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: Dismissals

Botched cat euthanization claims can go forward, appellate court holds

Animal harm can be difficult to adjudicate in people courts. But the cat owner in Berry v. Frazier (D1d3 May 15, 2023 No. A164168) --- Cal.Rptr.3d --- (2023 WL 3445168), who was allegedly defrauded by her vet into a “horrific and painful” form of euthanasia for her pet, was able to reverse the order dismissing her claims.

First, the court had to determine whether there was an appealable order. Ordinarily, an order sustaining a demurrer is not an appealable order. Here, the order only knocked out most but not all of Berry’s claims.

So Berry voluntarily dismissed her other claims. But that didn’t work either, because a plaintiff who voluntarily dismisses without prejudice has no standing to appeal the order.

So what was the appealable order? Trick question: neither the order sustaining the demurrer was appealable, nor the dismissal, but both combined.

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What Happens If You File Your Appeal Too Early?

You know it is deadly to file an appeal too late. But there is also such a thing as filing an appeal too early. In the recent case Moreles v. Herrera (D4d1 Apr. 12, 2022 no. D077032) 2022 WL 1090255 (nonpub. opn.), the court decided to save the appeal. But the decision is at the court’s whim. At the end of the post, I will tell you about a similar case where the court decided it would rather not save the premature appeal, and dismissed the appeal filed too early—same as if it had been filed too late.

The Upshot: If you are presented with an order that ordinarily would be appealable but may not be final, use extreme caution. Your safest bet may be to file a notice of appeal, even if it is premature. But you are not done yet. Watch carefully for further orders or actions that will render the order final. And as soon as that happens, take a second, precautionary appeal. Do not rely on the court’s good graces to save a premature appeal.

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Case May Not Be Dismissed During Appeal

Can you dismiss your lawsuit while it’s on appeal? No. That is the surprising holding of Curtin Maritime Corp. v. Pacific Dredge & Const. (D4d1 Mar. 22, 2022) no. -- Cal.Rptr.3d ---- 2022 WL 841760. The plaintiff had successfully opposed the defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion, and the defendant appealed the order denying its motion. The plaintiff decided to dismiss its claims. But the Court of Appeal held it could not dismiss until it was done with the appeal.

This holding is wrong on the law, as I explain in the post. And Prof. Shaun Martin agrees the holding “seems fairly revolutionary,” and links to “tons of cases that, in fact, got dismissed while the matter was on appeal.”

But now we have at least one published case that holds a plaintiff may not dismiss pending appeal. And when there’s a conflict — no matter how lopsided — trial courts may "exercise discretion under Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal.2d 450, 456, to choose between sides of any such conflict.”

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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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If Your Case Is Dismissed for Failure to Prosecute, Simply Refile the Case

This topic comes up periodically, but it is still a little puzzling.
A complaint is filed. For one reason or another, the court dismisses the complaint without prejudice. But: the court does not sign the dismissal order. A dismissal order must be signed under Code of Civil Procedure section 581d. So the appeal from the unsigned dismissal is dismissed in Alaoui v. Vaynerman (D2d5 Nov. 8, 2021) 2021 WL 5175659 (no. B308421) (nonpub. opn.).

Here is why I say this is a little puzzling. True, section 581d requires that a mandatory dismissal be signed. But in other cases where the case is effectively over but the trial court forgets the ministerial act of entering a judgment, appellate courts may simply deem the nonappealable order to be appealable.

So, why didn't the court simply deem the unsigned dismissal to be a signed dismissal here?

The answer (I think) is because the Court of Appeal recognizes that the plaintiff, facing a dismissal without prejudice, may simply elect to refile the case. And if that can happen, then clearly the dismissal was not "final."

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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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Following Demurrer Ruling, Plaintiff Voluntary Dismisses Claims to Expedite Appeal, but Dismisses Without Prejudice: Appeal Dismissed

Nine out of every ten appeals are pretty straightforward, simply appealing from a judgment after a trial. But every tenth appeal or so is a headscratcher. This happens a lot in the case of interlocutory orders – critical orders like demurrers and preliminary injunctions that occur before a final judgment. These can devastate the case, yet evade direct appellate review.

There are strategies available to get direct appellate review of certain interlocutory orders. But they should be used with caution.

In the racial discrimination case of Brown v. Arizona Diamondbacks (D3 Aug. 9, 2021) no. C091629 (nonpub. opn.), the trial court sustained the Diamondbacks' demurrer to the plaintiff's claim for racial harassment. Rather than amend, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his claims to expedite the appeal. This strategy was sound – or would have been, had he dismissed with prejudice. But he dismissed without prejudice. That was his undoing. His appeal of the demurrer ruling was dismissed.

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Motion to Dismiss Appeal Denied? Give It Another Shot in the Merits Briefing

I was just wondering this myself: What happens to your arguments – your sound, cogent, and trenchant arguments – in a motion to dismiss an appeal, after the Court of Appeal summarily dismisses your motion? Are your arguments dead and gone? Or may you raise them again in your respondent's brief?

The answer is: You may re-argue your motion to dismiss in your respondent's brief. And, as was the case in Casey v. Sacramento Public Law Library (D3 Jul. 12, 2021) no. C089936 (nonpub. opn.), the court may re-deny your motion.

But even though you may raise your motion to dismiss again in your merits briefing, should you? Or will you just annoy the court? You might consider having an appellate attorney review your motion first.

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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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Two Appeals Dismissed Where Entity Appellants Owed Taxes or Not in Good Legal Standing

Two recent appeals were dismissed because the entity defendants were not in good legal standing. One was crosswise with the taxing authorities. (H.T.L. Properties, LLC v. Speck (D2d2 May 4, 2021) no. B299160 (non-pub.).) Another never formally organized. (Dennis Mitchell Oil v. Buehler Family Bakersfield, LLC (D5 Jun. 1, 2021) no. F074897 (non-pub.).) As a result, both their appeals were dismissed.

But the nonexistent entity gets the judgment against it vacated as part of the dismissal. How's that for failing upward?

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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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