Category Archives: Waiver of Issues

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.

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 Aappeal 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.

Manufacturing appellate jurisdiction over a discovery ruling

When I read Brescia v. Angelin, case no. B204003 (2d Dist. Mar. 17, 2009), I was reminded about how Saturday Night Live once ran one a commercial parody for a product with the advertising slogan “It’s a dessert topping! It’s a floor wax!  It’s two products in one!”

How do I make that connection? Because when I was done reading the case, I thought, “It’s a dismissal after sustaining a demurrer! It’s a discovery ruling! It’s two rulings in one!”

And so did the court of appeal, though it didn’t say it in so many words.

Brescia cross-complained against respondents for trade secret misappropriation.  Code of Civil Procedure section 2019.210 requires a trade secret plaintiff to identify the trade secret “with particularity” before commencing discovery.  Respondents moved for protective orders against discovery served by Brescia, claiming that he had not adequately identified the trade secret.  Finding the initial identification inadequate, the court gave Brescia several opportunities to make more particular designations, while the hearing on the protective order motions (which were now greater in number) were continued.  During this time, the respondents also demurred to Brescia’s cross-complaint.

Eventually, the protective order motions and demurrer (as well as a motion to strike) were heard on the same date, and this is where it gets interesting.  The court goes into great detail about the exchange among counsel and the court, but summarizes it as follows:

[T]he parties, in an attempt to expedite any appeal, stipulated that if the court determined the trade secret designation insufficient, it could use respondents’ demurrer to the cross-complaint as a procedural device to dismiss Brescia’s trade secret misappropriation claim for failure to comply with section 2019.210

That should have set off alarms in everyone’s mind, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The court found the disclosure inadequate and sustained the demurrer without leave to amend.

Brescia appealed from the resulting judgment of dismissal and, notwithstanding his stipulation in the trial court that the inadequacy of the trade secret disclosure would dispose of the case, argued that the court could not use a ruling on the trade secret disclosure as a ground for sustaining the demurrer. After recounting all the ways in which the stipulated arrangement violated normal procedural rules and effectively converted an unappealable discovery ruling into an appealable judgment, the court reminds Brescia of the doctrine of “invited error”:

Nonetheless, despite these inherent problems, Brescia stipulated to the procedure used by the court, as did respondents.  Indeed, the trial court would not have used this procedure but for Brescia’s express consent.  Brescia is in the procedural posture he sought. To the extent he now challenges that posture as improper and awkward, he effectively misled the trial court into believing the procedure was acceptable to him as a means to secure immediate appellate review of the sufficiency of his section 2019.210 designation.  Thus, he cannot contend on appeal that the termination of his action against respondents was procedurally defective.  (See Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 403 [doctrine of invited error applies where party induces error and, in doing so, misleads court].)

But Brescia actually prevails on the adequacy of his disclosure, so the court reverses, rejecting respondents’ contention that the demurrer gave an alternate ground for affirmance.

Respondents argue that the alternative grounds exist to support the court’s ruling sustaining the demurrer to the cross-complaint without leave to amend:  (1) the cross-complaint fails to state facts sufficient to plead a trade secret misappropriation claim against respondents personally, and (2) Brescia’s legal theory creates an improper prior restraint on trade.

In the unusual procedural posture of this case, we decline to address these issues.  The ruling that forms the basis for this appeal is a discovery ruling – the sufficiency of Brescia’s section 2019.210 designation.  By stipulation, the parties and the court deemed that discovery ruling to be a ground upon which the court would dispose of the cross-complaint through the procedural fiction that it formed a basis for demurrer.  We have given effect to that stipulated fiction and have addressed the merits of the section 2019.210 issue.  But we will not carry the fiction further and purport to review a ruling on a demurrer that was never truly made.  Respondents are asking us, in the first instance, to rule on their challenges to the cross-complaint and to sustain the demurrer without leave to amend.  We decline.  Respondents must first obtain a ruling on the demurrer in the trial court, which is the appropriate forum to determine in the first instance whether the demurrer states meritorious grounds, and, if so, whether leave to amend should be granted.

(Emphasis added.)

Curiously, none of the analysis talked about in this post is part of the published opinion, which is limited to the issue of the adequacy of the trade secret disclosure. The court clearly was not pleased with the stipulation, and a published decision would have announced their discouragement of such arrangements.  On the other hand, notwithstanding the court’s distaste for the arrangement, publication might have encouraged more of them.  The court did, after all, hear the appeal, and determine the merits of the underlying discovery ruling.  Other plaintiffs faced with the same unattractive alternatives to such a stipulation — waiting to appeal after final judgment or petitioning for writ relief with a greater than 90% chance of not being hard on the merits — may find the “Brescia option” attractive . . . if they learn of it.

The Judgment, the Whole Judgment, and Nothing But the Judgment

Sometimes, a judgment is a mixed bag. That’s how all the parties must have viewed the judgment in Satchmed Plaza Owners Assn. v. UWMC Hospital Corp., case no. G038119 (4th Dist. Oct. 23, 2008). The judgment enforced Satchmed’s right of first refusal with respect to 22 owned medical office units by requiring UWMC to offer them to Satchmed at a certain price. But the judgment did not require such an offer on 12 other units, which were leased. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the judgment stated that there was no prevailing party.

Mixed bags create competing incentives. Here, one incentive got the best of Satchmed.

UWMC complied with the judgment by offering the 22 offices to Satchmed, which decided to purchase them. But those other 12 units. . . well, Satchmed just couldn’t let go. And those guys at Satchmed must have thought, “Hey, if you think about it, we won on 22 of 34 units, so aren’t we the prevailing party?” So Satchmed appealed, challenging those portions of the judgment regarding the 12 units and the prevailing party determination.

Under the established doctrine that a party’s voluntary acceptance of the benefits of a judgment — or even a portion of them — precludes an appeal by that party, Satchmed’s appeal is dismissed on the ground that it waived its right to appeal by purchasing the 22 units. Satchmed claimed the doctrine did not apply because of two equally established equitable exceptions. The court not only rejected the arguments, but noted that Satchmed’s conduct was manipulative.

First, Satchmed claimed that its acceptance of the benefits was compelled, rather than voluntary, because it risked losing its right to purchase the 22 units if it appealed the judgment. After noting that Satchmed could have appealed “without fear that its right to accept UWMC’s offer would evaporate by the simple act of filing” because matters relating to enforcement of the judgment would have been automatically stayed by the appeal, the court points out the lack of any real compulsion:

The judgment did not put Satchmed at risk of losing any property it already owned. Furthermore, Satchmed was not at risk of forfeiting monies to which it was entitled by statute if it chose to prosecute an appeal. Satchmed just wanted to aggrandize its award without risk. It simply had to choose whether it wanted to file an appeal in pursuit of an even greater award than the judgment provided to it, which would entail risking a reversal of the favorable portion of the judgment, or whether it wanted to simply accept the benefit of the favorable portion of the judgment, and thereby waive the right to appeal from the unfavorable portions. Having to make a choice of this nature does not make the chosen avenue involuntary.

Second, Satchmed contended the judgment was severable, but the court find that the only facts that Satchmed relied on were created by it after the judgment, and points out that a party may not make a nonseverable judgment severable by its post-judgment actions:

[T]he portions of the judgment pertaining to the 12 leased units and the prevailing party status are not severable. Satchmed attempts to use clever timing to convert a nonseverable judgment into a severable one. We look here at the judgment at the time it was entered, before any party appealed therefrom. At that point in time, it is clear that the judgment was not severable. A ruling pertaining to the 12 leased units easily could have affected the 22 owned units, and vice versa. But Satchmed seized the portion of the judgment beneficial to itself, and took title to the 22 owned units. It then said that no ruling on the 12 leased units could possibly affect the status of the 22 owned units. In other words, it had then put the 22 owned units beyond the reach of UWMC’s attack and beyond the purview of this court. Satchmed’s claim that the judgment was then severable is essentially a claim that the judgment had become severable because Satchmed had made it so. It does not work that way. Satchmed cannot have its cake and eat it too. Having accepted the benefits of the portion of the judgment making title to the 22 owned units available to it, it cannot now attack the portion of the judgment making title to the 12 leased units unavailable to it.

In short: a judgment is either severable when entered or not. One cannot convert a severable judgment into a severable one.

Are you tempted by the juicy part of a judgment, but tempted to appeal the rest? Think it over carefully before you decide what to do, and especially think twice about maneuvering to make the facts fit within an exception to the “acceptance equals waiver” rule. It won’t pay off.

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A Double Standard . . . of Review

An appropriate follow-up to last week’s post that discussed the pitfalls of the standard of review is United States v. Vega, case no. 07-50245 (9th Cir. Sept. 24, 2008). It illustrates a double standard that one wouldn’t ordinarily expect.

In the district court, Vega challenged two conditions on the supervised release portion of his sentence.  On appeal, however, he argued that a third condition of his supervised release was also error.

You might think he’d be out of luck entirely on that third condition, the general rule being that an argument cannot be made for the first time on appeal  But he’s not.

Though Vega did not challenge the third condition in the district court, the effect of that failure is not to foreclose his argument in the court of appeals, but merely to subject his claim to a standard of review more difficult for him to overcome.  That is, for the two conditions Vega did challenge in the district court, the court of appeals evaluates the district court’s imposition of the conditions under an abuse of discretion standard, while requiring “plain error” for the condition left unchallenged in the district court.

There’s a larger lesson here.  Notwithstanding the general rule that arguments raised for the first time on appeal will not be entertained by the appellate court, I think it pays for an appellant to be aggressive about raising such arguments — good ones, at least — wherever the rules suggest a way to get them in.  Don’t dismiss arguments out of hand just because they were not raised (or perhaps raised with less specificity) in the trial court.  Carefully look at the case law, and if there’s an argument to be made that the court should consider your “new” argument, go for it.

California Attorney Fee Recovery Preempted by ADA – and a Note on Missed Issues

It’s quite common for plaintiffs to sue under similar state and federal provisions.  The disabled plaintiffs who sued under both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the California Disabled Persons Act in Hubbard v. Sobreck LLC, case no. 06-56870 (9th Cir. June 27, 2008) did themselves a favor by doing so, as the court finds that the prevailing defendant’s right to attorney fees under the CDPA is preempted by the more stringent fee provision in the ADA.

The ADA fee provision makes fees discretionary, but that has led to a practice of awarding fees to defendants only where the plaintiff’s case is frivolous.  The CDPA, on the other hand, makes fees recoverable by the “prevailing party.”  Since liability is coextensive – a violation of the ADA is a violation of the CDPA  -  the   federal provision wins out.

From an appellate angle, the interesting thing about the case is that the court addressed the preemption issue even though it was not raised in the district court.  Because it is an issue of law, the Ninth Circuit had discretion to consider the issue for the first time on appeal.

More interesting yet, this wasn’t the first time a district court missed the issue.  The defendants cited two district court opinions that awarded fees to prevailing defendants sued under both the ADA and the CDPA, but the Ninth cites a major flaw in both of them: “Neither of these cases, however, considered the issue of preemption.”  The Ninth finds a third district court decision consistent with its own, but even that decision failed to address preemption.

I suppose it’s easy to say that at least one of the lawyers or judges in these three cases should have seen and dealt with the preemption issue.  But in the the throes of litigation, the parties and the court sometimes miss an issue that later seems obvious in hindsight.  That can be dangerous, as the appellate court won’t always be able or inclined to address the missed issue.

Court has No Duty During Recommitment Proceedings to Consider Suitability for Outpatient Treatment

In People v. Rish, case no. B198727 (2d Dist. June 16, 2008), Rish appealed from from an order recommitting him to the California Department of Mental Health for treatment as a mentally disordered offender pursuant to Penal Code section 2972.  He claimed that the trial court erred by failing to consider whether he was suitable for outpatient treatment, even though he did not raise this alternative in the trial court.

The Court of Appeal determines that Rish waived the issue by failing to raise it.  As a matter of statutory construction, Section 2972, subdivision (d) does not impose a duty on the court to evaluate suitability for outpatient treatment sua sponte.

The court reached the issue even though it had been mooted by the trial court’s entry of a subsequent order extending Rish’s commitment for an additional one-year term and setting a hearing to address his suitability for outpatient treatment.  It found the issue “capable of repetition, yet evading review” because commitment petitions must be filed on an annual basis, making it likely the trial court would decide a new petition prior to appellate review of the prior sustained petition. 

Waiver of Appeal Rights in Plea Agreements

Plea agreements often waive the right to appeal, but they aren’t always what they seem, especially when it comes to how they define the scope of the waiver. For a lesson in how to determine whether a defendant has waived the right to bring a particular appeal, check out United States v. Cope, case no. 06-50441 (9th Cir. June 4, 2008).

Cope pled guilty to a single count of possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 120 months imprisonment and lifetime supervised release. His plea agreement stated that he waived appeal of his sentence so long as it met three criteria. On appeal, he challenged the length of his supervised release

The court walks you right through the steps, applying these rules:

  • The waiver of a statutory right to appeal is reviewed de novo.
  • A knowing and voluntary waiver of statutory rights to appeal a sentence is valid.
  • The scope of a waiver in a plea agreement is subject to the same rules of interpretation as used for any other contract (at least, “for the most part”).
  • Any ambiguity will be construed against the drafter (usually, the government).

It’s the last of these that allows Cope to reach the merits of his challenge to the length of his supervised release.  Because part of the language defining the scope of Cope’s waiver – which waived appeal of any sentence “within or below the range corresponding to the determined total offense level and criminal history category” – defines a non-appealable sentence in terms of criteria that apply only to the term of imprisonment, and not to the term of the supervised release, the court finds the provision ambiguous and construes it against the government:

As drafted, however, this provision cannot sensibly be applied to a term of supervised release. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the offense level and criminal history category do not control the term of supervised release, as they do the term of imprisonment. Rather, the type of offense determines the length of the Guidelines range for the term of supervised release. See U.S.S.G. § 5D1.2(a) (Nov. 2002) (specifying supervised release range for Class C felonies); 18 U.S.C. § 3559(a)(3) (Class C felony defined as a crime with a maximum term of imprisonment between 10 and 25 years); 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(b)(2) (2003) (maximum term for Cope’s crime is 20 years). This ambiguity in the waiver provision makes it impossible for us to determine whether the prerequisites for waiver have been met with regard to Cope’s term of supervised release. Because we “steadfastly” apply the rule that “any lack of clarity” in a plea agreement should be construed against the government as drafter, [citation], we hold that this ambiguity in the waiver provision permits Cope to appeal the length of his term of supervised release.

It does Cope little good in the end, however.  While the court entertains his appeal, it affirms the lifetime supervised release.

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.

Preserve Your Sentencing Objections

In United States v. Grissom, case no. 06-10688 (9th Cir. Apr. 15, 2008), the Ninth Circuit reviews what it calls “novel circumstances” and looks beyond the form of a sentencing objection to determine whether the government had preserved the issue for appeal. Whether you view the analysis as a more lenient test or simply the application of the old test in new circumstances, it seems likely to lead to more sentencing appeals.

Grissom pled guilty to one drug distribution count involving 49 grams of cocaine base in exchange for dismissal of the remaining two counts, which involved a total of 56 grams of cocaine base. The government contended that the trial court erred by not including the drug quantities from the dismissed counts in the calculation of the base offense level.

The district judge announced his reasoning for imposing an 87-month sentence –  including her decision not to include the drug quantities from the dismissed counts — and asked if there was any legal cause why sentence should not be imposed. Then:

The government responded, “No, your honor. I would simply note the government’s objection on the record.” At that point, the court stated, “I know. You know what you can do with that. Take it to appellate court, if that’s what you want to do. I don’t think it’s worth it myself, but that’s something you have to decide.”

Ordinarily, to preserve a sentencing objection for appeal, it “must have a specific substantive basis” in order to apprise the district court of the specific nature of the objection for its due consideration. Here’s the dilemma faced by the Ninth:

But what happens when the district court indicates that it has understood, and rejected, the substance of a party’s objection? This case presents the issue of forfeiture in novel circumstances. Neither party disputes that the government objected to the sentence imposed on Grissom. Before the government articulated a basis for its objection, however, the district court stated “I know[,]” and the government pursued the matter no further. The government now contends that its own general objection, coupled with the district court’s terse statement, reflects that the district court was fully aware of the government’s legal position regarding relevant conduct.

It turns out to be not such a dilemma after all, as the court looks past the facially deficient objection to find that the government had made its position plain throughout the sentencing process:

Despite the seeming facial inadequacy of the objection, we agree with the government that where the district court indicates that it understands the basis for the objection and that further argument is not desired, and the record reflects this understanding, a general objection may suffice to preserve an issue for appeal. As the government argues, the purpose of a specific objection is to allow for meaningful review by the district court and, if necessary, the appellate panel. Santiago, 466 F.3d at 803. Thus, the court’s reassurance that it “know[s]” the substance of a party’s complaint helps to allay concerns about the ability of the district court to address it. Cf. United States v. Pineiro, 470 F.3d 200, 204-05 (5th Cir. 2006) (concluding that the government preserved its objection to recalculating the defendant’s sentence by making statements throughout the sentencing hearing arguing that the prior calculations were still appropriate); United States v. Curry, 461 F.3d 452, 459 (4th Cir. 2006) (excusing the government’s failure to object at the end of the sentencing colloquy where the government argued vigorously throughout the hearing, such that it “made unmistakably clear its position”).

Reviewing the record, we are satisfied that the district court was indeed fully aware of the government’s position regarding the district court’s calculation of relevant conduct. First, the government consistently advanced its view that quantities of crack cocaine from the dismissed counts of the indictment should count for sentencing purposes. The plea agreement, PSR, and both parties’ sentencing memoranda all calculated Grissom’s offense level based on the total amount, 105 grams, rather than the 49 grams charged in the count of conviction. Neither party challenged this calculation at the sentencing hearing. Second, the district court’s comments indicate an awareness that its decision not to consider the amount from the dismissed counts produced the government’s objection. After commenting that determining the calculation based on 105 grams would not “amount to dismissing the other two [counts] because [the government would] still . . . count them out anyway[,]” the district court changed the base offense level to “reflect[ ] the 49 grams.” In short, the district court knew it was deviating from a calculation based on the total amount. Responding to the government’s objection, the district court challenged the government to “take it to appellate court, if that’s what you want to do.” The district court’s challenge to the government to appeal strongly suggests the district court recognized and disagreed with the claimed error. Therefore, we hold that the government’s objection was sufficient under the circumstances to preserve its objection to the district court’s calculation of Grissom’s sentence.

Bottom line: what matters is not so much the actual presentation of the objection, but whether the record discloses that the district court was well-enough advised of the nature of the objection that it could give it due consideration.

Appellate Surprises

Some points about appellate practice — even well-settled points — can come as surprises to those not well versed in it. Doe v. United Airlines, case no. B192865 (2d Dist. Mar. 20, 2008) consolidates several of them in a single case. I’m only going to spend a line or two on each one, without much elaboration. The point of the post is to disclose just a few traps trial attorneys can fall into, not to give detailed exposition on each point.

My original post about the case concerned what some might consider a procedural oddity: a new trial motion where no trial ever occurred. A new trial motion is validly made after a grant of summary judgment.

Here are the remaining points I think worth bringing out of the case:

The Protective Cross Appeal. Congratulations, you’ve won your new trial motion! Your adversary appeals the grant of a new trial. And if you think you’re going to be disappointed if they prevail on appeal, you’re going to be absolutely horrified if you forgot to file a protective cross-appeal from the underlying judgment.

Forfeiture of Evidentiary Objections. California decisions generally hold that objections to evidence offered in summary judgment are not preserved for appeal unless the objecting party secures a ruling from the trial court. But with the recent development of a split of authority, the Supreme Court has agreed to review the issue.

Affirmance of New Trial Orders on Alternative Grounds. Read that new trial statute (Code Civ. Proc., § 657) closely. Section 657 provides, in part, that (emphasis added) “[o]n appeal from an order granting a new trial the order shall be affirmed if it should have been granted upon any ground stated in the motion, whether or not specified in the order or specification of reasons,” followed by exceptions to this rule.

Preserving Evidentiary Objections for Appeal from a Summary Judgment

Last Friday, the California Supreme Court granted review in Reid v. Google, Inc., case no. S158965. The Supreme Court states the following as one of the issues for review: ”Are evidentiary objections not expressly ruled on at the time of decision on a summary judgment motion preserved for appeal?”

Until now, the answer has generally been “no.” That’s a rule that has always rankled me because securing a ruling can be out of the objecting party’s hands. No matter how much prodding one does, the court may fail to rule.

Tom Caso at the Opening Brief pointed out this likelihood last October, when he covered a series of decisions creating a conflict on this issue in the courts of appeal.  CalBizLit posted on Friday that trial court practice as to how a court purports to rule on the objections has been “all over the map.”

It will be good to get this issue settled.  The parties have only so much control over the state of the record sometimes. (Just ask the Oakland Raiders, for an example in another context.)

Chutzpah on Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

Process Serving Gamesmanship

It sometimes surprises me that in this information age, we are still required to make personal service of sumons. But, absent special circumstances, we are.  Even when the defendant is overseas.

Which was the situation in SEC v. Shaw, case no. 06-15204 (9th Cir. Dec. 11, 2007). The SEC had summons personally served on Shaw in England. Shaw defaulted, then waited more than three years to move to set aside the default judgment on the ground of lack of personal jurisdiction.

The Ninth holds that a defendant with actual notice of the proceedings, as Shaw had, bears the burden of proving he was not served with summons. Shaw can’t make that case here.

Nor does he prevail on his argument that even if he was served, service was invalid for failing to comply with the Hague Convention. Never raised that in the district court, you see.

It is gamesmanship like this that makes for eventual unpleasantness, as when a colleague of mine had a defendant personally served with summons at the defendant’s daughter’s wedding (or reception, I forget which). The defendant had deftly avoided service for some time, so my colleague figured the defendant “had it coming” to be served in the one place my colleague couuld find him.

Double Jeopardy Argument Not Waived by Failure to Object to Multiplicitous Convictions and Sentences

In U.S. v. Zalapa, case no. 06-50487 (9th Cir. Dec. 5, 2007), the Ninth Circuit holds that a defendant can raise a double jeopardy challenge to his multiplicitous convictions and sentences on appeal even if he fails to object to them in the district court.

Zapala was charged with two counts — possession of an unregistered machine gun and possession of an unregistered firearm with a barrel less than 16 inches long — under the same statute, 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). Catch is, those counts were based on possession of the same gun.

Zapala did not object to the indictment, pleaded guilty to all charges without a plea agreement, and did not object to convictions or sentences when they were entered by the district court. Until his appeal, that is, when he claimed the convictions on multiple counts under the same statute for possession of the same gun constituted double jeopardy.

The court finds the convictions and sentences are multiplicitous because under § 5861(d), Congress intended each firearm to be a “unit of prosecution.” In fact, the court has previously found that Congress intended only a single offense per possessed firearm even if it violated all 12 subsections of § 5861.

The court finds that a double jeopardy challenge is not waived by failure to object to convictions and sentences. Under existing Ninth Circuit precedent, a defendant does not waive a double jeopardy challenge by failing to object to mulitplicitous charges in an indictment before pleading guilty. A motion to dismiss the multiplicitous counts prior to sentencing is enough. Further, the Supreme Court has held that a district court has no duty to resolve multiplicitous charges until the jury returns a guilty verdict on them.

The challenge is governed by “plain error” review, under which the court readily reverses because the error is obvious, affects Zapala’s substantial rights, and affects “the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” His substantial rights are affected even though the sentences are concurrent (and thus should not affect his length of imprisonment) because conviction on multiple charges carrries other collateral consequences, including increased monetary liability (a $100 mandatory special assessment on each conviction), possible enhanced sentencing in the future under recidivism statutes, and even consequences “that [the court] cannot foretell at the time of decision.”

The court’s rationale regarding the effect on Zapala’s substantial rights mirrors those in a recent California case. The issue deserves its own blog post, which I’ll get to later.

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!

Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies is a Waivable Defense

At first glance, it might appear that the Court of Appeal in Mokler v. County of Orange, case no. G036029 (4th Dist. Nov. 26, 2007) did the unthinkable: hold that a defendant had waived a jurisdictional defect. Not so fast. The fact of the matter is that not all jurisdictional defects are created equally.

Mokler provides a fairly good discussion of the difference between acts in the absence of fundamental jurisdiction — that is, acting in the absence of power to preside over the case — and acts in excess of jurisdiction, in which a court that has fundamental jurisdiction violates a restriction on the manner in which it can act. I discussed this difference in an earlier post regarding the significance of the difference in terms of whether an act is void ab initio or merely voidable (with the latter subject to equitable limitations).

In Mokler, the distinction is relevant to another question: may the defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies be raised for the first time on appeal? Citing to Abelleira v. District Court of Appeal (1941) 17 Cal.2d 280, which held that the exhaustion of administrative remedies is a jurisdictional requirement, the County contended it could raise the defense at any time.

True enough if exhaustion were a matter of fundamental jurisdiction, without which the trial court would have no power to act. But the court finds that exhaustion fits better into the “in excess of jurisdiction” category because it is subject to numerous fact-intensive exceptions, such as agency delay, futility, or the agency’s incapacity to grant an adequate remedy. Citing other Court of Appeal cases holding that the defense may be waived, it holds that a party may not raise exhaustion for the first time on appeal because it would be inequitable to raise the defense after forcing the plaintiff to litigate a case to conclusion.

I tend to agree with Tom Caso at The Opening Brief that this case may be headed for the Supreme Court. The importance of this issue to public entities around the state, the existence of at least a nominal split of authority on the issue (though one side of that split appears to lack much logical support), and the County’s contention that the Supreme Court’s holding in Campbell v. Regents of the University of California (2005) 35 Cal.4th 311 resolved the split, suggest that the Supremes may want to clarify the limits of its holding in Campbell and provide guidance for suits against public entities.

“Forfeiture” vs. “Waiver” of Issues on Appeal

The Court of Appeal in People v. Campos, case no. B191256 (2d Dist. Nov. 14, 2007) points out in a footnote the difference between “forfeiture” of one’s right to raise an issue on appeal and a “waiver” of that right:

While the People use the term “waiver” in reference to defendants’ failures to preserve their instructional claims for appeal because they did not raise them in the court below, the correct term which we use in this opinion is “‘forfeiture.’” “‘Waiver’” is the express relinquishment of a known right whereas “‘forfeiture’” is the failure to object or to invoke a right. (In re Sheena K. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 875, 880, fn. 1.)

The Sheena K. court, in turned, cited several U. S. Supreme Court decisions noting the distinction in terms, and noted “As a practical matter, the two terms on occasion have been used interchangeably.” On occasion? I think that is putting it mildly. The use of “waiver” seems to me quite widespread.

Which is why I am posting this under the category “Waiver of Issues.” I think far more people will look for posts on this topic under the term “waiver,” and you can’t fight the masses.

Though by the time you read this, I may have changed the category name to “Preservation/Waiver/Forefeiture of Issues.” More cumbersome, but more accurate. I’ll mull it over.

Not Every Procedural Error is Jurisdictional

I know that sounds self-evident. But a jurisdictional challenge is your last hope on appeal if you’re relying on procedural irregularities that you let pass without objection. That’s because a jurisdictional defect can be raised any time in the course of the proceedings, so a party on appeal does not have to worry about having waived it.

But the appellant in In re Angel S., case no. C054446 (3d Dist. Oct. 23, 2007, modified and ordered published Nov. 13, 2007) isn’t able to pull it off.

The appellant in Angel S. had her probate guardianship of her 2-year-old great niece terminated after the girl suffered severe head injuries in appellant’s care and appellant later failed to complete steps ordered in the reunification services plan. She claimed that the juvenile court that terminated the guardianship lacked jurisdiction to do so because the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services petitioned to end the guardianship under Welfare and Institutions Code section 388 instead of by a motion under section 728 and did not give notice of the hearing to the minor’s father or establish that good faith attempts to locate him had failed.

But neither of these errors is jurisdictional, says the court. Section 728 conferred fundamental jurisdiction on the juvenile court to terminate the guardianship. Bringing the petition under the wrong section is a mere procedural defect that the appellant waived by failing to object below. As for notice, appellant had no standing to challenge a lack of jurisdiction as to the father that might result from the failure to serve him. She was provided notice of the hearing and appeared.

This case has a nice, succinct discussion of the difference between a lack of fundamental jurisdiction to hear and decide a matter vs. acts “in excess of” a court’s power to act even when it has fundamental jurisdiction. Both are a form of jurisdictional defect, but the distinction is important because the ways in which a lack of jurisdiction may be challenged depend on the type of jurisdictional defect. This case is worth reading for this summary alone.

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.

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.

Waiving Issues in Arbitration

Keep a close watch on those arbitration arguments, especially as they relate to the scope of the arbitrator’s power as defined by the arbitration agreement.  That’s the lesson of J.C. Gury Co. v. Nippon Carbide Industries (USA) Inc., case no. B194926 (June 29, 2007), in which the Second District Court of Appeal holds that Nippon waived the contractual limitation on the power of the arbitrator by its conduct during the arbitration, and thus may not petition to vacate the award on the ground the arbitrator exceeded his powers.

The agreement stated that the arbitrator “shall not have the power to change, alter or modify” any term of the parties’ agreement.  Nonetheless, J.C. Gury Co. argued in arbitration that Nippon’s warranty limitation and consequential damages exclusion were unconscionable and thus unenforceable.  Nippon addressed these arguments on the merits, and there were two days of relevant testimony.  The Court readily finds the arbitrator exceeded his power by declaring the provisions unenforceable, but affirms the judicial confirmation of the award because Nippon, by addressing the unconscionability argument on the merits without ever objecting to the lack of the arbitrator’s power to declare a provision unconscionable, waived the issue of the arbitrator’s power.

Arbitration is different from trial in a lot of ways.  But the possibility of inadvertently waiving grounds for review isn’t one of them.

Unitherm Precludes Plain Error Review, Too

Watch rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure!

In Unitherm Food Systems, Inc. v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc. (2006) 546 U.S. 394, the Supreme Court held that a party who fails to renew a Rule 50(a) pre-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law by moving under Rule 50(b) post-verdict waives any review of the sufficiency of the evidence.  Prior to Unitherm, an appellant in the Ninth Circuit likewise waived sufficiency of the evidence review in such circumstances, but the Court of Appeals could review for plain error on the face of the record that would result in a “manifest miscarriage of justice” if not corrected  See Patel v. Penman (1996) 103 F.3d 868, 878.

In Nitco Holding Corp. v. Boukijian, case no. 05-16438 (June 25, 2007), the Ninth Circuit holds that such plain error review is likewise precluded by Unitherm.  In the absence of both a Rule 50(a) motion and a post-verdict Rule 50(b) motion either for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, the Court of Appeals cannot review even for plain error.

So don’t forget those post-verdict motions.