Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Abuse of Discretion

Order Excluding Party’s Sole Witness Held an Abuse of Discretion

You really ought to follow a court’s pre-trial order, but say you overlook something, like a witness list. The judge came down hard on the forgetful plaintiff in Harber v. Williams (D4d2 Sept. 12, 2022 No. E077036) ___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___, 2022 WL 4129702. Harber didn’t have any witnesses other than herself, but the judge prevented her from testifying, which had the effect of a terminating sanction.

Fortunately for Harbert, the Court of Appeal reversed. In a partially published opinion, the court rejected the Harber’s “maximalist” view that a trial court could never deny a party’s right to present evidence and testify. But the court nonetheless concluded that, here, the trial court had abused its discretion.

The most interesting of the factors the court identified was the fact that the pre-trial order indicated a “one size fits all” sanction when it stated that “you will not be permitted to call any witnesses not included in the witness statement.” “In other words,” the court went on, “the trial court announced, up front, that it would not exercise any discretion. The inherent power to dismiss, however, is a discretionary power. “A trial court's failure to exercise discretion is itself an abuse of discretion. [Citation.]””

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Why Family Law Writ Petitions Are So Hard

We asked Victoria Fuller, a certified appellate specialist focusing on family law, about getting the appellate court’s attention in family law writ petitions. Showing extraordinary harm in money cases is a tough sell, but it should work in family cases, right?

Victoria explains that it is just just very hard, even when there is genuine irreparable harm like in move-away orders.

In another moment during our discussion, Victoria told us that even family law justices, upon being elevated to an appellate justiceship, have commented they had no idea just how vast is a family law judge’s discretion.

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Trial Court’s Refusal to Consider Declaration Supporting Domestic Violence Restraining Order Held Grounds for Reversal

Trial judges have wide latitude over the evidence that comes into the record at trial. The judge might sustain an objection to your smoking gun, or could allow damaging evidence despite your valid objections. These problems may be raised on appeal, but appellate courts give trial judges wide latitude on evidentiary rulings.

But not in M.H. v. C.H. (D5 Mar. 18, 2022 no. F082268) 2022 WL 817842 (nonpub. opn.). In a proceeding for a domestic violence restraining order, the trial court “shall consider the totality of the circumstances” in making its ruling. (Fam. Code, § 6301, subd. (c).) This includes considering “the affidavit or testimony.” (§ 6300, subd. (a).)

The Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the trial court’s refusal to consider declarations or evidence other than offered at the evidentiary hearing “is contrary to law. Application of this erroneous view was a prejudicial abuse of discretion.”

#AppellateLinkedIn: Note the ambivalent framing of the nature of the trial court’s error: the court frames it as both “legal error,” and as “abuse of discretion.” Why do courts insist on doing this?

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Victoria Fuller on Family Law Appeals: Episode 27 of the California Appellate Law Podcast

When we covered some of the tips and pitfalls of family-law appeals on episode 6 of the California Appellate Law Podcast, it became one of our most popular episodes. So we invited Victoria Fuller, a certified appellate specialist focusing on family law, to join us for another installment.

Victoria discusses with Jeff Lewis and me:
• The unique post-judgment relief available under Fam. Code, § 2122 for fraud, duress, mistake, and financial-disclosure violations;
• Expanded relief on motions for reconsideration; and
• The critical statement of decision process.

Despite these remedies, why do family-law appeals feel like such an uphill climb?
(Answer: because family-court judges have so much discretion even they don’t realize the full extent of it.)

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Judge Applied Wrong Legal Standard, Leading to Reversal of $680,000 Fee Award

In “lemon law” cases under the Song-Beverly Act, the “prevailing party” is entitled to attorney fees. But what is a “prevailing party”? Is a plaintiff who recovered $1 in nominal damages a prevailing party entitled to attorney fees (and over $680,000 in fees at that)? In a published opinion, the Court of Appeal in *[Duff v. Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC](https://bit.ly/3Gspq1B)* (D4d1 Jan. 27, 2022 no. D078100) 2022 WL 246853 (___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___), said *no*.

But the Court of Appeal held that the CCP 1032 “net monetary recovery” standard does not apply in all cases, and does not apply to Song-Beverly cases. Instead, a “pragmatic” approach applies, including asking who achieved their litigation objectives.

What is a little awkward about the opinion is that the Fourth District Court of Appeal disapproved its own earlier decision where it held the mechanical standard under section 1032 did apply. Which is fine. But then why fault the trial court for following what was, until now, perfectly good law?

The fee order was reversed with instructions to evaluate the “prevailing party” determination based on the correct “pragmatic” standard.

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Trial Court's Exclusion of Evidence Was Error Requiring Reversal of Order Denying Restraining Order

Judges have a lot of leeway to exclude evidence at trial. But in *Brubaker v. Andy Strum* (D2d7 Dec. 10, 2021) 2021 WL 5856791 (no. B307887) (nonpub. opn.), the exclusion was an abuse of discretion. The trial judge excluded the evidence supporting the appellant's motion for a renewed domestic violence restraining order because he thought the evidence of harassment was barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion. But the judge misunderstood the doctrine of issue preclusion. That was a legal error. As a legal error was the basis of the exclusion, the exclusion order had to be reversed.

**The upshot**: Evidentiary rulings normally are difficult to challenge on appeal, being subject to the deferential abuse of discretion standard. But when an evidentiary ruling is based on an error of law, you may be entitled to something more like de novo review. That is what happened in this case.

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You Have No Right to a Ruling on a New Trial Motion

The right to move for a new trial is an important right, developed from the common law, enshrined in statute, and respected by our courts. The recent case of Nickelson v. Nickelson (D2d2 Nov. 19, 2021) 2021 WL 5407839 (no. B302585) (nonpub. opn.) also respects the important right to move for new trial. You absolutely have the right to move for new trial. No question. But Nickelson says you don't have a right to a ruling on the motion.

In this domestic violence case, the appellant-brother's claim was dismissed after trial. He moved for new trial arguing his evidence should have been let in, including video and photographic evidence and medical reports.

Here is what the trial court did about the appellant's new trial motion: the judge told the appellant to just file an appeal instead. And then the judge took the new trial motion off calendar.

And the Court of Appeal held this was fine.

(In the rest of the post, I explain why I disagree.)

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Limited Jurisdiction Appeals, Eviction Tsunamis and HateWriting, our Interview with Frances Campbell

Frances Campbell of Campbell & Farahani, LLP joins Jeff Lewis and me for a discussion about housing law, eviction defense, appeals, and practicing in limited jurisdiction courts. Fran explains some of the common pitfalls in limited civil appeals, and discusses whether the Appellate Division seems sometimes to be shielded from meaningful review. (These courts handle eviction appeals, and because they are usually unpublished the bar still has no clear answer on who has standing to bring UD actions.)

Fran also shares her views on the coming eviction tsunami (spoiler, she says it's a myth) , the term "HateWrite" (verb: the act of drafting, in a single pass, in a state of agitated elan, an entire appellate brief, the editing of which requires only the removal of vituperative adverbs), and the font Cochin for brief writing.

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$1 Billion LA Homelessness Injunction Reversed by 9th Circuit: Judge's Independent Factual Investigation Was Improper

Judge David O. Carter of the Central District of California made national news when he ordered Los Angeles to put up $1 billion to address its homelessness crisis. But that order was based on claims the plaintiffs did not allege, relief the plaintiffs did not request, and evidence the plaintiffs did not adduce. While trial courts are given wide discretion in issuing preliminary injunctions, the Ninth Circuit in LA Alliance for Human Rights v. County of Los Angeles, ___ F.4th ___ (2021) 2021 WL 431791, thought this was coloring rather far outside the lines.

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Renewed Restraining Order Affirmed on Appeal; Appellant Forfeited Challenge by Failing to Describe All Evidence Supporting the Order

In appeals from mixed discretionary and factual findings, it can be tempting to fault the trial court for failing to consider all the great evidence in the appellant's favor. But be careful not to ignore the "heavy burden" required to get review on the factual questions. Failing to comprehensively evaluate the evidence against the appellant resulted in a forfeiture of the issues on the appeal in Ashby v. Ashby (D4d3 Aug. 5, 2021) 2021 WL 3413092 no. G058474 (nonpub. opn.).

Reviewing a renewal of a DVRO, the court analyzed the Ritchie factors and found that findings supporting the original DVRO, a key point of the analysis, were not properly captured in the appellant's brief. So the issue was forfeited. Order affirmed.

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Exclusion of Expert Data Affirmed on Appeal; But Exlusion of Expert Opinion Based on That Data Reversed

When it comes to expert evidence, the trial court may properly exclude evidence that was not actually prepared by the expert. The normal rules of evidence authentication still apply, even where experts are concerned. But when an expert wants to offer opinions based on the same unauthenticated and unadmitted evidence, excluding that opinion may be an abuse of discretion.

That is the holding of the published opinion in Zuniga v. Alexandria Care Center, LLC (D2d7 Aug. 13, 2021) 2021 WL 3579021 no. B297023. In an employee's PAGA claim, the employee-plaintiff retained two experts. One expert was retained to convert the employer's time records into an Excel spreadsheet. The second expert was retained to opine on the spreadsheet. It was an abuse of discretion to exclude the second expert's opinion merely because it was based on the first expert's excluded report.

And trial counsel may have acted shrewdly in resting her case after the devastating ruling without offering other evidence, as it made it very easy to establish the ruling prejudiced her case.

Get a weekly digest of these articles delivered to your inbox by subscribing here: https://lnkd.in/g23bc4Y.

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Failure to Exercise Discretion in Issuing a Stay of Enforcement of Judgment Is an Abuse of Discretion

In a recent case involving more than one case number, the defendant got an early victory in one case, and got an award of attorney fees. The trial court, however, did not like the idea of rewarding one party partway through a complex litigation, so it imposed a sua sponte stay of enforcement of that fee award.

That stay was reversed on appeal in Specialty Baking, Inc. v. Kohanbash (LASC App. Div. May 24, 2021) no. BV033347 (nonpub. opn.). While such a stay may be permissible, the court in making the discretionary ruling failed to consider the factors required under the operative statute. Failure to exercise discretion is an abuse of discretion.

Whenever the topic of stays and bonds come up, that is a good time to consult an appellate attorney.

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