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: Civility

The Best Advocacy Tips of 2022

In this roundup episode, we summarize the best tips for briefing, argument, and overall advocacy from the judges, attorneys, and specialists Jeff Lewis and I interviewed on the California Appellate Law Podcast in 2022.

Some of the tips and trends we cover:

There is a trend toward informality in legal writing—but do pop-culture references go too far?

Everyone knows oral argument usually doesn’t change the outcome, unless you have a whiz-bang answer to that all-important question from the panel. Which is why the drumbeat for “focus letters”—where the panel reveals the all-important question in time to formulate an answer to it—is getting louder.

Stop bombarding courts with evidence and arguments. Not only does it overtax juries and judges, it betrays weakness: If you’re right, why do you keep repeating yourself?

And from one of our favorite conversations, Justice James Lambden offered this metaphor for the practice of law and the importance of civility:

“Litigation is not like preparing for a battle, it’s more like going on an expedition … like taking a trip across the mountains and encountering different places where you have to do different things.”

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Counsel Admonished for Uncivil Accusations in Appellate Briefs

Judges just don’t get your arguments sometimes, it seems, and that can be really frustrating. But don’t lose your cool. The Court of Appeal in Shah v. Fidelity Nat’l Title Ins. Co. (D1d1 Dec. 27, 2022) 2022 WL 17959563 (nonpub. opn.) admonished counsel for impugning the trial court and opposing counsel in the appellate briefs.

The plaintiff had his case dismissed on a demurrer, but got it reversed on appeal. But then the trial court dismissed his case on summary judgment. To the plaintiff, it probably felt like the trial court was looking for any way to quickly dispose of the case.

And so his attorney on appeal let the trial court have it. He said the trial court “refuses to learn” the law, “misrepresents” the law and “knowingly errs to achieve a preconceived outcome.” Counsel also called the MSJ proceedings “a magical mystery trial” and accused the trial court of “duplicity.”

Not to be left out, counsel also accused the defendant’s counsel of using “sophistry” to “seduce gullible courts” with a “bag of tricks, lies, and misdirection.”

The Court of Appeal admonished—though did not sanction—counsel for this diversion from the rules of civility. “Such bombastic, ad hominem attacks have no place in an appellate brief and are potentially contemptuous and sanctionable behavior.”

My Comment: While perhaps not widespread, there is a notion among many attorneys that such bombastic language is needed to “cut through the noise” and get a court to understand the severity of the problem. While I strongly disagree, my faith in civility has been shaken when judges not only fail to express umbrage at uncivil language, but even seem to take conclusory accusations at face value. For this reason, while I never use bombast in my own writing, I cannot count it out of the question: sometimes, at least in the trial courts, it does seem to work. Much to my chagrin.

But I have never seen it work in the appellate courts. You may be admonished for using bombast and adverbs to excess. But worst of all, you will have lost all hope of persuading your panel.

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“They Don’t Laugh at My Jokes Anymore.” Justice Lambden’s Lessons from the Trenches to the Benches and Back

As a consensus-maker, Justice James Lambden never published a dissent in his 17 years on the Court of Appeal for the First District, despite sitting between two indomitable personalities in Justice J. Anthony Kline (Gov. Jerry Brown’s legal affairs secretary) and Justice Paul Hearle (Gov. Ronald Reagan’s appointments secretary). Justice Lambden explains why attorneys should direct their briefs to the justice “in the catbird seat,” and what it was like sitting in the catbird seat.

Justice Lambden also talks about his single unpublished dissent.

Justice Lambden also talks about his time as a judge on the Alameda County Superior Court, the great outdoors, finding and wearing a good hat, and what it’s like for judges to transition to private judging: “Going back out among the bar without wearing the robe is kind of intimidating. Like they say, they don’t laugh at my jokes anymore.”

Justice Lambden serves up a lot of sage advice:

• “Litigation is not like preparing for a battle, it’s more like going on an expedition … like taking a trip across the mountains and encountering different places where you have to do different things.”

• Hire your appellate attorney before the verdict!

• Have an elevator-pitch for your case. If you only have arguments but no theme, you’re not ready.

• On unpublished opinions: Who cares? The California Court of Appeal is not bound even by published decisions, as there is no horizontal stare decisis in our system. If you find good reasoning, use it: if the good argument comes from a published case, make the argument, and cite it. If the good argument comes from an unpublished case, make the argument, but don’t cite it. In either event, it’s not the best citation but the best argument that wins. (This reminds me of Johannes Scotus: “Authority sometimes proceeds from reason, but reason never from authority….We should not allege the opinions of the holy Fathers ... unless it be necessary thereby to strengthen arguments in the eyes of men who, unskillful in reasoning, yield rather to authority than to reason.”)

• On the importance of focus letters and oral argument.

• On access to justice, quoting Chief Justice Ronald George: “Without access, there is no justice.”

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Greedy fee motions may be denied in their entirety

Even when a prevailing party is entitled to recover attorney fees, the court may deny fees in extraordinary circumstances. The authors of the California Attorneys Fees Blog, William (Mike) Hensley and Marc Alexander, talk about a few of the cases where excessive and unreasonable fee requests have been denied in their entirety. Also, do not call the trial judge a “succubus.”

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Ross Guberman on Conversational—Rather Than Tweet-Worthy—Legal Writing

Drawing from his experience training federal judges and top law lawyers how to write more effectively, Ross Guberman shares some of his best writing tips with Jeff Lewis and Tim Kowal on episode 33 of the California Appellate Law Podcast at www.CALPodcast.com.
Ross also gives a tour of his latest product, BriefCatch 3.0 (now available on Mac), a tool that scores legal briefs for engagement, readability, flow, punchiness, and clarity. Not sure how to take your writing from merely proper English to Elena Kagan? BriefCatch provides in-app examples of some of the best passages of Supreme Court justices.

Here are some of the tips Ross covers:

✍️ Why more judges are using pithy, attention-grabbing language—and why you shouldn’t imitate it in your briefs.
✍️ Rising above the fray without resorting to quips.
✍️ Getting the judge’s attention by tapping into three universal fears all judges have.
✍️ Discussing “bad facts” confidently, not defensively.
✍️ Using BriefCatch to improve your briefs.
✍️ Remember the purpose of legal writing is to help judges organize their thoughts—briefs are a tool, but aspire to make them tools that are a pleasure to use.

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'Gamesmanship' Throughout Litigation May Raise Risk of Sanctions on Appeal

CEB published my short article on McQueen v. Huang (D2d8 Mar. 4, 2022 no. B304645) 2022 WL 630606, a decision that imposed appellate sanctions on a litigant based on “gamesmanship” in the trial court. Not in the appellate court — the appellate sanctions were for trial court conduct.

The article is available at CEB’s website here: https://lnkd.in/g8pchRjG

My original post on McQueen is here: https://lnkd.in/gphRKVgC

As I mentioned before, the appellate arguments here were not sanctionable by themselves. What earned the appellant and counsel sanctions was their conduct in the trial court. Beware engaging in litigation practice that the court might perceive as “gamesmanship.” If you ever need relief in the Court of Appeal, you could find yourself sanctioned.

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$3.5MM Emotional Distress Verdict Reduced on Appeal as Influenced by Improper Closing Argument

Awards for emotional distress can add tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to a workplace-retaliation claim. But there are limits. And in Briley v. City of West Covina (D2d4 Jul. 1, 2021) no. B295666, 2021 WL 2708945, the court pointed to counsel's personal attack during closing argument as evidence the verdict was based on improper factors."[C]ounsel's attack on the integrity of opposing counsel during his rebuttal argument further suggests that the jury's noneconomic damages award rested on improper factors."

The result was a $1.5 million award was reduced to $100,000. (It probably would have been reduced even without counsel's improper argument.)

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Preserving Trial Objections, and Alternative Takes on a Recent Appellate Contempt Citation: An Interview with Frank Lowrey on the Cal. Appellate Podcast ep. 13

Georgia appellate attorney Frank Lowrey joins Tim and Jeff to discuss Williams v. Harvey, a recent decision by the Georgia Supreme Court concerning preservation of error and motions in limine, in a June 2021 interview in episode 13 of the California Appellate Law Podcast.

Frank notes the important nuances in rulings on motions in limine: a denial preserves the evidentiary objections raised in the motion, while a deferred ruling (neither granting nor denying the motion) preserves nothing – meaning the trial attorney still needs to object to every instance of the offending matter.

Frank also notes that, in some jurisdictions, a curative instruction is presumes to cure any prejudice. This is the case in California, absent exceptional circumstances. (People v. Navarrete (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 828, 834 ["Ordinarily, a curative instruction to disregard improper testimony is sufficient to protect a defendant from the injury of such testimony, and, ordinarily, we presume a jury is capable of following such an instruction."].) (One is reminded of the reaction of Dickens’s Mr. Bumble upon being informed the law presumed his wife acted under his direction: “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass — an idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.”)

Frank, Tim and Jeff also discussed the recent California Court of Appeal opinion previously discussed on this blog finding an attorney in contempt for accusations made in an appellate brief, and discuss whether the court’s admonition against challenging the courts might be somewhat overstated.

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Attorney Held in Contempt for a "Perfect Exemplar"​ of Impugning Integrity of the Court

I do not know who needs to hear this, but the Court of Appeal does not want to take any chances: While there are many tools of persuasion in the advocate's toolkit, accusing the court of being on the take from the Irvine Company, and being as corrupt as Tom Girardi, are not among them.

The recent published case from the Fourth District, Division Three, offers "a perfect exemplar ... to illustrate the phrase 'impugn[] the integrity of the court.'" (Salsbury Eng'g, Inc. v. Consol. Contracting Servs. (In re Mahoney) (D4d3 Jun. 10, 2021) no. G057832.)

Frustrated at his loss on appeal, attorney Mahoney decided to let 'er rip in a petition for rehearing. He accused the court of "judicial slight [sic] of hand," being influenced by the "political clout" of the Irvine Company, something to do with Tom Girardi – either resembling Girardi or condoning Girardi-like conduct; no time to clarify, Mahoney was rolling – and "indiscriminately screw[ing]" his client. Mahoney offered no legal argument. And then "doubled down" upon the court's OSC.

The court hit Mahoney with two contempt citations of $1,000 each: one for seemingly impugning the court's integrity, and the second for removing all doubt. (The decision was ordered forwarded to the State Bar as well.)

This commentator thinks the stoics had it right: "By nothing," Epictetus had it, "is the rational creature so distressed as by the irrational." In Mahoney's case, what seemed particularly distressing was the marked pointlessness and witlessness of Mahoney's insults.

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Accusations Are Not Misconduct: The Duty of Candor is Not Limited to “Chesterfieldian Politeness”

The defendants also argued that the plaintiff's attorney called them "cheaters" both during opening statements and closing arguments, and that this inflamed the jury against the defendants.

Not so. An attorney “ ‘may vigorously argue his case and is not limited to “Chesterfieldian politeness.” ’ ” (People v. Fields (1983) 35 Cal.3d 329, 363.)
(SoCal Diesel, Inc. v. Extrasensory Software, Inc. (D2d1 May 3, 2021) no. B290062 (non-pub.).)

And a Reversal Based on Curious Reasoning: Unpublished opinions usually are unpublished because they are uneventful. But sometimes, unpublished opinions are unpublished maybe, just maybe, because they contain reasoning that might not hold up to scrutiny. If at oral argument your panel asks you how it can rely on a particular argument that was not raised below or in the briefs, the answer is: "In an unpublished opinion, your honor." That is the true answer, anyway. It is not the correct answer, obviously. But it is the true answer.

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Default Judgment Set Aside on Showing of Merit, Excuse, and Diligence; and a Comment on Civility

While the parties were clearing up their eviction matter, the tenant-plaintiffs in Mayorga v. Mountview Props. Ltd. (D2d5 Apr. 9, 2021) no. B298284, noticed that landlord-plaintiff had not answered their complaint. So they pounced: they took landlord's default, and got a default judgment of nearly $500,000.
Landlord got the default judgment set aside, which was affirmed on appeal.
But landlord's attorney did his client no favors by his heated rhetoric, referring to appellants' “sloth and stealth” and their purported “extreme lack of hygiene” among other things.

But, an apology goes a long way, so in addition to still prevailing on appeal, the respondent with the forked-tongued attorney still got their costs on appeal.

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Attorney Held in Contempt for Calling Opposing Counsel a "Liar"​ at Settlement Conference

A recent case out of the Fourth Appellate District in Orange County affirms a finding of contempt against an attorney for his conduct during a 15-minute settlement conference, including persistent […]

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