claims, but wants to keep all options open as long as possible, should consider first seeking writ review and, if unsuccessful, then dismiss his remaining claims with prejudice and appeal from the ensuing judgment

“Normally, we would begin by . . . ” — departures from the usual analytical framework on appeal

Any time a Court of Appeal decision starts its analysis with “normally,” you should sit up and take notice. It gives you a hint that the case may suggest ways for you to depart slightly from the normal analytical framework when the right case presents itself.

This time, the tip comes from Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. v.  Brookfield Crystal Cove, LLC, case no. G046731 (4th Dist., August 28, 2013, modified September 26, 2013). The plaintiff was an insurer that sued a contractor in subrogation to recover costs for its insured’s relocation expenses incurred while repairs were being made to property damage resulting from construction defects. The contractor successfully demurred on the ground that the complaint was barred by the limitations period in the Right to Repair Act (Civ. Code, § 895 et seq.). On appeal, the insurer contended that the Right to Repair Act did not abrogate common law remedies for construction defects resulting in actual property damage.

The case presents a straight-up question of statutory construction: is the Right to Repair Act the exclusive remedy for construction defects that result in property damage?

Typically, one begins analysis of statutory construction with the language of the statute itself, but Liberty Mutual suggests there may be cases where the most persuasive argument may be to start elsewhere:

The issue before us is whether Liberty Mutual’s complaint in subrogation falls exclusively within the Right to Repair Act, and therefore is time-barred. We start with a brief history of the Act and identification of the problem it was intended to address. Normally, we would begin by analyzing the language of the statute. In this case, however, the language of the statute can be best considered with an understanding of the Act‟s impetus and purpose.

(Emphasis added, footnote omitted.)

Here, what made the legislative history such an attractive starting point for the appellant and the court was that the intent to overturn case law was explicitly stated in a committee report on the bill. From there, it was easy to explain the limited intent of the statute and prevent a broader application that would require dismissal of the appellant’s complaint. The judgment of dismissal was reversed.

Lesson learned: just because there are particular analytical rules that usually apply, don’t feel hidebound.

Even disobedience of trial courts in other states can get your California appeal dismissed

Last Thursday’s decision in Stoltenberg v. Ampton Investments Inc., case no. B235731 (2d. Dist. April 4, 2013) demonstrates the hazards of being unable to stay enforcement of a money judgment against you while your appeal is pending . . . and how much trouble you can get in for going too far in resisting those enforcement efforts. How much trouble? Well, is having your appeal dismissed enough trouble for ya?

Ampton had the misfortune of losing at trial and having a judgment of more than $8 million dollars entered against it. Ampton appealed, but did not post a bond to stay enforcement of the judgment. When the plaintiffs registered the California judgment in Ampton’s home state of New York and then subpoenaed financial records, Ampton ignored the subpoena. Plaintiffs asked the New York trial court to find Ampton in contempt. Ampton escaped contempt but was ordered to respond to the subpoena. When Ampton refused to do so, Plaintiffs again sought a contempt finding against Ampton, and that time they got it: Ampton was ordered to pay $500 in sanctions and to comply with the subpoena within 30 days or face further sanctions.

By now, you would think that Ampton might finally accept the reality that its own failure to stay enforcement of the judgment pending appeal carries consequences that it would have to live with, and comply with the contempt order. But . . . that’s not what Ampton did. When Ampton failed to comply with the New York contempt order, Plaintiffs moved to dismiss Ampton’s California appeal, arguing that Ampton’s disobedience of the New York trial court contempt order was sufficient to invoke the “disentitlement doctrine.” After much procedural wrangling (which makes for interesting reading but is unnecessary to cover here), Plaintiffs succeeded in getting Ampton’s appeal dismissed.

Let’s start with the court’s description of the disentitlement doctrine (citations omitted):

An appellate court has the inherent power, under the “disentitlement doctrine,” to dismiss an appeal by a party that refuses to comply with a lower court order. As the Supreme Court observed . . . “A party to an action cannot, with right or reason, ask the aid and assistance of a court in hearing his demands while he stands in an attitude of contempt to legal orders and processes of the courts of this state.

We recently explained the equitable rationale underlying the doctrine. “‘Dismissal is not “a penalty imposed as a punishment for criminal contempt. It is an exercise of a state court‟s inherent power to use its processes to induce compliance” with a presumptively valid order’ . . .  Appellate disentitlement “is not a jurisdictional doctrine, but a discretionary tool that may be applied when the balance of the equitable concerns make it a proper sanction . . . . “No formal judgment of contempt is required; an appellate court “may dismiss an appeal where there has been willful disobedience or obstructive tactics.” The doctrine “is based upon fundamental equity and is not to be frustrated by technicalities.”

The Court of Appeal has no problem finding the doctrine applicable here. After rejecting a few contentions that were squarely against precedent (why the heck were those arguments made?), the court addresses the one issue that had even a chance of succeeding: that Ampton’s appeal could not be dismissed under the disentitlement doctrine because Ampton disobeyed orders only of a court of foreign jurisdiction rather than orders from a California trial court.

It’s a valiant effort, but the Court of Appeal finds no reason to treat disobedience of foreign court orders any differently from those of California trial court for purposes of the disentitlement doctrine. The court first cites the “full faith and credit” clause of the federal constitution, but also notes a very practical reason for applying the disentitlement doctrine in these circumstances (citations and footnote omitted):

Had plaintiffs attempted to enforce the judgment in California by propounding postjudgment special interrogatories seeking defendants’ financial information, including information about assets defendants may have in New York, the disentitlement doctrine would have applied to any noncompliance with the California trial court‟s orders compelling responses to those interrogatories.  For purposes of the disentitlement doctrine, there is no meaningful distinction between New York trial court orders and California trial court orders related to enforcement of a California judgment. The orders of the New York court in issue were based solely on a California money judgment and were intended to aid in the enforcement of that judgment. Thus, by violating those orders, defendants are obstructing and frustrating the enforcement of a judgment of this state, while at the same time seeking relief concerned that judgment in this court. Under the well-established disentitlement doctrine, defendants are not entitled to the relief they seek on appeal.

UPDATE: Interestingly, the court stayed its dismissal for 30 days to allow Ampton to seek reinstatement of the appeal, but cautioning that it was not suggesting or implying how it would act on such a request.  So, naturally, Ampton did so, but only at the last minute and not very well. Ampton filed an initial motion that provided only an unsworn account of Ampton’s purported compliance with the New York Subpoena, a “supplement” to that motion regarding further New York proceedings, a petition for rehearing and a “renewed” motion for reinstatement (this time supported by sworn declarations),  and finally a “supplement” to the renewed motion, with a flurry of orders from the New York court, all for naught. The Court of Appeal found that Ampton failed to prove that it had ceased playing games:

Defendants have had two months since our initial opinion to provide us with a competent and unequivocal showing that they had complied fully with plaintiffs’ information subpoena and that the New York court had made an express finding of full compliance. Defendants and plaintiffs have both provided their versions of the oral proceedings before the court, but apparently those proceedings were “off the record.” Had the New York trial court, knowing of our deadline, considered our dismissal order inequitable, that court presumably would have acted upon the pending motions before it with respect to compliance with its orders. Moreover, it was defendants’ burden to provide us with an adequate record, and that would include a transcript of a proceeding “on the record” or a reasonable substitute for such a transcript. (See Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.137.) Defendants have been making last-minute efforts to avoid the disentitlement doctrine, but these efforts are too little and too late.

If you are unable to stay the judgment pending appeal, use every legitimate means at your disposal to forestall enforcement (the requirements for many judgment enforcement proceedings are highly technical, and noncompliance by the judgment creditor can delay things for a while), or try to settle the case (though admittedly, an appeal without a stay of the judgment does not create a lot of leverage), but don’t play games with judgment enforcement. The best appellate argument in the world is worthless if the Court of Appeal dismisses your appeal under the disentitlement doctrine before it ever reaches the merits.

What is the appellate “doghouse,” and why should you care?

No, I’m not talking about that imaginary place that your client puts you in if you lose the case. I’m talking about the mysterious “doghouse” references one sees when looking at the online docket of a California Supreme Court case. Take this snippet from the docket of a recently decided case, which shows that the record reached the Supreme Court on March 18, 2010:

The mysterious "doghouse"

Now, it seems rather obvious from the above image that a doghouse is some measure of the volume of the record. And, if you have petitioned the Supreme Court for review, you can guesstimate the size of a doghouse based on how many doghouses the record in your case fills.  But “doghouse” is a curious enough term in a court context that at a seminar I attended yesterday on the subject of handling large record appeals, panel member Justice Dennis Perluss (presiding justice for Division Seven of the Second District Court of Appeal) thought that even a roomful of appellate practitioners would benefit from actually seeing a doghouse, so he brought one with him.

It turns out that each doghouse — a fabric-covered cardboard folder of sorts, shaped roughly like a binder but without the rings — holds a maximum of about six inches of paper.

Not thrilling information, I know, so why should you care, besides the end of the mystery?

Well, many divisions in the Court of Appeal consider a case to be “big”  (sometimes referred to as “jumbo” among the court staff) if the record fills just three doghouses. That tells me that that the vast majority of appeals likely present a record smaller than that.  In fact, I would bet — I don’t have statistics — that there are more one-doghouse appeals than multiple-doghouse appeals.

Think about that. Consider that the fate of your appeal can depend on one or two  ”doghouses” — twelve inches or less of paper– even if you have spent years in litigation and built up a case file filling many file drawers. Now, consider the task of boiling that multiple-drawer file — or maybe even that multiple-cabinet file — to its essence. Buried somewhere in those drawers are the best issues for appeal and ideas for how to argue them. Then comes the task of winnowing those drawers full of paper down to those papers that are essential and most helpful to your client, yet still present a fair picture of the case so you cannot be accused of manipulating the record. That can be a daunting task, and one loathed by trial lawyers who live to argue to juries but hate all the paperwork.

I, on the other hand, love that challenge. It is what I and other appellate attorneys do all the time.

UPDATE (3/21/13): Ben Shatz at Southern California Appellate News has doghouse pictures.

Don’t get snide on appeal

Snideness is never an attractive trait, but it is distressingly common in trial court. No offense to you trial lawyers out there, but I find snideness far less prevalent in appellate practice, and, on those occasions where it does raise its ugly head, the justices seem far more hostile to it than most trial judges are.

Which brings me to a 2009 case that I ran across today, Nazir v. United Airlines (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 243, in which plaintiff’s counsel, apparently from a solo or small office, squared up against an employment law powerhouse and not only won, but got to see the powerhouse firm spanked by the Court of Appeal as it reversed the summary judgment for the defendant employer.

Here’s your hot tip of the day: Unless you want to invite the severest scrutiny of your own papers and trial counsel’s track record in the trial court, don’t start your brief like this:

Seemingly emboldened by [the trial court's description of the plaintiff's summary judgment opposition papers], defendants’ brief here begins this way:

“As in Macbeth’s soliloquy, Appellant’s Opening Brief (AOB), like his summary judgment opposition below, is full of ‘sound and fury, [but ultimately] signifying nothing.’ Despite filing an 1894 page(!) opposition separate statement, which the trial court found … in a manner deliberately calculated to obfuscate whether any ‘purportedly disputed facts were actually controverted by admissible evidence,’ the trial court properly granted summary judgment in this case. As with Nazir’s opposition statement, his AOB is ‘mostly verbiage, and utterly lacking in the identification and presentation of evidence demonstrating a disputed issue of fact.’ ”

Uh-oh. Pot, meet kettle:

Passing over whether such disparagement is effective advocacy, the “girth” of materials before the trial court began with defendants, whose 1056 pages of moving papers were in great part inappropriate, beginning with the motion itself.

The opinion goes on to lambaste the powerhouse firm for bringing a motion outside the scope of the statute and filing papers so out of compliance with court rules that they failed to adequately inform the plaintiff of the facts supporting the motion. Indeed, the court again takes an accusation (that plaintiff’s papers were designed to obfuscate) and applies it to the defendants:

The deficiencies in the motion pale in comparison to those in the separate statement. “Separate statements are required not to satisfy a sadistic urge to torment lawyers, but rather to afford due process to opposing parties and to permit trial courts to expeditiously review complex motions for [summary adjudication] and summary judgment to determine quickly and efficiently *252 whether material facts are undisputed.” (United Community Church v. Garcin (1991) 231 Cal.App.3d 327, 335, 282 Cal.Rptr. 368.) The separate statement “provides a convenient and expeditious vehicle permitting the trial court to hone in on the truly disputed facts.” (Collins v. Hertz Corp. (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 64, 74, 50 Cal.Rptr.3d 149.) That hardly describes defendants’ separate statement here.

Plaintiff’s counsel must have really enjoyed reading that opinion.

Bad news for post-conviction indigent appellants: No right to Wende review

A California criminal defendant entitled to appellate counsel appointed by the state has one trick up his sleeve that defendants who hire their own counsel don’t: Wende review. When an appellant’s appointed counsel provides the Court of Appeal with a brief setting forth the substantive and procedural facts and informing the court that counsel has reviewed the record and can find no basis for challenging the judgment, the Court of Appeal must independently review the record for prejudicial error warranting reversal. This process is required in order to assure that the indigent appellant is not deprived of his constitutional right to counsel.

But is an indigent appellant with appointed counsel entitled to Wende review on appeal from a post-conviction judgment? No, says the court in People v. Serrano, case no. H036373 (6th Dist., Nov. 28, 2012). In this case of first impression, the appeal was from an order denying a motion to vacate the conviction, which the appellant sought in order to avoid deportation. His counsel filed a Wende brief, asking the Court of Appeal to review the record for error. The court notified appellant of his right to file his own argument, received nothing, and commenced its Wende review. During that review, they discovered that appellant had appealed his original conviction (and later dismissed that appeal), which triggered the Court of Appeal to ask for briefing on whether appellant had a right to Wende review in this appeal from a post-conviction judgment.

The first basis for the court’s ruling was the United States Supreme Court decision in Pennsylvania v. Finley (1987) 481 U.S. 551, in which it held that similar review in Pennsylvania was not required in appeals from post-conviction proceedings because the defendant had no constitutional right to counsel in those proceedings. That the state made a decision to provide counsel, even though it was not constitutionally required to do so, did not mean that the defendant was entitled to the court’s independent review. So, there was no federal basis for invoking Wende review in this case.

How about a state basis? Not there, either, says the court. Looking to state court decisions regarding the right to Wende review in other cases of state-appointed counsel (such as juvenile dependency and conservatorship proceedings), the court concluded that the California Supreme Court had relied on Finley “to restrict the availability of [Wende] review in a multitude of contexts.” In those decisions, says the court, the Supremes “held that due process does not mandate extending these procedures beyond the first appeal of right in a criminal prosecution.”

Nonetheless, those decisions were not criminal cases. Rather than rely on those cases without further analysis, the Court of Appeal went through the same three-part test used by the Supremes in the juvenile and conservatorship cases: “ ‘(1) the private interests at stake; (2) the state’s interests involved; and (3) the risk that the absence of the procedures in question will lead to an erroneous resolution of the appeal.’ [Citations.]”

The collateral attack on the judgment in this case came several years after the conviction and after the defendant had served his sentence. Analyzing the three factors, (1) the court found that appellant’s interest in avoiding deportation was very high: (2) the state’s interest in”securing a just appellate resolution, reducing procedural costs and burdens, and concluding the proceedings both fairly and expeditiously” outweighed the appellant’s interests, especially in “these times of decreasing judicial budgets and the resulting overall reduction in public access to justice.” Turning to the third factor, the likelihood of an erroneous resolution of the appeal, the court stated:

[D]efendant‟s conviction has long been final and his sentence served. Although, he chose to dismiss his first appeal of right, he could have obtained a review of his conviction had he so chosen. In each appeal, he has been afforded the right to appointed counsel, and each of those counsel were supervised by this district‟s appellate project. [Citation.] Given the multitude of protections already afforded the defendant, the risk of erroneous appellate resolution without Wende review for a collateral attack on the judgment is minute.

The court set forth a procedure for “all future criminal appeals arising from proceedings other than the first appeal of right, where appointed counsel finds no arguable issues.” (My emphasis.) But I think its analysis leaves wiggle room for arguing that Wende review may be applicable in appeals from certain post-conviction proceedings. After all, its analysis of the 3-pronged test would have been unnecessary if the California Supreme Court cases had established a firm rule. For example, how might this balancing differ if the courts were not in dire financial straits? Or if the appellant’s first appeal had been dismissed because of his counsel’s ineffective assistance?

These considerations may lead to Supreme Court review. After all, as the Court of Appeal noted, “the California Supreme Court has not specifically considered the availability of [Wende] review in a post-conviction collateral attack on a judgment.”

Huge Error, No Prejudice

Too many people go into an appeal so certain that the trial court erred so obviously that reversal must result. This is rarely because the attorney doesn’t know that the error must have resulted in prejudice to warrant reversal, but because the attorney gives insufficient thought to the question of whether the error was genuinely prejudicial. As a result, the question o prejudice is not presented very well in the brief.

I’m not sure exactly what was going through the mind of the attorney representing the defendant/appellant in Twenty-Nine Palms Enterprises Corporation v. Bardos, case no. E051769 (Fourth Dist., Nov. 13, 2012). He might have had some very reasonable arguments that prejudice resulted from the error, and might even have presented a thorough argument in the appellant’s brief. For many, however, the  sheer magnitude of the asserted error — that the trial court abused its discretion by summarily sustaining 48 pages of objections to the appellant’s evidence submitted in opposition to a motion for summary judgment, without any reasoning in support of the ruling — might tempt some lawyers, and certainly many parties, into believing that there just had to be some resulting prejudice, without giving sufficient thought to the matter.

The Court of Appeal agrees that the trial court abused its discretion in summarily sustaining the objections, but finds there was no resulting prejudice. Even giving consideration to all of the evidence the appellant introduced below, the appellant still failed to raise a triable issue that would preclude entry of summary judgment.

Clients (and some attorneys) need to be reminded: it’s not error that will get you a reversal, it’s prejudicial error that will get you a reversal.

Fee-shifting on appeal from Berman Hearing is not applicable in dismissal for untimely appeal

I haven’t written about procedure on appeal from a “Berman hearing” — a wage claim heard by the Labor Commissioner — in a long time. Last Friday’s case of Arias v. Kardoulias, case no. B234263 (2d. Dist. July 27, 2012), gives me the opportunity to do so again because of the procedural question it raises, and also provides an opportunity to point out that not all appeals are the same.

You’ve read time and time again on this blog that appeals are very different from trials, but an appeal from a Berman hearing is not. An appeal from a Berman hearing is a trial, heard by the superior court (trial court) do novo – as if the hearing before the labor commissioner had never taken place. Indeed, a claimant can even add claims to the appeal that were never heard by the labor commissioner. This “new trial” posture provides the background for the court’s decision in Arias.

In Arias, the employee won an award before the labor commissioner. No doubt dissatisfied with the amount, she tried to appeal, but her appeal was dismissed due to the untimeliness of her notice of appeal.

At issue in the case was whether her employer was entitled to recover attorney fees and costs in obtaining dismissal appeal, pursuant to Labor Code section 98.2, subdivision (c), which provides:

If the party seeking review by filing an appeal to the superior court is unsuccessful in the appeal, the court shall determine the costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred by the other parties to the appeal, and assess that amount as a cost upon the party filing the appeal.   An employee is successful if the court awards an amount greater than zero.
The Court of Appeal finds that the employer has no right to fees under these circumstances. Although a timely appeal would have nullified the initial award in favor of the employee, here the employee still had an enforceable award of wages because the untimeliness of her appeal meant that her initial award was never nullified. Thus, even though she recovered nothing on the appeal, she still had a recovery that prevented her employer from recovering fees for the appeal.
As you might expect, the court was careful to point out that its decision applies only to jurisdictional dismissals, and leaves open the question of whether fee shifting would apply when a timely appeal is dismissed on another ground.

Attorney fee review standard isn’t always abuse of discretion

Appealing from an attorney fee award is usually a tough slog. Unless you are arguing a pure issue of law, such as whether any attorney fee-shifting statute applies to the case at all, the Court of Appeal usually reviews only for abuse of discretion. However, an important exception is noted in the recent case of Samantha C. v. State Department of Developmental Services, case no. B232649 (2d Dist., Div. 1, June 21, 2012).

In Samantha C., attorney fees were sought under the “private attorney general statute,” Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, in which plaintiffs who enforce an “an important right affecting the public interest” can recover attorney fees under certain conditions, namely:

(a) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity, are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any.

Plaintiff had originally lost her lawsuit seeking state services, but appealed the judgment. The Court of Appeal reversed in a published decision that construed certain statutory and regulatory language governing eligibility for services. Nonetheless, on remand, the trial court declined to award private attorney general attorney fees, finding that the benefits of the lawsuit were limited to the plaintiff.

Are you wondering, How can that be, when the published decision involved the interpretation of statutory language that applies to all such cases? If so, give yourself a gold star. The Court of Appeal finds that the precedent set by the statutory and regulatory construction in its first decision necessarily extend beyond plaintiff to all applicants, and that the actual size of that class of persons need not be proven:

Although our underlying decision was phrased in terms of substantial evidence, it rested on determinations of statutory and regulatory construction that were not specific only to Samantha.

***

Although the record does not reflect the number of individuals that might be directly benefited by our decision in Samantha C., nevertheless, by defining the class of benefited persons to include those in Samantha‘s position, the Legislature has demonstrated its determination that such a need exists, in a quantity that is of sufficient size to require its legislative protection.  In light of the Legislature‘s statement of purpose, we cannot justifiably conclude that such a group of potential claimants is nonexistent, or even minimal.

The point of this post, however, is not just the court’s decision, but how the Court of Appeal got there. Instead of deferring to the court’s discretion on the applicability of section 1021.5 in this case, the Court of Appeal found itself well situated to review applicability of section 1021.5 de novo, i.e., without any deference afforded to the trial court’s decision:

“A trial court‘s decision whether to award attorney fees under section 1021.5 is generally reviewed for abuse of discretion.” [Citation.] But where, as here, our published opinion provides the basis upon which attorney fees are sought, de novo or independent review is appropriate because we are in at least as good a position as the trial court to determine whether section 1021.5 fees should be awarded. [Citations.]

Not many appellants will be able to take advantage of this reasoning to obtain de novo review of their entitlement to fees.

There is one curious point to the decision. Although the Court of Appeal did not strongly emphasize it, implicit in its conclusion that the first appeal resulted in a benefit for a large class of persons is that its prior decision was a published one. Odd that its original opinion on the fee issue was not published.

By the way, if you’ve stumbled across this post looking for answers on attorney fees that are not addressed in this post, poke around at the California Attorney’s Fees blog, where they’re all attorney fees, all the time!

Just what are you appealing from, anyway?

Over at The Ninth Circuit Blog of Appeals, I posted today about an appellant who tried to use a federal appeal from a post-judgment order as a vehicle to attack the underlying judgment, which had been entered five years earlier. On the very same day, the Sixth District published Marriage of Sameer, case no. H035957 (6th Dist., June 19, 2012), in which the appellant tried a similar tactic in California state court. You won’t be shocked to learn it doesn’t work there, either.

In February 2008, the court entered a judgment on the stipulation of the parties, in which wife would receive spousal support with scheduled steps down in amount, ending completely on June 1, 2010, unless wife, prior to that date, filed a motion and should good cause why support should continue. The clear implication of the judgment and the parties’ stipulation onthe record was that within that time frame, wife was expected to complete her masters degree requirements and become self-supporting. When she pursued a doctorate instead of seeking employment in the field of her masters degree, she moved to modify the judgment, with the requisite change in circumstances being the “unrealized expectation” in the original judgment, i.e., that she had not become self-supporting as the original judgment contemplated.

Unrealized expectations. We all have a few of those, don’t we?

Wife in this case argued first that under the terms of the judgment, she was entitled to a reevaluation of spousal support regardless of whether there were changed circumstances. Wrong. Then she argued that the unrealized expectation of self-supporting status constituted the requisite changed circumstances. Unfortunately for her, she offered no evidence of her diligence to become self-supporting. So that argument is rejected, too.

Now we get to the similarity with the federal case. Wife also argued that the original stipulation and judgment were infirm because they failed to containing an explicit warning that she was expected to become self-supporting prior to the scheduled termination of support. Wife’s procedural error here is worth more than the footnote the court gave it, where it noted that because the argument was directed to the original judgment rather than the post-judgment order, “she is collaterally attacking the judgment,” so “this claim is not cognizable.”

The judgment and any post-judgment orders are not the same thing. An appeal from a post-judgment order alone isn’t going to get you anywhere with the judgment itself if it comes after the time to appeal from the underlying judgment has lapsed.

Submission to tentative ruling on motion does not forfeit arguments on appeal

For the procedural argument raised by the respondent in Mundy v. Lenc., no.  B227962 (2d. Dist. Feb. 29, 2012), I don’t know whether to give the respondent credit for creativity or jeers for an obviously wrong argument. Either way, she lost on the procedural point (but managed to defend on the merits partially in any event).

At issue was whether the appellant was barred from challenging the trial court’s orders on two motions, either under the doctrine of invited error or the doctrine of waiver,  because the appellant had submitted to the trial court’s tentative ruling on each motion. The Court of Appeal reaches — what is to me, at least — the obvious answer: No.

Appellant Mundy appealed from rulings on two motions. The first was the trial court’s denial of Mundy’s anti-SLAPP motion (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16) on Lenc’s cross-complaint. The second was an order awarding Lenc attorney fees on the anti-SLAPP motion.

The Court of Appeal rejected Lenc’s argument that submission to the tentative ruling amounts to invited error. Since the doctrine of invited error rests on the notion that the litigant has misled the trial court, it could not apply here because Mundy made his positions known to the trial court in his motion memoranda. Later submission on a tentative ruling is not a misleading act because it is a neutral act that “conveys neither agreement nor disagreement with the analysis [in the court's tentative ruling].”

Lenc fared no better with her argument that submission on the tentative rulings amounted to a forfeiture of Mundy’s arguments on appeal. The primary reason the Court of Appeal rejected her argument is that the doctrine of forfeiture (or waiver) only applies to preclude an appellant from making an argument in the appellate court that he never raised in the trial court, and Mundy had indeed made the arguments in his motion memoranda. The court went further, however, analyzing two exceptions to the forfeiture doctrine, presumably to address arguments made by Mundy in response to the forfeiture argument, and found that both exceptions would apply in this case anyway.

The court found that the first exception — that a litigant need not raise in the trial court the insufficiency of the evidence to support a judgment — applied here because the orders appealed from are post-judgment orders and thus analogous to judgments, so Mundy had no obligation to object that the orders were unsupported by the evidence.

The court also found applicable a second exception — that futile objections are not waived on appeal — because any objection to the tentative would have been futile: “If Mundy’s attorney had told the trial court that he objected to the tentative rulings, the trial court would still have decided in favor of Lenc.” This reasoning strikes me as odd, given that the Court of Appeal reversed the attorney fee order in its entirety and reversed the order on the anti-SLAPP motion as to all but one of Lenc’s causes of action. Given that the trial court got almost everything wrong in its tentative, who’s to say that argument at the hearing would have been futile? That is, might not the attorney have been able to convince the trial court that it’s tentative rulings were wrong? Attorneys try to do so every day, and success is hardly unheard of. I think it would have been better for the court to rest on its principal reason for finding that the argument was not waived (i.e., that the arguments were made in the motion papers).

I joked a little at the start of this post about the unreasonableness of the respondent’s argument, but I can hardly fault her for raising it. Any colorable procedural argument that has the potential of affording the appellate court an escape from having to decide the appeal on the merits is usually too hard for a respondent to resist. And the language the Court of Appeal used to address it suggests that the justices found the argument creative, not frivolous. Creative arguments are how new law gets made.