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

$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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