Appellate Jurisdiction,  Appellate Procedure,  Attorney Fees,  California Procedure

A Judgment that Nobody Noticed Sinks an Appeal

How can the parties and the court all miss the fact that the court entered a judgment?  Well, when the document that operates as such isn’t labeled “judgment,” I guess one can occasionally slip by . . . to the appellant’s great misfortune in Melbostad v. Fisher, case no. A119514 (July 23, 2008, ordered published Aug. 4, 2008), in which the court of appeal dismisses the appellant’s challenge to a fee award as untimely.

In Melbostad, the trial court granted defendant’s special motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP statute (Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16) and entered an order dismissing the complaint “with prejudice.” It subsequently granted a motion for fees brought by one of the defendants, then entered a judgment that “recapitulated” the previous orders granting the special motion to strike and granting the motion for attorney fees.

Appellant challenged the fee award by appealing from this second “judgment” rather than from the order granting the fee motion.  Which is what brought the timeliness of the notice of appeal into play.  His notice of appeal was untimely as measured from the order granting the fee motion, but timely as measured from the final “judgment.”  Appellant conceded that his time to appeal the order granting the special motion to strike ran from the original order granting that motion (see Code Civ. Proc. sec. 904.1, subd. (a)(13)), but contended that his time to appeal the fee award ran from entry of the subsequent judgment.  Even the respondent agreed.

Not so.  The court finds that because the order dismissing the complaint disposed of all the substantive claims between the parties, it was an appealable judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 904.1, subdivision (a)(1), and thus the fee award was a separately appealable order after judgment pursuant to section 904.1, subdivision (a)(2).  The subsequent judgment “appears to have served no purpose here, and appellant’s appeal from it does not save his otherwise untimely appeal.”

There was some clever, but unavailing argument from the appellant, and the decision goes into some depth on why the order granting the section 425.16 motion is a “judgment.”  In reading the case, you’ll also discover important differences in appealability based on whether the plaintiff or defendant prevails on the section 425.16 motion.