Should a respondent always move to strike a defective appellant’s opening brief?

A brief must “[s]tate each point under a separate heading or subheading summarizing the point, and support each point by argument and, if possible, by citation of authority.” (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) A party may move to strike the adverse party’s brief if it fails to comply with this or other requirements of rule 8.204. (Rule 8.204(e)(2).) A leading practice guide advocates that a respondent should immediately file a motion to strike an appellant’s opening brief, that is “so defective that it appears likely the appellate court will order it stricken in whole or in part [.]” (Eisenberg, Cal. Prac. Guide: Civil Appeals & Writs (The Rutter Group 2016), ¶ 5:196.) But is that always the case?

Consider that a successful motion to strike is likely to give the appellant a “second bite at the apple” (and sometimes a third or fourth bite, if later briefs are also stricken), allowing the appellant to improve the quality of his brief. This is so because a Court of Appeal has only three options if it agrees the brief is noncompliant:

(A) Order the brief returned for corrections and refiling within a specified time;
(B) Strike the brief with leave to file a new brief within a specified time; or
(C) Disregard the noncompliance.

(Rule 8.204(e)(2).) Instead of giving the appellant that chance to file a better brief, might it make more sense, at least in some circumstances, to forego a motion to strike, use the respondent’s brief to attack the opening brief’s deficiencies, and let those deficiencies take down the appeal?

That appears to be the approach taken by the respondent in Ewald v. Nationstar Mortgage, LLC, case no. C081760 (3d. Dist June 28, 2017, ordered published July 27, 2017), a plaintiff’s appeal from a judgment following the defendant’s successful motion for summary judgment. Respondent never moved to strike the appellant’s opening brief, but its own brief led off with the argument that the judgment should be affirmed because appellant had failed to support his arguments with authority, and the arguments should thus be deemed abandoned. In a brutal page-and-a-half opinion that summarizes the “egregious violations of basic appellate norms” contained in appellant’s opening brief, the court agrees with respondent that “the opening brief does not satisfy counsel’s duty to provide adequate legal authority to support this appeal,” and affirms the judgment “without discussing the merits.”

This tactic won’t always work. First, it might not deprive appellant of a chance to improve the opening brief, because The Court of Appeal might strike the brief on its own motion. (See Rule 8.204(e)(2).) More importantly, the tactic of foregoing a motion to strike in favor of using the respondent’s brief to raise the defects might be dangerous. This tactic should probably be invoked only when case law and the record of the division in which the appeal is pending make it nearly certain the defect will be deemed an abandonment of issues. If there is any ambiguity about whether the defects constitute an abandonment of issues, I would err on the side of caution and move to strike immediately, especially if the brief is so unclear that it is hard to address the points raised in it.

One final note about Ewald. The opinion was originally unpublished, but later certified for publication. The online record for the case shows no intervening request for publication from either party, suggesting that the Court of Appeal eventually decided on its own this case should serve as a warning to appellants to file briefs that conform to rule 8.204.

Update (8/21/17): A reader suggests that the approach in Ewald may sometimes be adopted for reasons of cost and timing rather than strategy. In other words, why go to the expense of a separate motion to strike when success means that the appeal is dragged out by the time the appellant is allowed to re-file a compliant brief? Addressing the opening brief’s noncompliance in the respondent’s brief may be the respondent’s most cost-effective option as well as the one least likely to drag out the appeal.

It is important to keep up with the law while your appeal is pending

Goed Zoekveld

Keep an eye on developments in the law while your appeal is pending.
Image courtesy of Bart van de Biezen via Compfight

Most lawyers I know — at both the trial level and the appellate level — keep up with the daily “advance sheets,” which provide a brief summary of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal decisions published the day before. It is an important habit, because you never know when a great decision for your pending case is going to come up.

For a great example, see Miranda v. Anderson Enterprises, Inc., case no. A140328 (1st Dist., Oct. 15, 2015), where the plaintiff/appellant gained the benefit of a Supreme Court decision that came out while his appeal was pending. The Supreme Court case, Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles, LLC (2014) 59 Cal.4th 348, required reversal of the judgment that would have otherwise deprived Miranda of the right to arbitrate representative claims under the Private Attorneys General Act (Lab. Code, §2698 et seq.). Iskanian was so directly on point that it required only a paragraph of substantive discussion in the Court of Appeal opinion. Of course, the case might have been decided the same way without the Supreme Court’s Iskanian decision, or the Court of Appeal may have asked for supplemental briefing on the effect of Iskanian had neither party addressed it in the briefing, but the new case sure made it easier for appellant to brief the appeal.

The obvious application of the Iskanian holding probably explains why so much of the Court of Appeal opinion in Miranda was spent on the subject of appealability. Faced with a controlling Supreme Court opinion, the respondent probably thought its best hope for keeping the judgment in place would be to get the appeal dismissed for lack of appealability, and spent the bulk of its brief on that issue. However, the respondent failed to convince the Court of Appeal that the judgment was not appealable, leading to reversal based on Iskanian.

The kitchen sink has no place on appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Some basics about briefing

Yesterday’s decision in Provost v. Regents of the University of California, et al., case no. G043523, offers some reminders on briefing. For those of you completely new to this, consider the sequence of briefing before you read any further: the appealing party (“appellant”) files his opening brief, the party defending against the appeal (the “respondent”) files his respondent’s brief, and then the appellant, at his option, files a reply brief.

Let’s start with the appellant’s opening brief, which the court criticized for at least two deficiencies. The first was the appellant’s failure to present his arguments correctly:

[S]ome of plaintiff?s arguments are not confined to the point raised in the heading, also a violation of court rules. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) And many of the same arguments are repeated throughout the brief under various headings. Although we address the issues raised in the headings, we do not consider all of the loose and disparate arguments that are not clearly set out in a heading and supported by reasoned legal argument.

Got that? Even if you actually make an argument, merely presenting it incorrectly can result in it being ignored by the court. I suspect this is rarely prejudicial to the appellant, however. An argument that doesn’t merit its own heading from the writer probably isn’t a good argument in any event. But if the court refuses even to consider it, you’ll never know.

Appellant’s other sin was even more basic:

Defendants argue the opening brief should be stricken, justifiably taking exception to plaintiff?s failure to provide record references in violation of California Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(C). . . . In addition, we will generally consider only those facts and arguments supported by adequate citations to the record.

Put yourself in the Justice’s shoes (or at least the shoes of their research attorneys) for a moment. In front of you is a brief referring to evidence and proceedings in the record without telling you where any of it actually is in that record, which may be hundreds (or conceivably thousands) of pages long. Are you going to try to hunt those pages down?

The court declined to strike the appellant’s opening brief, as respondents requested, demonstrating some of the patience the Court of Appeal is generally known for, but should not be taken advantage of: “Although we decline to strike the brief, this should not be interpreted as approval of plaintiff?s violation of the appellate rules.”

So, let’s get to the problems with the Reply Brief.

Appellant’s first mistake was filing a reply brief in excess of the word limit, apparently without a motion for permission to do so. The court rejected the brief, and in its order directing the appellant to file a compliant reply brief, cited the second problem with it: “we reminded [appellant] he could not raise new issues or ‘rewrite his opening brief.’ ” Despite this warning, the appellant’s revised reply brief did it anyway:

In addition, we will not address arguments raised for the first time in the reply brief (Reichardt v. Hoffman (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 754, 764-766) or documents in [appellant’s] “Reply Appendix” filed with his reply brief because defendants lacked the opportunity to respond.

Appellant also tried with his reply brief to correct his failure to cite to the record in his opening brief:

In the reply brief, plaintiff supplies some record references although they are still incomplete, but this is too little, too late because defendants did not have the opportunity to respond.

You’d think from the name that the function of a reply brief — or at least its limited scope — would be obvious. The first definition that comes up for the word reply on is: “to make answer in words or writing; answer; respond[.]” (My emphasis.) As the opinion in Provost demonstrates, judicial treatment of reply briefs enforces this common sense notion, and will not allow an appellant to make arguments against which the respondent has no opportunity to defend.

The appellant in Provost lost sight of the proper purpose of a reply brief. Instead of responding to the arguments raised in respondent’s brief, the appellant apparently tried to correct defects in his opening brief. I can see how that might be tempting if you’re unfamiliar with the rules (or familiar with them, but desperate), but compounding initial briefing errors with more briefing errors didn’t get this appellant very far.

The Results of the Shootout at the Amicus Corral

In a case that attracted amicus participation of noteworthy proportions, the California Supreme Court holds that a medical provider has no constitutional defense, based on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, to a claim for sexual orientation discrimination under California’s Unruh Act (Civ. Code, § 51).  The doctor defendants had refused artificial insemination services to a lesbian and contended that they did so for religious reasons.  The Supremes find no such exception under the federal or state constitutions.  The court finds that because the Act is a facially neutral and valid law of general applicability, the incidental infringement on religious liberty that compliance requires cannot sustain a constitutional defense to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.

The Value of a Good Reply Brief

As much as I keep up with appellate issues, some things catch me by surprise. According to this article: “There has long been debate in appellate circles whether reply briefs serve a worthwhile purpose. Some wonder whether justices even read them.

Really? I’ve never doubted the value of a well-written reply brief, nor have I heard others question their value. Though reply briefs are optional, I can’t imagine I’d ever decide against filing one.

If you’d like to read what some appellate justices have to say about them, check out Are Reply Briefs Really Necessary? The Recorder e-mailed all 103 appellate justices in California for their views on reply briefs and got responses from 25 of them. Reporter Mike McKee’s write-up of their responses describes some pitfalls for appellants’ counsel to avoid and how the justices approach brief reading, among other things.

Hat tip: The Appellate Practitioner.

Zemanta Pixie

It Turns Out that Your Appendix on Appeal is Quite Similar to the One in Your Abdomen

“Your appendix is a vestigial organ with no known function but it will kill you if it goes awry.”  That’s the clever moral Professor Childress of Legal Profession Blog draws from the story of the attorney who inadvertently submitted an appendix that included his margin notes commenting on the court’s prior opinion.  His post also has additional links regarding the story.

Of course, your appendix on appeal does have a function (though I can understand how the temptation to write that line was irresistible to Professor Childress).  But the larger point remains: proof your appendix as carefully as you do your brief.

The Limits of Wende

Anyone who does criminal appellate work by appointment for indigent defendants is familiar with People v. Wende (1979) 25 Cal.3d 436. Wende requires the court of appeal to conduct an independent review of the record for error when appointed counsel files a brief representing that he or she has reviewed the record and found no arguable issues. At least, this review is required on the defendant’s first appeal as of right.

People v. Dobson, case no. F053531 (5th Dist. Apr. 16, 2008) teaches the limits of Wende. Dobson was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital. Six years later, he was released to outpatient status briefly before the court granted a petition to revoke his outpatient status. Dobson then petitioned for release on the ground of regained sanity and lost.

Dobson appealed, and his appointed counsel on appeal filed a Wende brief asking the court of appeal to independently review the record. The issue decided by the court here is whether they are required to conduct such an independent review under the circumstances.

The court of appeal concludes an independent review of the record is not mandated by Wende and dismisses the appeal. A petition for release is not a criminal proceeding, and the due process protections nonetheless present make an erroneous decision sufficiently unlikely that an independent review isn’t warranted.

There’s more to the analysis, of course, and the case serves as a pretty good primer on the test for evaluating when independent review is necessary.

E-Filing Briefs in the Supreme Court

blog-announce.jpgRule 8.212, California Rules of Court was amended effective January 1, 2008 to allow parties to serve the Supreme Court electronically in lieu of physical service of four hard copies of briefs filed in the court of appeal, but the Supreme Court website did not appear to provide the promised information for doing so. That’s changed. You can now go here to start the electronic filing process for your brief.

I haven’t tried it out with an actual brief yet, but it looks pretty straightforward. I’ll be able to try it out in a week or two and will report on it then.

Hat Tip: Jeffrey Lewis at Nota Bene.

The Record is Everything

Tom Caso has this post at The Opening Brief regarding a Ninth Circuit case last week in which Judge Kleinfeld laments his inability to follow his intuition and hold in favor of the government in an environmental case because of the government’s inability to actually support its case from the record.  Its hard to tell from Judge Kleinfeld’s comments whether the government was hamstrung by its failure to preserve an adequate record or it merely failed to direct the court to those portions of the record that supported its position.

Either way, it’s an embarrassment to have this type of deficiency pointed out by the court, and Tom uses the case to remind us of the importance of making the record.

And Professor Martin at California Appellate Report uses the occasion to provide one of his patented rewrites to show what Judge Kleinfeld was really thinking.

Things You Don’t Want to Read about Your Work

I’ve been working almost non-stop for the last 18 hours, and its 3 a.m. (so pardon any typo’s), so I’m not about to plow through the 82-pages of opinions in Schmidlin v. City of Palo Alto, case no. H026841 (6th Dist. Dec. 4, 2007).  But I’m not too sleepy to browse through it, and I happened upon the “bloggable” portion.  Or at least one of them.

Its a case brought by a plaintiff who alleges various constitutional violations against city cops.  The jury finds that the cops used excessive force, but did not unlawfully arrest the plaintiff or fabricate police reports.  Both sides appealed.

Issue 1: Sufficent evidence of excessive force?  Well, not so fast.  Writes the court (emphasis mine):

Defendants assert that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury’s finding of excessive force.  At least we so construe their brief, which alludes in passing to the insufficiency of the evidence, but which is actually devoted almost entirely to rearguing the facts.

Talk to just about any appellate jurist, and he or she will tell you that trial lawyers do this all the time.  Not every trial lawyer, of course.  Not even most.  But enough to present a steady stream of attorneys at oral argument arguing passionately to the justices as if they were wearing juror badges instead of black robes.

Issue 2: Qualified Immunity?  Strike Two:

Defendants raise several arguments to the effect that the trial court erred in not sustaining their defense of qualified immunity.  As with the challenge to the evidence of excessive force, their appellate presentation is so fundamentally flawed that it is unnecessary to delve into the applicable substantive law.

The court can’t make heads or tails of this portion of the brief.

Issue 3: Is the federal excessive force claim time barred?  This time, the problem is with the dissenting justice as well as the defendants.  The court says its adoption of the dissent’s position that the court should have granted summary adjudication on the federal excessive force cause of action

is precluded by two seemingly insurmountable obstacles:  (1) defendants have expressly disclaimed any such claim of error, and (2) they never made a motion to adjudicate the “federal excessive force cause of action.”

And still 72 pages to go!

Follow the Rules – A Lesson from the Ninth

Today’s decision in Sekiya v. Gates, case no. 06-15887 (9th Cir. November 29, 2007) is a reminder that the dismissal sanction is lurking out there for any parties to an appeal that fail to follow the rules. The Ninth finds the appellant’s opening brief so deficient that it is “compelled to strike it in its entirety and dismiss the appeal.”

The brief wasn’t merely “deficient.” It sounds like it did not resemble a brief at all.

The brief fails to provide the applicable standard of review, and makes virtually no legal arguments. Furthermore, it lacks a table of contents, a table of authorities, citations to authority, and accurate citations to the record.

You’re thinking, “Well, that’s what you get for proceeding in propria persona,” right? Think again. Appellant had counsel. Yet the analysis and citation to evidence (it was an appeal from summary judgment) were also deficient:

Bare assertions and lists of facts unaccompanied by analysis and completely devoid of caselaw fall far short of the requirement that counsel present “appellant’s contentions and the reasons for them.”

Despite the court’s assertion that it was publishing the case “as a reminder that material breaches of our rules undermine the administration of justice and cannot be tolerated,” it nonetheless conducts an independent review of the record in recognition of “the harshness of this rule, especially as its application could, if unwisely applied, leave a meritorious appellant without a legal remedy when the fault lies solely with his or her counsel.”

With this concern in mind, and despite the abject deficiency of the brief, we have reviewed Sekiya’s case on the merits based on a review of the district court record, and we are satisfied that the district court did not err.  Sekiya, however, is not “entitled to have us expatiate on our reasons for finding [her] case unmeritorious.” [Citation.]

Maybe the part I liked best was this quote:

In order to give fair consideration to those who call upon us for justice, we must insist that parties not clog the system by presenting us with a slubby mass of words rather than a true brief. [Citation.]

I think if I were a legal writing professor, I might talk about this case with my students and keep the phrase “slubby mass of words” handy.

UPDATE (12/5/07):  Lowering the Bar coins the term “Slubby Mass Rule” and delves into the etymology of “slubby.”

Failure to Brief and the Bounds of Discretion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skilling’s 58,922-Word Brief Accepted by Fifth Circuit

The Law Blog reports that the Fifth Circuit has granted former CEO executive Jeff Skilling’s request to file an overlength brief. has posted the Fifth Circuit’s order, which allows Skilling to file his brief of 58,922 words — 44, 922 words over the normal limit, or more than 4 times the maximum length provided by the rules — and grants permission for the government to do the same.

My round-up of coverage on Skilling’s request several weeks ago, including links to substantive analyses of his arguments, appears here

Failure to Address Contrary Authority Again Draws Fire

Last week, we saw a government lawyer scolded by the Ninth Circuit for making an argument directly contrary to controlling authority without even trying to argue around that authority and without even citing it.  This week, it’s the California Court of Appeal’s turn, in a slightly different context. 

Yesterday, Tom Caso at The Opening Brief posted about Batt v. City and County of San Francisco, case no. A114633 (1st Dist. Sept. 12, 2007), in which he says the court “suggested it was unethical for an attorney to fail to address in your brief cases that, even if not directly on point, ‘clearly are pertinent to any meaningful discussion of the issue.'”  Interestingly, this case is much different from the federal case profiled last week.  Here, the attorney is scolded not for withholding authority, but merely failing to address a controlling authority briefed by the other side.

I don’t agree with the court’s rationale regarding ethics.  The court relies on Rule 5-200 of the Rules of Professional Conduct:

In presenting a matter to a tribunal, a member:

(A) Shall employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to the member such means only as are consistent with truth;

(B) Shall not seek to mislead the judge, judicial officer, or jury by an artifice or false statement of fact or law;

(C) Shall not intentionally misquote to a tribunal the language of a book, statute, or decision;

(D) Shall not, knowing its invalidity, cite as authority a decision that has been overruled or a statute that has been repealed or declared unconstitutional; and

(E) Shall not assert personal knowledge of the facts at issue, except when testifying as a witness.

Failing to address authorities openly cited by your adversary does not strike me as dishonest, misleading, an artifice, a misquotation, or citation of an invalid authority.  Likewise, I think the court was wrong to cite ABA Model Rule 3.3, which prohibits a lawyer from making a false statement of law or from failing “to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel.” (Emphasis added.)

Here, the cases the party ignored were cited by the other party and discussed extensively in the other party’s briefs.  Nobody concealed anything, except in the sense, perhaps, that by not discussing the adverse authority, the attorney was hoping the court would overlook it.

Whatever the ethics, sticking your head in the sand as soon as your opponent cites adverse authority obviously isn’t smart, as Tom notes in greater detail (along with providing some of the court’s ethics rationale) at his post.

Roundup: Skilling’s Brief

Former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling’s brief in the appeal of his criminal conviction states in support of his request for oral argument that his prosecution was “perhaps the most prominent and publicized white-collar case ever prosecuted.”  One might guess he felt that way from the length of his opening brief: 237 pages and roughly 60,000 words.

The blog posts I’ve seen on this credit’s Law Blog post as the first.  It includes a link to the brief and credit’s Skilling’s lawyers for “some nice rhetorical touches,” two of which it quotes.  While that post offers some bullet-point analysis of the arguments made in the brief, those truly interested (but who dont want to slog through the whole brief) should read the detailed analysis at White Collar Crime Prof Blog.

Of course, as How Appealing notes, the court first has to approve Skilling’s motion for permission to file the lengthy brief, which is more than four times the length permitted by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.  To demonstrate the complexity of the case, that motion (PDF) notes that the record on appeal is nearly 47,000 pages long.

Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy posts about how this will likely stretch out the resolution of the appeal significantly.

The cleverly named Tex Parte Blog asks, “How much did that brief cost per page?”

Lowering the Bar’s take has the usual dose of humor, but is actually complimentary of the quality of the brief.

Finally, it’s interesting that a search for “skilling appeal brief filed” at Jurist reveals a single, two and a half-year-old mention of Skilling’s trial, but also advises: “