Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the school district's cross-complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute. In the underlying action, Margaret Williams and her LLC filed suit against the school district, alleging that her termination was retaliatory. Williams also alleged that the school district unlawfully caused her arsenic poisoning. The court explained that, if the court were to enforce the school district's request, the indemnity provision would require Williams LLC to fund the school district's defense against the very litigation the LLC and Williams brought against the school district. Therefore, the school district's cross-complaint arose from that litigation or the LLC's refusal to sabotage it -- each of which was protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. Furthermore, the school district sought to require the LLC not only to fund the school district's defense, but also to reimburse the school district for any award secured by Williams or the LLC. The court explained that such a bar to meaningful recovery embodied a high degree of substantive unconscionability, sufficient -- when combined with the procedural unconscionability shown through Williams LLC's unrebutted evidence of adhesion, oppression, and surprise -- to establish that the indemnity provision was unconscionable. The court limited the provision to avoid an unconscionable result, and held that the school district failed to show error in the dismissal of the breach of contract and declaratory relief claims, as well as the dismissal of the school district's other cross-claims. View "Long Beach Unified School District v. Margaret Williams, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against actor Shia LaBeouf for assault, slander, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after LaBeouf confronted plaintiff and called him a "racist" after plaintiff refused to serve LaBeouf and his companion alcohol. LaBeouf filed a special motion to strike plaintiff's first amended complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's denial of LaBeouf's anti-SLAPP motion, holding that LaBeouf's conduct did not fall within the scope of the anti-SLAPP statute because his statements and conduct did not involve a matter of public interest or concern. In this case, LaBeouf's statement was not directed at someone in the public eye and there was no evidence that LaBeouf's comments addressed an ongoing controversy or an issue that had garnered any public interest. Rather, the court held that the statement concerned an isolated dispute between a bartender and an inebriated client over the bartender's refusal to serve the client alcohol at a restaurant. The court reasoned that, although footage of the altercation was later disseminated to many people on the internet and television, a private dispute does not become a matter of public interest simply because it was widely communicated to the public. Furthermore, the fact that LaBeouf used the word "racist" did not convert the statement into the type of speech entitled to anti-SLAPP protection. View "Bernstein v. LaBeouf" on Justia Law

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In 1984, Ashmus was charged with offenses including first-degree murder and rape. On Ashmus’s pretrial motion, the Sacramento County court transferred venue to San Mateo County. After Ashmus was convicted, the San Mateo County Superior Court imposed a death sentence. In 2014, Ashmus filed a second habeas petition in the California Supreme Court to exhaust certain claims raised in his federal habeas petition. In 2019, the California Supreme Court transferred Ashmus’s petition to the sentencing court as called for by Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, Under Penal Code section 1509, added by Proposition 66, “any petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by a person in custody pursuant to a judgment of death” should be transferred to “the court which imposed the sentence . . . unless good cause is shown. For petitions filed before Proposition 66 went into effect, section 1509(g) provides, “the court may transfer the petition to the court which imposed the sentence.” The Attorney General successfully moved to transfer the petition to Sacramento County Superior Court. The court of appeal concluded the trial court misapplied section 1509. The meaning of “the court which imposed the sentence,” is clear and unambiguous; there is no dispute that the San Mateo County Superior Court imposed Ashmus’s sentence. View "Ashmus v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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After plaintiffs filed a malicious prosecution action against defendant, who was the attorney for the opposing party in a prior litigation, defendant filed an anti-SLAPP motion. The Court of Appeal held that the evidence did not demonstrate a reasonable probability plaintiffs would prevail on the merits of their claim, because plaintiffs' action was time-barred. In this case, the four-year provision of the statute of limitations expired prior to the filing of the complaint, and a later discovery could not extend that period. Finally, the court noted that plaintiffs' plea for justice did not fall on deaf ears, but that the court was constrained to follow the law and to enforce the statute of limitations. View "Garcia v. Rosenberg" on Justia Law

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Jones is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a 1994 murder he committed when he was 19 years old. In 2018, Jones filed a petition to recall his sentence, citing Penal Code 1170(d)(2), which applies to a defendant who is serving an LWOP sentence for an offense committed when the defendant was “under 18 years of age” and who has been incarcerated for at least 15 years. The court of appeal upheld the denial of relief, rejecting an argument that section 1170(d)(2) violates equal protection because it denies LWOP offenders ages 18-25 the same opportunity to petition for resentencing that is afforded to similarly-situated juvenile offenders without any rational basis for doing so. LWOP offenders who were 18-25 years old when they committed their offenses are adult offenders, not similarly situated to juvenile offenders. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly found that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” To determine the age at which the diminished culpability of a youthful offender should no longer result in a categorically different sentence, a line must be drawn. The Legislature could reasonably decide that for LWOP offenders, the line should be drawn at age 18, rather than at some later date when the brain is fully developed. Drawing a bright line at age 18 establishes an objective and easily implemented measure, which has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court. View "In re Jones" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's partial denial of defendant's anti-SLAPP motion. Plaintiff filed suit after defendant posted comments in Facebook that she alleged were, among other things, defamatory. The court held that plaintiff's complaint arose from protected activity, because the comments upon which plaintiff based her claims implicated an issue of public interest. In this case, defendant's comments described a widespread pattern of identity theft and multi-level marketing scams. The court also held that plaintiff met her burden of showing a probability of prevailing on her defamation claim, because her claim had at least minimal merit. The court explained that the statements complained of – that she had been indicted, that she was a convicted criminal, and that she had stolen the identities of thousands of people – were plainly defamatory in character and would tend to expose their subject to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy. The court commented on civility, sexism, and persuasive brief writing, stating that the opening paragraph in defense counsel's reply brief, which commented on the trial judge's personal characteristics and appearance, reflected gender bias and disrespect for the judicial system. View "Briganti v. Chow" on Justia Law

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Vaquero filed suit challenging provisions of a new zoning ordinance requiring permits for new oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production. The ordinance imposed a wide range of environmental and other standards on permit applicants, adopting two procedural pathways for obtaining permits when the proposed activity would be conducted on split-estate land zoned for agriculture. Vaquero alleged that the new provisions violated its constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. The trial court rejected Vaquero's claims and the company appealed. Based on its interpretation of a line of relevant United States Supreme Court cases, the Court of Appeal held that the new ordinance did not violate Vaquero's right to due process because the owner of the surface rights does not have final control over how an owner of mineral rights uses those rights. Rather, the final authority over permits is retained by the County. In regard to the equal protection claim, the court applied the deferential rational basis test and held that the board of supervisors rationally could have decided the availability of an expedited seven-day pathway would promote cooperation between owners of mineral rights and owners of surface rights and reduce conflicts, which is a legitimate public purpose. View "Vaquero Energy v. County of Kern" on Justia Law

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Bryan was arrested for resisting arrest after deputies responded to a woman’s call that he had chased her. The court determined that Bryan was not competent to stand trial. He was taken to Napa State Hospital. After treating Bryan for two years, the hospital reported that it was unlikely he would soon regain competency. The public guardian filed a conservatorship petition supported by the report of a clinical psychologist who evaluated Bryan and concluded that he was gravely disabled by schizophrenia. Bryan’s public defender requested a trial. The court suggested scheduling the trial for January 28, 2019. Bryan’s attorney agreed. The parties stipulated that Bryan would appear by videoconference because of health issues. Trial began on January 28; county counsel called Bryan as a witness with no objection from Bryan’s attorney. The clinical psychologist whose report was submitted with the petition testified, as did Bryan’s temporary conservator. The court concluded that the public guardian had established beyond a reasonable doubt that Bryan was gravely disabled and was currently unable to provide for food, clothing, or shelter; appointed the public guardian as the conservator for one year; and imposed legal disabilities on him under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting arguments that the commitment term must be shortened because the trial court unlawfully continued the starting date of his trial and that Bryan had an equal protection right to refuse to testify at his trial. View "Conservatorship of Bryan S." on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal held that Allergan was not entitled to summary adjudication of plaintiff's first cause of action for disability discrimination. The court held that plaintiff provided direct evidence of disability discrimination where Allergan terminated him because the temporary corporate benefits staffer mistakenly believed he was totally disabled and unable to work. The court held that Allergan was not entitled to summary adjudication of plaintiff's fourth cause of action for retaliation where plaintiff's emails would permit a reasonable trier of fact to find that he sufficiently communicated to Allergan that he believed the way he was treated (i.e. ignored and not accommodated for his disability) was discriminatory. Furthermore, Allergan failed to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for plaintiff's termination. The court held that plaintiff's fifth cause of action for failure to prevent discrimination and seventh cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy should survive summary adjudication for the same reasons as his causes of action for discrimination and retaliation. Accordingly, the court issued a peremptory writ of mandate vacating the trial court's order to the extent it granted summary adjudication on these causes of action. View "Glynn v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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Parents, students, taxpayers, and community organizations filed suit alleging that the school district adopted and implemented a district-wide disciplinary program that was biased toward minority students, students who speak limited English, and others similarly situated. This case arose from information released to the public regarding suspensions, transfers, and other disciplinary proceedings in the school district that allegedly demonstrated that racial bias affected how the school district disciplined minority students, and actions taken by the school district to actively hide this fact from the public. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's dismissal of most of plaintiffs' claims against the state level defendants, either because the claims did not state a cause of action or such claims may be brought against the local level defendants but not the state level defendants. The court held, however, that plaintiffs have stated a cause of action for disparate impact under California's equal protection clause and they have properly petitioned for a writ of mandate based on the state level defendants' ministerial duty to monitor the practices of local school districts for violations of federal law. Therefore, the court held that the trial court wrongly sustained the state-level defendants' demurrer on those claims, along with plaintiffs' request for declaratory relief on the same issues. The court also held that plaintiffs' complaint contained sufficient allegations to demonstrate associational standing for one of the community organizations to pursue these claims against the state level defendants. View "Collins v. Thurmond" on Justia Law