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 “Cautionary Tale” on Post-Judgment Interest when Court of Appeals Directs Entry of Money Judgment

It’s always frustrating when you have to litigate over issues stemming from a court’s failure to do something that it should have done or even was required to do. Just ask the Oakland Raiders, who saw their new trial order reversed because the trial judge’s order did not satisfy the Code of Civil Procedure. The issue also arises in California courts where the trial court fails to rule on objections to evidence in the context of a summary judgment motion. The consequences of such failure have been discussed on a number of blogs recently, and The Appellate Practitioner has an excellent post regarding the Supreme Court’s recent grant of review in a case on that issue.

In Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition, case no. 06-35733 (Feb. 11, 2008), we see an example in the context of a federal requirement; specifically, where the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure impose an obligation ot the Court of Appeals and the court fails to honor it.

The rule at issue is FRAP 37(b), which provides that “[i]f the court modifies or reverses a judgment with a direction that a money judgment be entered in the district court, the mandate must contain instructions about the allowance of interest.” In a previous appeal in the case, the Ninth reversed a punitive damages award as violative of due process and remanded for retrial unless the creditors accepted the judgment with a reduced punitive damages component, but the court failed to include in its mandate the date on which interest started to accrue on the judgment. The trial court entered a new judgment allowing for accrual of post-judgment interest as of the date of the original judgment.

The Ninth holds that failure to specify a judgment accrual date where required by FRAP 37(b) precludes a district court from entering the newly mandated judgment with interest accruing from the date of the original judgment. Interest accrues from the date where the amount of the judgment is “meaningfully ascertained.” and this ordinarily means the date of the mandate from the Court of Appeals if the mandate directs entry of a money judgment different from that in the original judgment.

Here, however, the judgment creditors get interest from the date of the original judgment in any event. The court recognizes that its omission was inadvertent and that despite the reduction in punitive damages on remand, the creditors’ right to interest on the reduced amount had been “meaningfully ascertained” in the original trial. Accordingly, it exercises its right to find out more and recall its prior mandate and amends it to include interest from the date of the original judgment.

That said, the court makes clear that it is affording this courtesy only because its prior jurisprudence was unclear, and that litigants should treat this case as a cautionary tale:

Henceforth, we expect that litigants in this circuit will clearly understand that if we modify or reverse a judgment with a direction that a money judgment be entered in the district court, our mandate must contain instructions about the allowance of post-judgment interest. Fed. R. App. 37(b). If our mandate omits such instructions, a party that believes it is entitled to interest from a date other than the date of entry of judgment on remand must expeditiously seek reform of the mandate.

Professor Martin calls this “an entirely just and equitable opinion.” I think that’s correct. But keep the court’s caution in mind.

I think a federal court litigant in this situation can have much more peace of mind than a party in a California case involving a new trial or summary judgment situation mentioned above. A party can expect a ruling one way of the other on a motion to recall and amend the mandate. Pleas to California trial courts to rule definitively on evidentiary objections often fall on deaf ears. And a party seeking a new trial is prohibited from doing too much to facilitate the trial court’s compliance with new trial procedures. Nonetheless, this greater peace of mind only applies if the party remembers to “expeditiously seek reform of the mandate.”

Are Stipulated Judgments Appealable?

Well . . . yes and no. Or better yet, mostly no, and occasionally yes. And to discover the difference between those that are and those that aren’t, an excellent starting point is yesterday’s decision in Harrington-Wisely v. State of California, case no. B190431 (2d Dist. Nov. 20, 2007).

Plaintiffs in this case alleged 10 causes of action for damages and one for injunctive relief, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated by overly intrusive x-ray technology (more about that later) used by the California Department of Corrections to search visitors at certain state penitentiaries. The CDC successfully moved for summary adjudication on the class damages claims on the ground that damages were unavailable, leaving only the injunctive relief claim. The court then issued a sua sponte reconsideration order specifying that the summary adjudication order only barred plaintiffs’ class claims to the extent they sought damages. Thus, all claims remained active to the extent they sought injunctive or declaratory relief.

The parties then entered into a stipulated judgment that entered judgment on the claims insofar as they sought damages but, rather than dismiss, enter an injunction, or otherwise finally dispose of the equitable claims, merely referred to the parties’ agreement concerning them. Among other things, the CDC agreed to curtail use of the machines and not to reinstitute use without giving notice that would provide plaintiffs an opportunity to move for a preliminary injunction first.

The stipulated judgment set forth 16 issues for potential adjudication and provided that the court retained jurisdiction “to enforce the terms of the agreement.” It also stated that it was “only appealable as stipulated.”

Plaintiffs appealed on the basis that summary adjudication on the damages claims was improperly granted. The appeal was clearly contemplated by both sides when they entered into the stipulation.

Nonetheless, the court dismisses the appeal for lack of jurisdiction because the stipulated judgment is not an appealable final judgment. A judgment is “the final determination of the rights of the parties in an action or proceeding.” (Code Civ. Proc. § 577.) The failure of the stipulated judgment to determine the parties’ rights on the equitable claims, either by an injunction to perform as agreed, by dismissal, or otherwise, prevents it from being an appealable judgment for purposes of Code of Civil Procedure section 904.1, subdivision (a)(1). Regardless of the parties’ intent in drafting the stipulated judgment in this way, and regardless of their obvious intent to allow appeal on the damages claims, the court lacks jurisdiction as a result of this missing element.

The court goes on to address and reject several arguments raised by plaintiffs.

First, the appeal cannot be “saved” by liberally construing of the notice of appeal. To do so, there must be another appealable order or judgment from which the appeal can be deemed to have been taken. Here, there is no such appealable order or judgment.

Second, plaintiffs could not invoke the exception to the general rule against appealability of stipulated judgments. Recognizing that most stipulated judgments are not appealable, the court concludes that this one does not fall within the exception for judgments entered into to facilitate appeal after an adverse determination of a critical issue. While the summary adjudication on the class damages claims was indeed critical, the failure of the stipulated judgment to dispose of all claims prevents the exception from applying. In other words, even the exception applies only to stipulated judgments that are final. Had plaintiffs, for example, dismissed their equitable claims as part of the stipulated judgment, thereby disposing of all claims, they could have invoked this exception.

Finally, plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued that the 16 issues for potential adjudication anticipated nothing more than proceedings to enforce the stipulation. The court finds these were complex questions of constitutional and statutory law that related to litigation of the equitable claims, not enforcement.

Now, about that technology. The x-ray machines were so sophisticated that they produced “a spectral-like computer image of the body, including an outline of breasts, genitalia and folds of skin.”

This juicy fact led to some great, funny posts. The post at Legal Pad includes a photograph that demonstrates the imaging capability of the x-ray machine (quite amazing) and made me chuckle. The post at California Appellate Report had me laughing out loud.

And I write about appellate jurisdiction. I am such a geek.

UPDATE (11/23/07):   My Dad was looking at this post (thanks for the traffic, Dad!) and told me that the links in the post at California Appellate Report are a bit . . . racy.  You might want to avoid them.  What I found so funny about the post was in the post itself.  Wrote Professor Martin: “I mean, sure, if I enter a prison, and am carrying a package, you can x-ray my package. But x-raying — and looking at the shape and size — of my package?! Crikey!”

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.

Time Travel Exists . . . if You’re a Judge

Code of Civil Procedure section 377.34 limits damages in the case of actions by a decedent’s personal representative to “the loss or damage that the decedent incurred before death.”  So what to do if you’re widowed days after a jury verdict awards your husband millions in damages for prospective loss but before judgment is entered?

You ask the court to invoke the judicial equivalent of time travel: the entry of an order nunc pro tunc to a date before your husband died.  In Cadlo v. Metalclad Insulation Corp., case no. A111353 (June 11, 2007), the First District Court of Appeal holds that a valid exercise of the court’s power to antedate the judgment makes the earlier date the one relevant for section 337.34 purposes.  Since the Cadlo decedent was alive on the date of entry nunc pro tunc, section 337.34 does not apply.

The Court of Appeal finds that the trial court validly exercised its power here.  The date of nunc pro tunc entry was a date on which judgment could have been entered, the delay in entry was not due to plaintiff’s inaction, and the trial court was within its discretion to decide that antedating the judgment was necessary to avoid injustice because the defendants would have earned a large windfall (relief from millions of dollars in liability) without it.

UPDATE (6/13/07): Professor Martin has some commentary on what this case says about our desire for “finality” and whether we might desire it just a little too much.

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