Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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The Court of Appeal denied a petition for writ of habeas corpus to petitioner who was convicted of murdering her three young children by setting a house fire that killed them. Petitioner argues that the current scientific understanding of burn patterns and how fire behaves under certain conditions fatally undermines expert testimony offered by the prosecution at trial regarding the cause and origin of the fire at petitioner's home, as well as the fire scene investigation on which the experts based those opinions.The court concluded that petitioner failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that she is entitled to relief under Penal Code section 1473, subdivision (b). Although petitioner has identified real advances in fire investigation science, the court explained that section 1473, subdivisions (b) and (e)(1) condition the availability of habeas relief on the effect such advancements likely would have had on the particular expert testimony at issue in the particular proceedings at issue. In this case, given the extent to which the same criticisms of the prosecution's expert testimony were litigated at the original trial, the continuing expert debate on these topics reflected at the evidentiary hearing, the lack of any authority rejecting some aspect of the original investigation as improper or incorrect by current standards, and the other evidence of guilt offered against petitioner at trial, petitioner has failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that she is entitled to relief.The court also concluded, for largely the same reasons, that petitioner failed to establish that the state of fire investigation science at the time of trial rendered her trial so fundamentally unfair as to violate federal due process. The court stated that, although additional scientific support for the defense's expert testimony at trial would have been helpful to the defense in rebutting the prosecution expert's opinions, the absence of such additional support did not necessarily prevent a fair trial. View "In re Parks" on Justia Law

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California has two statutory mechanisms for detaining, evaluating, and treating persons who have been declared incompetent to stand trial for a felony that entailed a threat of bodily harm, and who continue to pose a danger to others. When the reason is a "developmental disability," the applicable mechanism is civil commitment under Welfare and Institutions Code section 6500; when the reason is a "mental disease, defect, or disorder," the applicable mechanism is a so-called Murphy conservatorship under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS Act) (section 5000 et seq.), section 5008, subdivision (h)(1)(B). Under section 6500, the one-year recommitment period ends on the anniversary of the date of the recommitment order; for a Murphy conservatorship, the one-year period ends on the anniversary of the date of the initial commitment order. Because, as is common, recommitment orders under section 6500 are not fully litigated (and hence not issued) until after the anniversary of the date of the initial commitment order, the end dates for section 6500 recommitments typically get pushed out further and further with each recommitment.The Court of Appeal held that this "creep" of the end date under section 6500 does not violate equal protection in regard to Murphy conservatorships. The court explained that individuals civilly committed under section 6500 and Murphy conservatorships are not similarly situated for purposes of fixing the end date for a recommitment. Even assuming that persons civilly committed under section 6500 and in a Murphy conservatorship are similarly situated for purposes of the timetable for terminating a one-year period for a recommitment, the court concluded that there is a sufficient justification for that differential treatment that withstands rational basis scrutiny. Accordingly, the court affirmed the end date for the section 6500 recommitment in this case. View "People v. Nolasco" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Taking Offense, an “unincorporated association which includes at least one California citizen and taxpayer who has paid taxes to the state within the last year,” sought a writ of mandate asserting facial challenges to two provisions of Senate Bill No. 219 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), which added to the Health and Safety Code the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Long-Term Care Facility Residents’ Bill of Rights. The first, codified in Health and Safety Code section 1439.51 (a)(5), prohibited staff members of long-term care facilities from willfully and repeatedly referring to a facility resident by other than the resident’s preferred name or pronoun when clearly informed of the name and pronoun. The second challenged provision, section 1439.51 (a)(3), makes it unlawful for long-term care facilities or facility staff to assign, reassign, or refuse to assign rooms, where such decisions are based on gender, other than in accordance with a transgender resident’s gender identity, unless at the transgender resident’s request. Taking Offense challenged (a)(5) on the bases that it violated staff members’ rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and freedoms of thought and belief, and was vague and overbroad. Taking Offense challenged (a)(3) as a violation of non-transgender residents’ right to equal protection under the law, contending non-transgender residents were not afforded the same opportunity to request a roommate who does not conform to the resident’s gender identity. The Court of Appeal agreed with Taking Offense that section 1439.51 (a)(5) was a content-based restriction of speech that did not survive strict scrutiny. The Court disagreed that section 1439.51 (a)(3) created an unconstitutional gender-based classification and concluded Taking Offense’s equal protection argument lacked merit. View "Taking Offense v. California" on Justia Law

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In 1983, Marsha Carter was found dead, in the trunk of her car, from multiple sharp-force injuries. The case went inactive. In 2008, investigators processed evidence, using procedures unavailable in 1983. The DNA analysis of blood found in Carter’s home pointed to Smothers, who was dating Carter in 1983. Scrapings beneath Carter’s fingernails yielded DNA, which was entered into the FBI’s CODIS database of DNA profiles, and matched to Sennett, who had no known connection to California, Carter, or Smothers. In 2016, Smothers was charged with Carter’s murder.Defense counsel never introduced evidence that the DNA evidence was matched to Sennett, although the court had given the green light to do so. The defense presented no witnesses. Smothers did not testify. Smothers's conviction was most consistent with the theory that Smothers conspired with a third party to kill Carter.The court of appeal reversed. Smothers’s attorney was ineffective for not presenting the available Sennett evidence, including his identity, to the jury. The prosecution’s key witness testified that Smothers tried to get him and/or other local friends to help him kill Carter. To convict Smothers of the uncharged conspiracy to commit murder, the prosecution had to prove that Smothers had the specific intent to enter into an agreement with someone to kill Carter. There was no evidence that Smothers entered into an agreement with Sennett. The jury likely concluded that Smothers finally located some local acquaintance to kill Carter; it is unclear whether this jury would have reached the same conclusion if they had been told Sennett’s identity and heard there was no known connection between him and Smothers. View "People v. Smothers" on Justia Law

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A juvenile wardship petition (Welfare and Institutions Code section 602(a)) alleged that Matthew had committed assault with a deadly weapon and assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury; that Matthew had personally inflicted great bodily injury on the victim and had caused the victim to suffer great bodily injury resulting in paralysis and had personally used a deadly weapon, a knife. The juvenile court found true all of the allegations except for the paralysis enhancement; dismissed count two and the accompanying enhancement, at the request of the prosecutor; declared Matthew a ward of the court; and placed Matthew on probation with conditions.The court of appeal reversed, finding that Matthew’s pre-arrest statements to police were made during a custodial interrogation without the required Miranda warnings and that the admission of those statements was prejudicial. While Matthew was told at the start of the interrogation that he was not under arrest, and the police officers who were present did not handcuff him or unholster their weapons, the interview was initiated by police, who had just heard from another that Matthew had stabbed the victim. The entire interrogation was an attempt to get Matthew to admit that he stabbed the victim and to provide additional incriminating information. View "In re Matthew W." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against the City, alleging retaliation under Labor Code section 1102.5. The City asked the trial court to dismiss plaintiff's action for failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, but the trial court concluded that an appeal to the HR Commission was unnecessary. After the case proceeded to trial, the jury found for plaintiff and awarded him about $4 million, including $2 million in past noneconomic damages and $1.5 million in future noneconomic damages. The trial court subsequently denied the City's motion for a new trial.The Court of Appeal concluded that the involvement of plaintiff's direct superior in the underlying dispute, on one hand, and his expected role in deciding plaintiff's appeal, on the other, violated the requirements of due process and therefore excused plaintiff from proceeding with his administrative appeal. The court also found no reversible evidentiary error by the trial court. However, the court agreed with the City that the $3.5 million noneconomic damages award -- comprising $2 million in past and $1.5 million in future noneconomic damages -- was so excessive as to suggest it resulted from passion or prejudice. Accordingly, the court vacated the awards for past and future noneconomic damages and remanded for a new trial on these issues, unless plaintiff accepts a reduction of the awards to $1 million and $100,000, respectively. The court affirmed in all other respects. View "Briley v. City of West Covina" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against a reality show's production and media companies for various causes of action after discovering she was filmed while changing clothes in a dressing area designated for models, and that her "nearly fully nude body had been exposed on national television" during the airing of the show. Defendant production and media companies filed a special motion to strike the model's complaint as a strategic lawsuit against public participation under the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16.The Court of Appeal concluded that plaintiff's claims arise from the production and broadcast of an episode of "Shahs of Sunset," which is protected activity. In this case, the court agreed with defendants' assertion that the footage at issue is relevant to the storyline of the episode and that the experience of being a model is an issue of public interest. However, the court concluded that plaintiff has shown a probability of success on her causes of action for invasion of privacy; tortious misappropriation of name or likeness; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and negligence. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court's order denying defendants' special motion to strike the complaint, as modified: the separate cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress is stricken from the complaint, as it is part and parcel of the negligence cause of action. View "Belen v. Ryan Seacrest Productions, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against McCullough for malicious prosecution. In 2018, the Court of Appeal reversed an order denying McCullough's anti-SLAPP motion and ordered the trial court to issue a fee award pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, subdivision (c)(1). This appeal stems from the attorney fees award of $146,010 to McCullough.The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's attorney fee order, concluding that the trial court properly determined the reasonable market value of the attorneys' services. The court explained that the trial court has discretion to award an hourly rate under the lodestar method that exceeds the rate that was actually incurred or paid. In this case, the trial court properly determined that the market rate for experienced appellate lawyers in Los Angeles County and exercised its discretion to not so narrowly focus on the package rate agreed to in this matter. Furthermore, the court could not conclude, in these circumstances, that the award of attorney fees shocks the conscience or suggests that passion and prejudice had part in it. View "Pasternack v. McCullough" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate and a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging statewide delays in the transfer of incompetent to stand trial (IST) defendants from county jails to DSH and DDS to begin substantive services. The trial court granted the petition in part, first finding that defendants systematically violate the due process rights of IST defendants in California who are committed to DSH pursuant to Penal Code section 1370 or to DDS pursuant to section 1370.1, subdivision (a)(1)(B)(i). The trial court found that due process requires defendants to commence substantive services for these IST defendants within 28 days of the date on which the order transferring responsibility for those defendants to DSH or DDS is served. The trial court denied the petition as to certain IST defendants charged with felony sex offenses who are committed to DDS pursuant to section 1370.1, subdivision (a)(1)(B)(ii) and (iii).The Court of Appeal concluded that defendants have systematically violated the due process rights of all IST defendants in California by failing to commence substantive services designed to return those defendants to competency within 28 days of service of the transfer of responsibility document, which is the date of service of the commitment packet for all defendants committed to DSH and the date of service of the order of commitment for all defendants committed to DDS. Therefore, the court affirmed the judgment as to the issues raised in defendants' appeal, but reversed as to the issue raised in plaintiffs' cross-appeal. The court remanded to the trial court with directions to modify its order granting in part plaintiffs' petition for writ of mandate to reflect a uniform transfer of responsibility date for all IST defendants committed to DDS. View "Stiavetti v. Clendenin" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal vacated and remanded the trial court's order granting respondent's anti-SLAPP motion to strike Brighton's cross-claim for fraud. The parties' dispute stemmed from a contract between respondent and Brighton where Brighton would pay respondent $3,000 for a one-day photo shoot. Respondent filed suit against Brighton, alleging that the company failed to pay her immediately upon completion of the photoshoot. Brighton cross-complained, asserting claims for declaratory relief and fraud.The court concluded that, even if it were to assume that respondent met her burden of showing that Brighton's cross-claim for fraud arose from protected conduct, reversal is required because Brighton has shown a probability that it will prevail on its claim. In this case, the evidence submitted shows that Brighton's fraud cross-claim has the requisite minimal merit where Brighton submitted evidence that respondent made a misrepresentation when she told the company to pay LA Models for her services during the photoshoot upon receipt of an invoice rather than immediately upon her "termination" as an employee when the shoot concluded; it can be inferred that plaintiff knew that misrepresentation was false based on her actions, she intended for Brighton to rely on her misrepresentation, and Brighton justifiably did so; and reliance on respondent's misrepresentation damaged Brighton by exposing it to $90,000 in waiting-time penalties plus attorney fees and costs— in addition to the costs Brighton incurred in defending itself against her lawsuit. View "Brighton Collectibles, LLC v. Hockey" on Justia Law