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: Appealability and Appealable Orders

The Trouble with Voluntary Dismissals

There are a few different ways a lawsuit can end. Judgments we know about, and settlements are common. But what happens when the plaintiff just up and dismisses the lawsuit? Can the defendant get costs? And is the cost award appealable?

There is a split of authority on these questions, as noted in Thomas v. St. Joseph Health System (D4d3 Oct. 20, 2021) 2021 WL 4889873 (no. G059408) (nonpub. opn.). Seeing the writing on the wall on the defendants' motion to quash based on personal jurisdiction, the doctor-plaintiff dismissed his right-to-practice and unfair-competition lawsuit (which he would later refile in Texas). The defendants recovered the significant costs they had incurred through a number of depositions during jurisdictional discovery, and the plaintiff appealed.

The court noted a split of authority, but came down on the side of finding a cost order entered after a voluntary dismissal without prejudice is appealable as a final judgment. (But the court went on to affirm the cost order.)

The appealability holding seems to me clearly correct, with all due respect to the contrary authorities.

But I offer a few words of caution about strategic voluntary dismissals. When the "writing is on the wall" as it was in this case, authorities suggest the time to dismiss without prejudice is over.

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60-Day Deadline to Appeal Not Triggered by Minute Order

You know that the 60-day deadline to appeal starts the moment the clerk or a party serves either a notice of entry or a "filed-endorsed copy of the judgment, showing the date either was served." (Rules of Court, rule 8.104(a)(1)(A).) So what happens when the clerk serves a 23-page minute order granting an anti-SLAPP motion, along with a certificate of mailing? The judge clearly has decided the anti-SLAPP motion, which is an appealable order. The certificate shows the date of service. So the 60-day period starts running, right?

Wrong, says the Second District in Nejad v. Abernathy (D2d4 Nov. 1, 2021) 2021 WL 5049091 (nos. B304481, B307759) (nonpub. opn.). Rule 8.104 is read literally. There was no document titled "Notice of Entry," and no file stamp on the minute order. Thus, service with the minute order was insufficient to trigger the 60-day deadline. Motion to dismiss appeal denied.

Still, I would not chance it. File the notice of appeal within 60 days unless you have a very good reason why not.

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Order Denying Motion to Vacate Held Appealable "Under the Circumstances"

Appealability is a jurisdictional question. A jurisdictional question is one that the law answers either one way or the other, and there is nothing the court can do about it. So when a court answers a jurisdictional question with, "under the circumstances," that is a clue that something strange is going on.

That is how the court answered the question whether an order denying a motion to vacate a conservator's final account in Hudson v. Foster (D2d5 Sep. 7, 2021) ___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___ 2021 WL 4059808.

The large number of exceptions to the nonappealability of orders denying motions to vacate undermines the notion that appealability is jurisdictional. Perhaps the Supreme Court or the legislature should consider offering clarification.

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Flout Court Orders, Get Your Appeal Dismissed — But Appellate Court Offers a Second Chance

There are two reasons I am surprised the Court of Appeal published the opinion in Findleton v. Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians (D1d2 Sep. 29, 2021) 2021 WL 4452323 nos. A156459 etc., ---- Cal.Rptr.3d ----. The first is that it holds, more forthrightly than I have seen before, that a final collateral order is treated as a judgment for purposes of Code of Civil Procedure section 904.1(a)(1). That is, not only is the collateral order appealable, but orders following it are appealable too under section 904.1(a)(2). (This is a sensible rule, it is just not very well-supported in the statute.)

The second reason I am surprised the court published this opinion on the disentitlement doctrine — i.e., dismissal of an appeal — is because the appellant's disregard and contempt for the lower court's orders was so brazen, and the grounds for disentitlement so clear, that I fear this opinion might mislead readers. In fact, much less egregious violations than the ones in this case — much, much less — may warrant disentitlement.

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Although Contempt Orders May Not Be Appealed, Fee Awards on a Contempt Order Are Appealable

An order of contempt is not directly appealable. It is reviewable only by writ. But what about an order of fees following a contempt order? The statute does not provide for appellate review or writ review, and the factors for writ review just do not apply to a cost order. The right to appeal is statutory, and the statutory limits, as we have seen, are an absolute jurisdictional bar to appellate review.

But the Sixth District Court of Appeal recently held (in an unpublished opinion) that contempt cost orders are appealable anyway in C.H. Reynolds Electric, Inc. v. Powers (D6 Aug. 24, 2021) no. H046554 (nonpub. opn.).

So count this as one more exception to the absolute, iron-clad, fuggedaboutit rule of appellate jurisdiction.

And the court went on to afirm anyway, making the deviation seem even more wanton.

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Stipulations to Nonappealability Are Enforceable

Can parties settling a lawsuit agree to a stipulated judgment that is non-appealable? (Yes – that is rather an easy one.) What if there is a dispute whether the settlement has been performed: Is the order deciding that question appealable?

This latter question is taken up in Summit Bridge National Investments IV, LLC v. Meguerditch Panossian (D2d2 Aug. 4, 2021) no. B310067 (nonpub. opn.), and is answered in the negative. After discussing the case, I explain why I think the result is both unsupported and incorrect.

If there is any lesson to be offered here, perhaps it is to avoid stipulating to non-appealability. A stipulated judgment is not appealable anyway. There is such a thing as overdoing it.

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A Writ Petition Summarily Denied May Be Raised Again Later

Getting writ review in the Court of Appeal is rare – even when writ review is the only appropriate means of review. In a recent opinion in LSG Las Tunas, LP v. A & R Corporation, Inc. (D2d2 Jul. 29, 2021) no. B307534 (nonpub. opn.), the appellant filed a writ petition along with its appeal, but the court summarily denied the writ petition. Later, the court realized writ review was appropriate, and so treated the appeal as a writ.

The procedural curiosity probably came to nothing – the appeal-turned-writ was unsuccessful anyway – but it underscores how difficult it can be to get a writ petition off on the right foot.

The case prompts one to ask: How many other writ petitions that are legitimately worthy of writ review are getting waste-binned during the court's rushed initial review?

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Defective Appeal Results in Loss of Entire Case to Five-Year Rule

One of the first questions an appellate attorney tries to answer is whether there is an appealable order. It is pretty obvious why this is important: if the order is not appealable, your appeal will lose.

But have you also considered: if you appeal from a nonappealable order, your entire case might lose?

That is what happened in Villegas v. Six Flags Entertainment Corporation (D2d4 Jun. 29, 2021) no. B295352 (nonpub. opn.). The appellants appealed from the denial of their class certification motion. These normally are appealable under the "death knell" doctrine, because it effectively kills the class action.

But it was not appealable here, and the appeal was dismissed. By the time it was dismissed, the five-year statute had run and the plaintiff-appellants had not brought their case to trial. Case dismissed.

Takeaway: It can be difficult to predict the problems that can arise from appealing a nonappealable order. In this case, at least, it certainly would have been worth consulting an appellate attorney before filing the notice of appeal.

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$1 Million Cost Denial Reversed on Appeal for Failure to Exercise Discretion

A recent case shows how recovery of costs can involve large dollar amounts – over $1.5 million – and the application of subtle legal principles and appellate procedure.

After four years of litigation in City of Los Angeles v. Pricewaterhousecoopers, LLP (D2d5 Jul. 8, 2021) no. B305583 (nonpub. opn.), the city eventually dismissed the case, and the contractor sought nearly $1.1 million in costs for electronic discovery. The trial court denied them all, and the contractor appealed.

After an interesting discussion on the appealability of the cost order, the Court of Appeal noted the trial court's statements on the record were ambiguous whether it misunderstood the scope of its authority, or whether it was exercising discretion. But the court ultimately held the trial court misunderstood its authority and thus committed reversible error. What convinced the Court of Appeal the trial court had erred on the law? "Although it is a close question in this case," the court noted, "given the City's [incorrect] primary argument that the costs ... are never recoverable ... we cannot presume the trial court understood the extent of its discretion...."

Takeaway: If you manage to persuade the trial court of your legal proposition, why not ask the trial court to exercise its discretion in your favor as well, just to be safe? Had the trial court also based its ruling on its discretion, the outcome likely would have been much different.

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A Cautionary Tale Against Taking an Appeal Too Early: Kurwa v. Kislinger (Cal. 2007)

What's the worst can happen by taking an appeal too early? I am asked this often, and the California Supreme Court case of Kurwa v. Kislinger (2017) 4 Cal.5th 109 always comes to mind. The worst that can happen? Five years of litigation, four trips to the Court of Appeal, two trips to the Supreme Court, and easily six figures in fees, just to get back to where you were when you first asked that question.

The nub of the problem in Kurwa was that plaintiff had two obstacles to appealability. Plaintiff used a too-clever-by-half ploy to get around one (stipulating to waiver of his remaining claim without prejudice, and a tolling agreement to boot). After realizing on appeal this could not create jurisdiction, plaintiff dismissed the rest of his claims with prejudice.
But there was a second obstacle: defendant's cross-claim was still pending. And because the trial court refused to dismiss the judgment based on the ill-conceived stipulation, plaintiff was stuck "in a legal cul de sac."

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Strategic Dismissals to Expedite Appeal Are No Longer Appealable, Ninth Circuit Holds

We recently discussed strategic dismissals following devastating, but nonappealable, interlocutory orders to expedite an appeal in California state court.

But beware if you are in federal court: A recent Ninth Circuit decision in Langere v. Verizon Wireless Services , No. 19-55747 (9th Cir. Dec. 29, 2020) warns that federal Courts of Appeals may reject any such appeals as an attempt to manufacture appellate jurisdiction.

If you are developing a strategy after a devastating order before a final judgment has been entered, that is an excellent time to consult appellate counsel.

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Appeal Dismissed Because Trial Court Forgot to Sign the Dismissal Order on Appeal

Approaching the 60-day deadline to appeal the trial court's dismissal of her action, plaintiff filed a notice of appeal. But the Court of Appeal in Lee v. Medrano (D2d5 Feb. 24, 2021) No. B305536 (unpublished), dismissed her appeal.

Why? Because the dismissal was not signed, as required under Code of Civil Procedure section 581d, and thus not appealable.

While this is technically the correct outcome, I cannot fault the plaintiff-appellant here. Technically nonappealable orders are often deemed appealable, and in such cases, failing to appeal would prove fatal. It just so happens that for this particular type of nonappealable order, the courts have decided never to treat them as appealable.

(But, being a cynic, and averse to malpractice exposure, I would not bank on it.)

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