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: Implied Findings

Failure to Request a Statement of Decision Changed the Outcome of This Appeal

One of the first pieces of advice an appellate attorney will give a trial attorney is: Don’t forget to request a statement of decision. But this advice puzzles experienced trial attorneys, who know that the trial judge, after a bench trial, is already required—without request—to give tentative decisions. And a statement of decision is usually just a copy-and-paste job of the tentative. So what, then, is the big deal?

The appellant in Marriage of Burger (D4d3 Aug. 18, 2022 No. G060313) 2022 WL 3500197 could tell you. Even though the trial judge had issued a written decision, the appellant lost her appeal because she failed to request a statement of decision.

Nancy Burger was seeking an increased support award from her ex-husband, Robert. Nancy argued that Robert should contribute more money to meet her marital standard of living. Nancy also sought her attorney fees. The trial judge ultimately denied her request, including for attorney fees.

Nancy argued that the trial court failed to consider her request for attorney fees and costs. She pointed out that the trial court's written ruling contained no express analysis of the factors governing need-based attorney fee awards, as required under section 2030.

Unfortunately for Nancy, however, her statutory right to findings was not enough. Robert pointed out that Nancy had failed to request a statement of decision. Absent a statement of decision, the reviewing court will infer any factual findings supported by substantial evidence that are necessary to the result. (Slavin v. Borinstein (1994) 25 Cal.App.4th 713, 718; In re Marriage of Arceneaux (1990) 51 Cal.3d 1130, 1133-1134.)

Had the abuse-of-discretion standard applied, reversal would have been required. Instead, the Court of Appeal presumed the trial court did consider the factors, even though it made no findings on them. Affirmed.

Note that this result is contrary to Abdelqader v. Abraham (2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 186. Dealing with a similar statute that requires written findings be made (to rebut a presumption of domestic violence under Family Code § 3044).

The same result should have obtained here. Just as with section 3044 at issue in Abdelqader, section 2030 requires that the trial court “shall make findings” on various factors. And just as in Abdelqader, the court here failed to make the required findings. A request for a statement of decision is not required where the statute independently requires findings be made.

But the Burger court did not discuss Abdelqader. There appears to be a split on this issue within the Fourth District.

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“Impossible” Burden Met on Appeal: But Dissent Disagrees

You know about “de novo” and “abuse of discretion” and “substantial evidence.” But most attorneys have never heard of the “finding compelled as a matter of law” standard of appellate review. That is because it rarely comes up. The “compelled finding” standard only comes up when the party with the burden of proof (usually plaintiff) loses at trial, and argues on appeal that its case was so truly overwhelming that only an unreasonable fact-finder would have been left unpersuaded.

With that in mind, there are two interesting things about Missinato v. Missinato (D2d7 Apr. 15, 2022 no. B305989) 2022 WL 1124871 (nonpub. opn.). First, it is surprising because the court found the defendant’s statute-of-limitations defense so overwhelming that only an unreasonable person would be unpersuaded. Second, one of the panel was unpersuaded.

That seems awkward, no?

There are several things about this opinion I find really shocking. #AppellateLinkedIn, take a look and let me know your thoughts.

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Order Denying Arbitration Reversed, Trial Court Must Decide Existence of Arbitration Agreement First — But a Strong Dissent Disagrees

This will surprise appellate attorneys. The Court of Appeal in Pettie v. Amazon.com, Inc. (D4d2 Sep. 21, 2021) 2021 WL 4270631 (no. E074241) (nonpub. opn.) recently reversed an order denying a motion to compel arbitration — but not because the trial court did not cite valid grounds to deny the motion. Instead, the majority reversed because the trial court failed to determine the threshold factual issue whether there existed an agreement to arbitrate. In a forceful dissent, Justice Slough noted: this was a denial of a motion. A denial of a motion must be affirmed on any available grounds.

Justice Slough went on to provide some useful appellate standards that practitioners will want to clip-and-save. Justice Slough seems to me correct, and clearly so, on all points. The majority's opinion is baffling.

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Implied Findings Doctrine Only Applies When the Trial Court's Reasons Are Correct — Here, They Were Wrong

One of the many ways the deck is stacked against appellants on an appeal has to do with the implied findings doctrine. What is the implied findings doctrine? It says that even if the appellant is absolutely correct that the trial court did, in fact, fail to make the findings necessary to support the judgment against the appellant, the appellant still loses: the Court of Appeal will pretend the missing findings are there anyway.

So the respondents in Nielsen v. MacPherson (D4d3 Oct. 8, 2021) 2021 WL 4704890 (no. G059758) (nonpub. opn.) must have been feeling pretty buoyant about their chances on appeal. The plaintiff-respondents had defeated an anti-SLAPP motion, and then obtained a rare award of attorneys' fees. Awards of fees against anti-SLAPP movants are only available where the anti-SLAPP motion is frivolous or filed to cause unnecessary delay. (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16(c)(1).) No such finding was made here, but the respondents argued it should be inferred under the implied findings doctrine.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. The doctrine probably will only apply to the extent it is consistent with the trial court's reasoning. The Court of Appeal will be less inclined to deploy the doctrine to rewrite the trial court's decision.

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Statement of Decision Missteps in Three Recent Appeals

Did you request a statement of decision?

Did you object to the proposed statement of decision?

These are among the first questions I ask after there has been a bench trial. Three recent appellate decisions demonstrate how easy it can be to forfeit strong issues on appeal by failing to request a statement of decision, or even when a statement of decision has been issued, by failing to object to omissions or defects to give the trial court the opportunity to correct them.

By failing any of the procedural steps in perfecting the record on the statement of decision, the deadline "implied findings" doctrine will be invoked, by which the Court of Appeal will simply infer that the trial court quietly implied any and all findings needed to affirm the judgment. That doctrine almost guarantees affirmance.

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Appellate Court Holds Respondent Forfeited Issues and Failed to Establish Implied Findings

In another cautionary tale for respondents on appeal, the Second District in this appeal of an order denying arbitration holds the trial court erred in finding an arbitration agreement unenforceable. The opinion in Alvarez v. Altamed Health Servs. (D2d8 Feb. 4, 2021) No. B305155 (published) suggests a couple ways respondents might try to shore up potential defects in their judgments before exposing them to the crucible of appeal.

Upshot: Do not overlook the statement of decision process at the end of a critical hearing or bench trial. The statement of decision is often the single most important document the Court of Appeal will review. Either party may drastically alter the meaning and effect of that document by making a strategic request for findings under Code of Civil Procedure section 632 and Rules of Court rule 3.1590.

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Order Granting a Belated Fee Motion Affirmed on Appeal Due to Appellant's Inadequate Record

Most attorneys have missed a deadline at some point in their careers, or have awoken in the night worrying about it. The attorney in this recent case, Ojeda v. Azulay (D2d3 Feb. 10, 2021) No. B302440 (unpublished), missed a deadline to file a fee motion. But he owned up to the mistake, and the trial court granted his motion despite its untimeliness.

But, appellant urged, the trial court made no finding of good cause! Without a finding of good cause, and without a stipulation, there can be no extension under the rule!

Appellants often make technical arguments like this on appeal. But appellants often fail to meet their own technical requirements to establish them on appeal. Here, appellant did not appear at the hearing and did not otherwise argue against the moving party's showing of good faith mistake. Appellant also failed to provide a record of what happened at the hearing.

Affirmed.

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Court Abused Its Discretion by Denying $4M Sanctions Request for Abusive Discovery

The Discovery Act provides for mandatory sanctions for discovery abuses unless the court finds the offending party acted with substantial justification or the sanction would be "unjust." Plaintiffs in Kwan Software Eng'g, Inc. […]

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Spousal Support Order Reversed on Appeal for Lack of Explicit Findings

In this dissolution proceeding in Nevai v. Klemunes (In re Marriage of Nevai) (D3 Dec. 29, 2020) No. C086584, wife, who had quit her engineering career to raise the couple's child, asked […]

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