SB 470 codifies Reid v. Google, Inc., provides that objections to summary judgment evidence are preserved for appeal

whichthat2On Monday, according to this article at The Recorder, Governor Brown signed SB 470, amending Code of Civil Procedure section 437c, which governs procedure for motions for summary judgment and summary adjudication. For appellate practitioners, the significance of the bill lies in its codification of Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512. Reid held that objections to evidence submitted in support of a motion for summary judgment are preserved for appeal even if the trial court fails to rule on the objections. Prior to Reid, the courts were split on whether such objections were preserved. I’m unaware of any lingering controversy over the issue since Reid, but it is nonetheless satisfying to see its holding codified.

Specifically, the bill adds the following language to the section 437c:

(q) In granting or denying a motion for summary judgment or summary adjudication, the court need rule only on those objections to evidence that it deems material to its disposition of the motion. Objections to evidence that are not ruled on for purposes of the motion shall be preserved for appellate review.

Trial judges served with dozens of pages of objections are now explicitly excused from ruling on those that they deem immaterial. I think some judges have probably been doing this already with orders such as “Plaintiff’s objections 1-10 granted; all others denied,” especially in light of the holding in Reid, but it is good to see the burden explicitly lifted. Consider this excerpt from the first report on the bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee:

The report cites published opinions that illustrate the large number of objections made in summary judgment papers and the huge volume of motion papers in overall. (See Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512, 532 [“We recognize that it has become common practice for litigants to flood the trial courts with inconsequential written evidentiary objection, without focusing on those that are critical [footnote omitted].”]) The report specifically cites, as an example, the case of Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc. (2009) wherein “the moving papers in support of a summary judgment totaled 1,056 pages, plaintiff’s opposition was nearly three times as long and included 47 objections to evidence, and the defendant’s reply included 764 objections to evidence.” [Citation.]

If you are wondering about the graphic accompanying this post, here’s the explanation. It is in honor of the drafters of SB 470, for eliminating from section 437c three incorrect uses of the word “which.” Misuse of “that” and “which” (most commonly, the improper use of “which” in place of “that”) is a pet peeve of mine — not just in section 437c, but everywhere, including all other California codes, briefs, news media, correspondence and judicial decisions. Yet, I am sure I am guilty of it on occasion. Every once in a while, whether “which” or “that” is the correct word can be a close call, but SB 470 corrected some obvious mistakes. You can see the redline of the amended section 437c here.

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.

Falling on your 473(b) sword only gets you so far

OK, it’s not actually FALLING, but you get the picture

Oddly enough, this point is made in a case where no one actually fell on their sword.

The title of this post comes from my nickname for the mandatory relief provision in  Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b) (my emphasis):

Notwithstanding any other requirements of this section, the court shall, whenever an application for relief is made no more than six months after entry of judgment, is in proper form, and is accompanied by an attorney’s sworn affidavit attesting to his or her mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect, vacate any (1) resulting default entered by the clerk against his or her client, and which will result in entry of a default judgment, or (2) resulting default judgment or dismissal entered against his or her client, unless the court finds that the default or dismissal was not in fact caused by the attorney’s mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect.

I’ve always considered this a very scary provision, since it invites an attorney to admit he screwed up, and maybe even committed malpractice (hence my reference to this as the “fall on your sword provision”), in order get his client (and himself) out of a jam. The scary part is . . . what about those situations where an attorney admits fault, but does not get the “mandatory” relief?

The limitations of this provision are explored in yesterday’s decision in Las Vegas Land and Development Co., LLC v. Wilkie Way. LLC, case no. B238921 (2d Dist. Sept. 20, 2013). In that case, a plaintiff failed to file any opposition to a summary judgment motion and had summary judgment entered against it. The plaintiff moved under this mandatory relief provision to set aside the summary judgment, then appealed from the order denying relief.

The limits of falling on your sword – forget about relief from summary judgment

The court holds, consistent with other decisions and contrary to an outlier holding the other way, that the mandatory relief provision does not apply to summary judgments. This holding results from a pretty straightforward analysis of the statutory language limiting application of the provision to defaults and default judgments.

What happens when no one actually falls on their sword?

I’ve seen applications for mandatory relief denied when the court deemed the attorney’s affidavit of fault too unspecific to constitute the required admission. In this case, the plaintiff applicant took it one step farther, and sought relief without any affidavit of fault from an attorney, claiming that its counsel had abandoned it.

In light of the court’s holding that the mandatory relief provision does not apply, the resolution of this request makes no difference, but the court addressed it anyway. Again, it reached a conclusion on a very straightforward analysis. The statute has no exceptions to the affidavit requirement, so the party seeking relief was not excused from providing an affidavit of fault, notwithstanding its contention that it had been abandoned by its counsel.

In fact, plaintiff’s former counsel — the one representing plaintiff at the time plaintiff failed to respond to the summary judgment motion, and who had supposedly abandoned plaintiff — filed an affidavit opposing plaintiff’s request for relief from the judgment, saying that he had advised his client of the need to oppose the summary judgment and was told by the client that it had already engaged new counsel to do so. Not exactly the kind of affidavit plaintiff could have used from the guy, since it not only disavowed any fault but also established that the client had not been abandoned, undermining the factual basis for the claimed exception to the rule.

“A Sadistic Urge to Torment Lawyers”

Foltergeräte

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I always assume that all of the rules of procedure will be strictly construed against me, and that opposing counsel will be allowed to get away with murder. To me, it’s the smart way to practice: dot your I’s and cross your T’s.

In Whitehead v. Habig, case no. G037991 (4th Dist. May 28, 2008, ordered published June 5, 2008), the appellants had appealed a summary adjudication and default judgment on the remaining claims. In opposing the summary adjudication motion, the appellants never filed their own separate statement of undisputed and disputed material facts (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (b)(3); Cal. Rules of Court, rule 3.1350(e)); they merely filed objections to the moving parties’ separate statement of material facts.  In noting that the objections did not satisfy the requirement for a separate statement, the court had a gem of a quote:

The separate statement is not merely a technical requirement, it is an indispensible part of the summary judgment or adjudication process. “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 judgment to determine quickly and efficiently whether material facts are disputed.” [Citation.]

The appellants’ failure to comply with the separate statement requirement in opposition is reason enough for the trial court to grant the summary adjudication motion.

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.

Is Summary Judgment Unconstitutional?

That’s surely a heretical thought to many. And not one that would have popped into my head had reader Joe Norman not commented on my post regarding new trial motions following summary judgment by sending a link to an article by University of Cincinnati College of Law professor Suja Thomas entitled “Why Summary Judgment is Unconstitutional.” Before you laugh off that idea, you ought to read the abstract at that link. An excerpt:

While other scholars question the use of summary judgment in certain types of cases (for example, civil rights cases), all scholars and judges assume away a critical question: whether summary judgment is constitutional. The conventional wisdom is that the Supreme Court settled the issue a century ago in Fidelity & Deposit Co. v. United States. But a review of that case reveals that the conventional wisdom is wrong: the constitutionality of summary judgment has never been resolved by the Supreme Court. This Essay is the first to examine the question and takes the seemingly heretical position that summary judgment is unconstitutional. The question is governed by the Seventh Amendment which provides that “[i]n Suits at common law, . . . the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Odds are slim that I can read the article any time soon, so if anyone reads it, I’d sure be interested in your comments, which I encourage you to leave on this post.

New Trial Motions after Summary Judgment

Can you move for a new trial when your case was disposed of by summary judgment?  This question undoubtedly causes some degree of cognitive dissonance in many lawyers: a new trial when there was no trial?

But the answer is “yes.”

A reminder comes in the form of Doe v. United Airlines, case no. B192865 (2d Dist. Mar. 20, 2008).  After United successfully moved for summary judgment, Doe moved for a new trial on the ground of “newly discovered evidence” that purportedly raised a triable issue of fact precluding summary judgment.

Not that it ultimately did her any good.  The court of appeal holds that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the new trial motion and affirms on plaintiff’s protective cross-appeal from the grant of summary judgment.

There are lots of post-trial and appellate tidbits in this case.  Nothing new, just well-established principles for which the case provides a reminder.  I’ll probably be putting up separate posts on them (or consolidate them into a new post) in the next few days.

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.)

Potentially Void Judgment Reversed on the Merits

Here’s a post I’ve been saving for a time where I’m too busy to spend much time on new content. I may get a post up later in the day, but in the meantime, I’ll get on my soapbox about why I think the Court of Appeal blew it on a jurisdictional question in Holland v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., case no. C052833 (3d Dist. July 30, 2007, certified for publication August 29, 2007).

The case came up on appeal from a summary judgment granted on the ground that the plaintiff’s administrative complaint was untimely. The timeliness of the administrative complaint turned on whether the Department of Fair Employment and Housing caused plaintiff to miss his filing deadline for filing a verified administrative complaint (thus equitably tolling the limitations period) rather than whether there was a triable issue on the substantive allegations of his complaint against his employer. (Thus, the Court of Appeal deemed the substantive allegations of the complaint “largely irrelevant,” so we needn’t discuss them here.) The court found that equitable tolling applied, the summary judgment on timeliness grounds was error, and remanded to the trial court to consider the remaining issues

The most interesting aspect of the case (at least for this jurisdiction geek) is how the court addressed the plaintiff’s contention that the court commissioner lacked jurisdiction to decide the motion. After evaluating the competing evidence over whether plaintiff had consented to the commissioner and the legal positions of the parties, the court says that it is “immaterial” which side is right on the jurisdictional question.

Wow. The existence of jurisdiction is, in the eyes of this panel and in this particular case, immaterial. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The court deems the trial court’s jurisdiction immaterial because it figures that if it remands, the case will just come up on appeal again on the exact same papers, so remanding would waste judicial resources:

Even if we were to concur that the judge pro tem lacked jurisdiction to hear the motion, there would not be any purpose in reversing the judgment and remanding the matter, only to exercise de novo review of the same materials on appeal from a ruling of a judge of the trial court (as our remittitur would not authorize reopening the motion), if we believe the outcome would be the same on the substantive timeliness issue. This only wastes scarce judicial resources and causes needless expense to the parties. We therefore proceed to the matter of whether the plaintiff’s failure to file a timely administrative complaint is excusable.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the potential lack of jurisdiction treated so casually. If jurisdiction is lacking, the grant of summary judgment is void. So the court of appeal is analyzing the merits of a potentially void judgment. That is a big deal, and hardly consistent with the court of appeal’s usually zealous protection of its jurisdiction.

I think the court should have been more diligent in determining whether there was jurisdiction. Had it determined a lack of jurisdiction by the commissioner, it should have reversed and remanded without an examination on the merits. The reasons the court offers for the immateriality of jurisdiction don’t stand up well to scrutiny.

First, the court’s position that it would be reviewing “the same materials” on a subsequent appeal seems misguided. It rests on an anticipated remittitur that “would not authorize reopening the motion.” While it might be appropriate to preclude new declarations in support or opposition to the summary judgment motion, there seems no reason to restrict the scope of review by the new trial judge on legal issues. Suppose the new judge hearing the motion sees a legal point that the commissioner missed and wants to ask for additional briefing on an issue? Would the remittitur also preclude that?

A second problem with the “same materials” rationale is that even if the summary judgment papers are unchanged, a second appeal would afford the parties an opportunity to revise their appellate briefs. One of the briefs might be substantially more persuasive, cite additional authority, or otherwise differ from the briefs on this appeal, potentially leading the court of appeal to a different result.

Even more obviously, it is uncertain whether the Court of Appeal would ever see the case again. Suppose the superior court judge on remand disagreed with the commissioner’s disposition and denied the motion. The defendant would have to file a petition for writ of mandamus (which has a 90% + chance of not being heard on the merits) or await final judgment before appealing on the ground that the motion was improperly denied. The case would have a decent chance of settling with a trial on the horizon, so the court of appeal might not see the case again.

All of these possibilities argue against what the Court of Appeal did here.