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: Statements of Decision

Failure to Make Required Findings Held Reversible Per Se

Trial courts are required to make findings after certain proceedings. So is a court’s failure to make findings reversible error? A few years ago, the California Supreme Court answered No in F.P. v. Monier. Instead, to be reversible, the trial court’s failure to make findings must prejudice the appellant.

But the Fourth District held the opposite in a published opinion in Abdelqader v. Abraham (Mar. 10, 2022 D4d1) --- Cal.Rptr.3d ----. The trial court failed to make required findings, and on that basis, the Court of Appeal reversed. Although the respondent argued the error was harmless, the court disagreed. The court essentially concluded the failure to make findings was a structural defect — the precise argument the Supreme Court rejected in Monier.

Comment: While I strongly agree that litigants deserve reasons for a court’s decision, the court’s analysis in Abdelqader is unsatisfying. The court furnished no basis to distinguish the Supreme Court’s Monier holding. In fact, the court did not even mention Monier.

The Upshot: In any custody matter in which the presumption under Family Code section 3044 is triggered, look hard for any missing findings. Under Abdelqader, that defect is reversible per se.

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Victoria Fuller on Family Law Appeals: Episode 27 of the California Appellate Law Podcast

When we covered some of the tips and pitfalls of family-law appeals on episode 6 of the California Appellate Law Podcast, it became one of our most popular episodes. So we invited Victoria Fuller, a certified appellate specialist focusing on family law, to join us for another installment.

Victoria discusses with Jeff Lewis and me:
• The unique post-judgment relief available under Fam. Code, § 2122 for fraud, duress, mistake, and financial-disclosure violations;
• Expanded relief on motions for reconsideration; and
• The critical statement of decision process.

Despite these remedies, why do family-law appeals feel like such an uphill climb?
(Answer: because family-court judges have so much discretion even they don’t realize the full extent of it.)

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A Request for a Statement of Decision That Failed to Identify the Issues Held Inadequate

Whether you win or lose a bench trial, by the time you’ve finished you want the judge to give a written explanation for the decision. And the rules say you are entitled to one. But beware: The rule only says you are entitled to a “tentative” decision. Do not be misled into thinking that “tentative” means a final decision is on the way: If you do not request a final “statement of decision,” you do not get one. And on appeal, the “tentative” has all the force and effect of a postcard.

Both parties in Unified Real Estate Investments, LLC v. Thong (D2d1 Mar. 1, 2022 no. B301162) 2022 WL 602251 (nonpub. opn.) requested a statement of decision. Or at least, they thought they did. But the Court of Appeal held the request was too equivocal (counsel said the statement of decision should “perhaps” cover the issues in the trial brief). The court also held that the requirement to identify the issues to be covered in the statement of decision is not satisfied by general reference to the issues in the trial briefs.

In the post, I outline the steps required to adequately request the statement of decision. I also referenced some of the nasty tricks courts can play on litigants in this procedure.

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Family Law Judgment Reversed for Failure to Provide a Statement of Decision

A statement of decision is the court’s formal explanation of the factual and legal basis for its decision. In some cases, the court is required to give a statement of decision. And in San Francisco v. Hale (D1d2 Feb. 17, 2022 no. A161503) 2022 WL 483925, the failure to provide a statement of decision was reversible error.

The appellant in Hale was a mother disputing a visitation order. The court had found the father committed domestic abuse, so under Family Code section 3044, that created a rebuttable presumption that custody was detrimental to the child. The father did not rebut that presumption, yet the court ordered nearly equal-time visitation — in effect, joint custody.

The mother timely requested a statement of decision, but the court said, “I'm not going to issue a statement of decision on this case.”

The Court of Appeal reversed. The trial court’s failure to issue a statement of decision was error. And because the trial court gave no explanation that could support its order, the Court of Appeal found the error was prejudicial.

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Judge’s Death After Deciding Case But Before Issuing a Statement of Decision Results in Mistrial

What happens when a judge dies or becomes unavailable before the entry of a judgment? A mistrial resulted, and was affirmed, in *Marriage of Stone* (D2d2 Jan. 24, 2022 no. B297778) 2022 WL 202815 (nonpub. opn.).

The trial judge presided over the first phase of a dissolution proceeding. After the trial, the judge issued a tentative decision, held a hearing on the parties’ respective proposed statements of decision, and indicated he would consider modifying certain language. But the judge passed away before entering a final statement of decision or entering a judgment. So the presiding judge declared a mistrial.

On appeal, the appellant-wife argued the mistrial was error and the presiding judge should have entered a judgment on the trial judge’s findings in the intended decision. She had a great case on point, holding that under Code of Civil Procedure section 635, the presiding judge may enter a judgment on an unavailable trial judge’s intended decision. But ultimately the court held it was not close enough, and affirmed.

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Where the Statement of Decision Procedure Can Fail You

To appeal a judgment after a bench trial, you have to follow a complicated procedure to prepare a statement of decision. And even if you do it all correctly, it can still backfire. Appellate attorneys Frances Campbell, Jeff Lewis, and Tim Kowal discuss.

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So You Reversed a Statement of Decision – Now What?

When the appellate court agrees the statement of decision is defective, what happens? Appellate attorneys Jeff Lewis, Anne Grignon, and I discuss a recent case (covered here) that simply gave the trial court another chance to fix the defective statement of decision. I complain this makes waste of the entire appeal and will force a second appeal just to get to the merits. Jeff thinks this result is an outlier. But I have seen it happen before.

One case to consider if you are in this situation is Calloway v. Downie (1961) 195 Cal.App.2d 348, 351-53. There, a husband claimed an agreement to give him certain community property. But in three rounds of requests, his wife, who did not bear the burden of proof, sought findings of a transmutation agreement that would support the husband’s judgment. But the trial court never made the finding. (Id. at pp. 351–52.) Reversing, the court held that “[t]he repeated objections from appellants show that the transformations in the findings indicate a determination by the trial judge that there was in fact no agreement, express or implied.” (Id. at p. 353.)

Thus, Calloway may support an argument that the failure to make a finding should be deemed a finding that the record does not support it.

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Don't Fall Into the "No Statement of Decision" Trap

CEB published my article, “Don't Fall Into the "No Statement of Decision" Trap,” which cautions trial attorneys to make sure to formally request a statement of decision. A statement of decision can be a powerful base from which to launch an attack on a judgment, so do you think courts make it easy for you to get a statement of decision? (The answer is no, and as the article explains, courts may even actively steer you into waiving the statement of decision.)

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If No One Requested a Statement of Decision, Then There Is No Statement of Decision

I see a lot of people make this mistake, not just attorneys but even judges. Remember: If no one asked for a statement of decision, then whatever reasons the court gave for its judgment do not amount to a "statement of decision," and thus may not be used to impeach the judgment.

That is what happened in the real property dispute in Chiasson v. Orlemann (D2d3 Dec. 3, 2021) 2021 WL 5755051 (no. B303080) (nonpub. opn.). The court issued a "Ruling on Trial," and the unsuccessful plaintiff used that for his appellate challenge. But it got him nowhere. It was treated as merely a tentative decision, which cannot be used to impeach a judgment.

(In the post, I relate a strategy I've heard from a trial judge to lure litigants into this trap.)

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Limited Jurisdiction Appeals, Eviction Tsunamis and HateWriting, our Interview with Frances Campbell

Frances Campbell of Campbell & Farahani, LLP joins Jeff Lewis and me for a discussion about housing law, eviction defense, appeals, and practicing in limited jurisdiction courts. Fran explains some of the common pitfalls in limited civil appeals, and discusses whether the Appellate Division seems sometimes to be shielded from meaningful review. (These courts handle eviction appeals, and because they are usually unpublished the bar still has no clear answer on who has standing to bring UD actions.)

Fran also shares her views on the coming eviction tsunami (spoiler, she says it's a myth) , the term "HateWrite" (verb: the act of drafting, in a single pass, in a state of agitated elan, an entire appellate brief, the editing of which requires only the removal of vituperative adverbs), and the font Cochin for brief writing.

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Judgment Reversed Because Statement of Decision Omitted Material Issues

One of the nice things about bench trials is that there is no need for jury instructions and verdict forms, which can be very laborious to prepare. In a bench trial, instead of a verdict turned in by the jury, the parties get a statement of decision turned in by the judge. But what happens when the judge fails to make findings on material issues in the case?

A helpful illustration of how to set up a strong technical argument on appeal is found in Legendary Builders Corp. v. Grovewood Properties, LLC (D2d4 Oct. 5, 2021) 2021 WL 4550995 (nos. B297299, B301777) (nonpub. opn.). By raising an omission in the statement of decision in the trial court, the appellant was able to obtain a reversal on appeal.

But caution: While this proved effective on appeal, the result was a remand with directions to the trial judge to supply the missing findings. What are the chances the judge will make findings favorable to the appellant?

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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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