No Substitute for Certificate of Probable Cause to Appeal from Order on Bifurcated Family Law Issue

Dissolution matters are often bifurcated.  Ordinarily, a party must await final judgment before appealing.  However, Family Code section 2025 provides a means of appealing an order on a bifurcated issue in the appropriate circumstance:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, if the court has ordered an issue or issues bifurcated for separate trial or hearing in advance of the disposition of the entire case, a court of appeal may order an issue or issues transferred to it for hearing and decision when the court that heard the issue or issues certifies that the appeal is appropriate. Certification by the court shall be in accordance with rules promulgated by the Judicial Council.”

In Marriage of Lafkas, case no. B189280 (2d Dist. August 6, 2007) the pro per husband appealed from an order on the bifurcated issue of asset disposition.  Conceding that he faileed to obtain a certificate of probable cause from the trial court and move for leave in the Court of Appeal, he nonetheless contended that his appeal should not be dismissed because the court’s grant of wife’s application for attorney’s fees to retain appellate counsel operated as a de facto certificate of probable cause.  The court rejects this contention because neither the Family Code nor the applicable rules provide for de facto certificates.

Here, the rules are the rules.  Don’t try to bend them.  Besides, the court points out that husband still has an appellate remedy by way of appeal from the eventual judgment.

This is a short case worth a read from anyone who wants to gain some quick familiarity with principles of appellate jurisdiction, as the court sums some of those principles up as it begins its discussion of the merits.

Defendant’s Waiver of Right to Appeal Does Not Deprive Ninth Circuit of Appellate Jurisdiction

Ninth Circuit Blog has a pretty good write-up on last Wednesday’s Ninth Circuit en banc decision in United States v. Castillo, case no. 05-30401 (July 25, 2007), in which the court vacates the panel opinion and holds that it has jurisdiction to hear a criminal defendant’s appeal based on a pre-plea motion where the defendant waived appeal of pre-plea issues as part of his guilty plea.  Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure cannot expand or contract subject matter jurisdiction, and it cannot be waived.

In my observation, the tendency to confuse jurisdiction with procedure is way too common.  I recently posted, for example, about confusion between forum selection and jurisdiction in a civil case. 

The Ninth Circuit likewise notes the lamentable prevalence of confusion, citing Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455 (2004):

[c]larity would be facilitated if courts and litigants used the label “jurisdictional” not for claim-processing rules, but only for prescriptions delineating the classes of cases (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons (personal jurisdiction) falling within a court’s adjudicatory authority.

Amen.

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UPDATE: (7/31/07): California Appellate Report offers some thoughts on how Judge Callahan’s dissent in this 14-1 decision might affect her chances for a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Will the Supreme Court Revisit Clemmer v. Hartford Insurance Company?

Probably no Supreme Court opinion has been more ignored by the Courts of Appeal than Clemmer v. Hartford Insurance Co. (1978) 22 Cal.3d 865.  In Clemmer, the Supreme Court concluded, without explanation, that an order denying a motion made pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 663 to vacate the judgment and enter a new judgment is not appealable and dismissed the appeal.  Because it reached this conclusion without explanation, despite precedent to the contrary, and because the dismissal had no procedural effect (the issues raised were heard on appeal from the underlying judgment), this conclusion in Clemmer has been characterized as dictum and has generally not been followed. See 9 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (4th ed. 1997) Appeal, § 154, p. 220.

Nearly thirty years of disrespect for Clemmer so far hasn’t been reason enough for the Supreme Court to revisit the issue, but the Second District Court of Appeal, Division Seven, may have just forced the Supreme Court’s hand by going out of its way to actually follow Clemmer in City of Los Angeles v. Glair, case no. B190031 (July 25, 2007), dismissing an appeal because the order denying a statutory motion to vacate is not appealable.

There’s more to this case.  Though the Court of Appeal dismissed, it didn’t do so before first trying every which way to find jurisdiction, including a generous characterization of the appellant’s post-trial motion as a motion to vacate.

First, the procedural facts . . .
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Can a Trial Court Require Parties to Waive Appellate Review?

Howard Bashman is prompted to explore this question in his Law.com column this week because the trial court in a civil case he is handling on appeal insists that it required the parties to waive their rights to appeal as a condition of the court’s ruling on the merits of their dispute.  Bashman contends the waiver never occurred, then comments on whether such a waiver would be enforceable in any event.

Appeals from Bifurcated Actions — and Writing about the Issue Well

In Kinney v. Overton, case no. G037146 (July 17, 2007), Justice Moore of the Fourth District Court of Appeal uses a “slay the dragon” metaphor to describe the limitations of review of judgments arising from bifurcated portions of a larger case (footnote and citations omitted):

A residential subdivision in Laguna Beach is plagued with litigation involving a morass of legal issues and a plethora of parties — both public and private. The litigation was commenced by Three Arch Bay District against the City of Laguna Beach, Charles Kinney (Kinney) and numerous other parties.  Kinney, a homeowner in the subdivision and a lawyer, filed a cross-complaint and a number of amended cross-complaints, against the State of California, homeowner Sherrie Overton (Overton), and many other parties.

Tiny portions of the litigation have been separated out one by one, bifurcated, and set for trial, in order, we presume, to make an unwieldy ball of wax just a little bit smaller. Those tiny portions have come to us in isolation, one appeal at a time.  But Kinney, as one of the primary protagonists in the litigation, keeps complaining that the courts never slay the dragon and put the beast to rest. However, if the litigation is continually brought to us in bits and pieces, we can only address bits and pieces. We cannot address matters that are outside of the record on appeal or issues that do not arise from the portion of the litigation underlying the appeal in question.  When all  of the parties and issues are not put before this court, and we are not provided with all of the evidence necessary to finally address and resolve all ills, it is not possible for us to slay the dragon. Unless and until Kinney or another party to the litigation drags the entire beast before this court, we will continue to provide answers piecemeal — one talon at a time.

Nifty writing to illustrate a simple principle: the court can review only the dispute properly brought before it, and no more, even if there is a lot more background to the case.

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Another Premature Appeal Saved — Should it Be?

The Appellate Practitioner brings to our attention the Sixth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Sisemore v. Master Financial, Inc., case no. H029138 (June 12, 2007), in which the court “saves” a premature appeal. Sisemore appealed from an order sustaining a demurrer to her complaint without leave to amend. The court saves the premature appeal by construing the order to incorporate a judgment of dismissal. This is an accepted practice.

Might this practice be challenged someday? It wouldn’t be the first time the California Supreme Court has been called upon to review the appropriateness of “saving” an appeal.
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An Appealable Discovery Order

Most parties faced with an adverse discovery ruling have to grin and bear it.  Discovery orders are not generally appealable, and a writ petition is such a longshot that unless the ruling threatens a trade secret or similarly sensitive confidential information, the writ petition hardly seems worthwhile.  In H.B. Fuller Co. v Doe, case no. H030099 (May 31, 2007), California’s Sixth District Court of Appeal reminds us of a rare occasion when a discovery order is appealable. 

Doe sought to quash a subpoena directed to an internet company.  The subpoena sought information that would identify the person (Doe) who posted Fuller’s confidential company information on internet message boards.  No lawsuit was pending in California, and Doe’s identity was apparently necessary before Fuller could commence suit in its home state of Minnesota.

In a decision limited to Doe’s motion to unseal the record and briefs on appeal, the court first addressed the issue of appealability.  It found this discovery order was appealable because “the order is ancillary to litigation in another jurisdiction and operates as the last word by a California trial court on the matters at issue.”  Thus, even though the court could readily have chosen to construe the appeal as a writ petition, it found it unnecessary to do so.

This is a great case to remember.  Dire circumstances justifying writ review won’t always be present when a client gets hit with an unfavorable discovery order arising from litigation in another jurisdiction.  Being able to appeal greatly expands the cases in which review may be invoked.

Claiborne Case Sparks Debate

In Claiborne v. U.S., case no. No. 06–5618 (June 4, 2007), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the death of the petitioning criminal defendant rendered the case moot, and thus it vacated the judgment of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that had reversed the district court’s downward adjustment from the federal sentencing guidelines.  The order itself tells you nothing about the case, so I suggest you start with Kimberly A. Kralowec at The Appellate Practitioner, who provides a brief rundown, from which it makes sense next to check this SCOTUSBlog post from before the ruling, describing efforts by a similarly situated petitioner to save the Claiborne case despite its technical mootness.

Columbia law professor Michael Dorf uses the Claiborne case as a starting point for a short Findlaw article on the wider subject of the role of the Supreme Court and tensions in justiciability doctrine, A Mootness Dismissal Illustrates the Supreme Court’s Split Personality: Is it a Constitutional Court or a Court of Error? The article describes the underlying issue in Claiborne, examines whether other rules might have saved the Claiborne case, argues that the Supreme Court should not be subject to the same strict justiciability standards of lower federal courts, and compares the more liberal justiciability standards of courts of last resort in some other countries.  All this in a very readable 1900 or so words.

Appellate Jurisdiction: Order Denying Motion to Vacate

An order denying a motion to vacate usually isn’t appealable unless the motion is a statutory motion under Code of Civil Procedure section 663.  But in Carr v. Kamins, case no. B191247 (May 31, 2007), the California Court of Appeal reminds us of an exception.

The plaintiff in this adverse possession suit served the defendants by publication, after which default and default judgment were entered.  Four years later, one of the defendants later moved to vacate the default judgment on the ground that plaintiff committed fraud in procuring the order for service by publication and that the default judgment was obtained in violation of her right to due process.  The trial court denied the motion, and defendant appealed.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the order was not appealable.  The reason: the order gave effect to a void judgment, and any order doing so is itself void and appealable as a special order after judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 904.1, subd. (a)(2), even if no appeal is taken from the underlying judgment.

Some Appellate Law Reminders Coming Up

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

Ninth Circuit Panel Splits on Appellate Jurisdiction over Denial of FSIA Immunity Claimed via Res Judicata

The Ninth Circuit tackles a question of appellate jurisdiction in Gupta v. Thai Airways International, case no. 04-56389 (May 30, 2007).  The riddle — which the majority overlooks until it responds to the dissent — arises from the intersection of res judicata and the “collateral order” exception to the final judgment rule.

Thai Airways contended in its motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in the district court that it was immune from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (the airline is 76% owned by the Thai government) .  The airline contended that an identical state court action brought by Gupta was res judicata on this issue because it was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on FSIA immunity grounds.  It also argued the merits of FSIA immunity independently of its res judicata argument.  The district court rejected both arguments, finding that the prior ruling was not res judicata because it did not go to the merits of the dispute and that an exception to the FSIA applied.

On appeal, however, the airline did not assert the district court erred in its determination that an exception to the FSIA applied.  It relied exclusively on its res judicata argument. 

This turns out to be what splits the dissent from the majority on appeal.

The Ninth Circuit (and its sister circuits) have long recognized the appealability of an order denying a motion to dismiss based on FSIA immunity.  The majority classifies this as such an appeal, and thus asserts jurisdiction under this well-established exception to the final judgment rule.

The issue becomes thornier when you read the dissent, in which Judge Tashima argues that the court must examine “each claim or issue presented separately to determine their jurisdiction on interlocutory appeal.”  Conceding that he would find jurisdiction over the issue of whether the district court erred in finding that the FSIA exception applied, Judge Tashima contends that the res judicata issue is sufficiently distinct to take it outside the rule allowing review of orders denying FSIA immunity:

While it is true that our case law permits an immediate interlocutory appeal from an order denying a motion to dismiss based on foreign sovereign immunity, it is equally well-settled that the denial of a motion to dismiss based on res judicata grounds is not immediately appealable.

***

Although the cases discussing the collateral order doctrine sometimes loosely refer to interlocutory orders as being appealable, in fact, the cases actually analyze the specific claim or issue presented in determining the scope of their jurisdiction on an interlocutory appeal. And each claim presented must independently meet the requirements of the collateral order doctrine in order for it to be considered on interlocutory appeal. Appellate jurisdiction over one claim rejected in a district court order does not confer jurisdiction over all other claims rejected in the same order.(Citations omitted, emphasis in original.)

It seems clear that had the airline appealed on both grounds, Judge Tashima would assert jurisdiction over the merits of the FSIA immunity claim but not over the res judicata argument for the same claim of immunity. 

This is too much hair-splitting for the majority, which responds in a footnote to its statement that “It is from this order that Thai Airways is appealing.”  (Emphasis in original.) The majority contends that the dissent relies on a false premise that the FSIA immunity issue and res judicata issues are distinct.  It says that since the res judicata issue involves and is based solely on FSIA immunity, and is indeed determinative on the issue, the appeal falls within the rule of appealability under the collateral order doctrine for orders denying FSIA immunity.

Whatever the asserted ground of error, the majority has a point that in the end, the order appealed from determined that there was no FSIA immunity.  And that is all they needed to bring it within the well-established exception to the final judgment rule.

Ninth Circuit Takes Appellate Jurisdiction over Pretrial Stay Orders

A whole lot of insurance companies sue a whole lot of doctors and clinics. The insurers allege that the defendants gave away cash and vacation packages to lure patients into undergoing unnecessary procedures, for which defendants billed the plaintiff insurers, who paid millions on the claims. Several individual defendants are also facing criminal prosecution and move to stay the civil proceedings because discovery would implicate their Fifth Amendment rights. The clinics say they can’t put on an adequate defense if the action is stayed only as to the individuals facing prosecution, so they, too, ask for a stay of the proceedings. The district court obliges the stay requests — apparently in multiple orders, as the plaintiff insurers take three appeals and one writ petition from the same underlying case. Blue Cross and Blue Shield v. Rubin, case no. 05-56261 (May 25, 2007).

The Ninth Circuit holds it has appellate jurisdiction notwithstanding the lack of a final judgment because the stay orders, all of which are indefinite in duration and could last for years, place the plaintiff insurers “effectively out of court.” In doing so, the Ninth joins a majority of other circuits finding appellate jurisdiction in such circumstances, and explains that the indefinite delay poses threats of “denying justice by delay,” lost evidence and faded witness recollections, and irreparable harm to the business plaintiffs, including the risk of going out of business in the interim.

A second lesson for counsel lies in the decision on the merits. The court neither affirms nor reverses, but vacates the stay orders and remands for further consideration by the district court because there is an inadequate record to review the court’s exercise of discretion.

Election Contest Not Appropriate for Writ Review

In Nguyen v. Superior Court, case no. G038475 (May 14, 2007), the California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, holds that a losing candidate’s challenge to a ballot recount that reversed the results of a board of supervisors election “should be heard by the more deliberative and thorough process of appeal, rather than the hastier route of a petition of writ of mandate,” but leaves open the possibility of writ review in other election challenges.  In part, the court denies the writ because due deliberation and the procedural safeguards of appeal are especially important in a case that may result in the removal of an elected official that has already been sworn in to office.  But the court also evaluates the classic factors for determining the appropriateness of writ review (see Omaha Indemnity Co. v. Superior Court (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 1266) — at least, those that it finds applicable to a petition brought after trial, when appeal is readily available.  Since the legislature had specifically provided for relief by way of appeal (Elections Code section 16900) and expedited that relief by giving election cases preference on appeal (Code of Civil Procedure section 44), , the court finds that the petitioner has an adequate remedy by way of appeal.  In the absence of any constitutional question, conflict in trial court decisions, or impending elections that might be affected by the statewide ramifications of an ultimate ruling, the court holds that writ review is inappropriate in this case.

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California Notice of Appeal May be Filed on Behalf of Trust by Non-Attorney Trustee

The Second District of the California Court of Appeal holds that a trustee may sign and file a notice of appeal on behalf of the trust even though the trustee may not represent the trust in court.  Indyway Investment v. Cooper, case no. B192944 (April 24, 2007).  The opinion first explains the rationale for why a trust may not appear in propria persona by a non-attorney trustee, then provides a range of  decisions in which notices of appeal were filed by non-attorney representatives and found valid based on a recognized “distinction between the capacity of a person acting in propria persona to sign and file a notice of appeal and his capacity to execute and file pleadings, papers, and briefs in both the trial and appellate courts.”  It is an excellent starting point for research by any attorney considering challenging the validity of a notice of appeal on the basis that it was filed by an unauthorized person and by any attorney assuming representation of an appellant after such a notice has been filed.

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When is a Bankruptcy Court Order an Appealable Final Judgment?

The Ninth Circuit gives a good summary of the rules applicable to this question in In re Brown, case no. 05-15605 (April 26, 2007). The court held that a minute order granting a creditor’s motion for summary judgment in an adversary action was an interim order that did not constitute a final judgment and thus did not trigger the time for debtor to appeal. The case gives excellent guidance for evaluating the language of an order and the procedural posture of the case as aids in determining appealability.