Appellate Procedure,  Briefing

Some basics about briefing

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

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

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

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

Appellant’s other sin was even more basic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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