Appellate Jurisdiction,  Appellate Procedure,  Notice of Appeal

Supreme Court finds attorney’s notice of appeal from attorney sanctions award sufficient if it names only the client as the appellant

Pertinent excerpt from Judicial Council Form App-002, Notice of Appeal

A lawyer has a right to appeal a sanctions award against the lawyer even if that lawyer is not a party to the underlying lawsuit. It is equally undisputed that a timely notice of appeal is a jurisdictional requirement. So what happens when a lawyer who wishes to appeal from an order directing the lawyer to pay monetary sanctions files a notice of appeal listing only the lawyer’s client as the appellant?

In K.J. v. Los Angeles Unified School District (Jan. 30, 2020, S241057), ___ P.3d.___, the California Supreme Court holds that such a notice of appeal is adequate to confer appellate jurisdiction where the respondent is not misled regarding the nature of the appeal:

[W]hen it is clear from the record that the omitted attorney intended to participate in the appeal and the respondent was not misled or prejudiced by the omission, the rule of liberal construction compels that the notice be construed to include the omitted attorney.

To reach that conclusion, the court employs some other well-settled principles. Starting with the text of rule 8.100, California Rules of Court and cases construing that rule’s requirement that the notice of appeal be “liberally construed,” the court distinguishes between the unambiguous jurisdictional requirement for the timing of the notice of appeal from the more flexible requirements for the contents of the notice of appeal:

Once a notice of appeal is timely filed, the liberal construction requirement compels a reviewing court to evaluate whether the notice, despite any technical defect, nonetheless served its basic function — to provide notice of who is seeking review of what order or judgment — so as to properly invoke appellate jurisdiction.

The court finds that the rule of liberal construction applies as much to the identification of the appealing party as it does to the identification of the judgment or order from which the appeal is taken. Here, it employs a liberal construction to include the attorney as an appellant because the following factors indicate that the respondent was not misled or prejudiced by the notice of appeal:

(1) the notice of appeal expressly designated the sanctions order as the sole order or judgment at issue in the appeal; (2) the challenged order only imposed sanctions against the attorney and had no effect on the rights of the client; (3) during the trial court proceedings, the attorney engaged in substantial litigation regarding the sanctions motions that focused exclusively on whether the court had authority to discipline him; and (4) the adverse party, Los Angeles Unified School District, did not assert that it was misled or prejudiced from the notice’s failure to reference the attorney as an appealing party.

This falls somewhat short of an ironclad rule. Might a court find a respondent prejudiced by such a notice of appeal where the lawyer was the sole intended appellant from a sanctions order that also imposed sanctions against the client or the arguments in the trial court were made on behalf of both the lawyer and client? It seems unlikely, but the wiggle room is there.

K.J. is obviously of particular interest to lawyers, but in his post about the case, Ben Shatz at Southern California Appellate News notes another opinion from yesterday concerning appeals by someone other than the party to the lawsuit—this time from the Court of Appeal, and of particular interest to insurers whose insureds are small claims defendants.