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: Collateral Orders

In a Confusing Appellate Opinion, Denial of Post-Settlement Fees Held Not Appealable

An order enforcing a settlement agreement is an appealable order, but what about an order *denying* enforcement of a settlement agreement? In a previous unpublished opinion (see Tim Kowal, ”[Denial of Motion to Enforce a Settlement Held Appealable]....” Dec. 20, 2021), one court reminded the bar that parties really ought to have orders on settlement-enforcement matters under Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 entered as judgments: that way, there’s no doubt as to their appealability. But that court gave some leeway and concluded there was “no functional difference” between a grant and a denial of costs.

But the Second District gave no such leeway in its published opinion in *[Sanchez v. Westlake Services, LLC] (D2d7 Jan. 18, 2022 No. B308435) ___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___, 2022 WL 1522087. In *Sanchez*, the parties settled a consumer rights lawsuit concerning the sale of a car, with the settlement providing that the plaintiff may seek a motion for attorney fees. The trial court denied fees as barred by the sale contract. The plaintiff appealed the order denying her fees.

***The Upshot:*** When you are considering appealing orders granting or denying motions to enforce a settlement agreement subject to the trial court’s jurisdiction under Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6, ask the trial court to enter a judgment on the order. That may be the only way to ensure the order is appealable.

And there are many trap doors when your appeal is mixed up with a dismissal.

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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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Court Suggests, Surprisingly, That Summary Adjudication Order Could Be Appealable As Collateral Order (But Just Not in This Case)

Devastating trial court orders should be appealable. That is a natural assumption. And that it why it can be disconcerting to learn about appeals dismissed on grounds of nonappealability. (That is why I write about them.)

But actually, the opposite may be true: When more orders are made independently appealable, it means there is more risk that, by the time you get a final judgment, large chunks of your case will now be beyond appellate review. Failing to get review right away is far less devastating than getting no review at all.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal offers a reminder of this in State of California v. Southern California Edison Co. (D4d2 Sep. 30, 2021) 2021 WL 4471627 no. E074138 (nonpub. opn.). The court held an order granting summary adjudication on a declaratory relief claim was not appealable as a collateral order because it did not order the immediate performance of an act or payment of money. The court distinguished a similar case where declaratory relief, also summarily adjudicated, was found to be appealable. In that other case, the trial court also entered an enforcement order. The Edison court noted that, had the underlying MSA been found appealable, then it would have been unreviewable by the time the enforcement order was entered — two years later.

The lesson is that a too-easy rule of appealability could actually make it harder to get review, not easier, because parties would have to file several appeals along the way to a judgment, or else forfeit them as untimely.

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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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Collateral Orders Denying Fees Are Not Now, Not Ever, Never Appealable (But Some Courts Disagree)

One exception to the normal rules of appealability is the collateral order. One example of a collateral order is in the relatively rare published order (in contrast to an opinion) dismissing the appeal in Dr. V Products v. Rey (D2d5 Sep. 8, 2021) 2021 WL 4129463 no. B312605. The collateral order there is an order denying a motion for attorney fees following dismissal of a misappropriation claim, which claim allegedly was filed in bad faith, thus entitling the prevailing defendant to fees under Civil Code 3426.4.

The order denying fees was collateral to the merits. And it was final. But still, the Second District Court of Appeal held — and rather unequivocally — that the order was not appealable as a collateral order.

Why? Because the order, though final and collateral, did not order the payment of money or performance of an act. And that is a necessary element in making a collateral order appealable.

Except, that is, in courts subscribing to the minority view.

(I happen to agree with the minority view. And unless you are in an appellate district that clearly has staked out its support for the majority view, you probably should assume your final collateral orders are appealable.)

Thanks to Alana Rotter for sharing this case.

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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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Split of Authority on Appealability of Post-Reversal Fee Orders

If you find yourself back in the trial court after a remand by the Court of Appeal, things are supposed to be much the same as before. Yet sometimes, things are […]

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