Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Contracts
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Three appeals arose from an insurance coverage dispute following a wildfire that burned in Siskiyou County, California. In September 2014, the Boles Fire damaged and destroyed numerous homes in the town of Weed, including the homes owned by plaintiffs Gary Andrighetto, James Dalin, and Matthew Vulk. Plaintiffs and others filed suit against their insurance company, defendant State Farm General Insurance Company, alleging various claims, including breach of contract and negligence. Central to the parties’ dispute was whether State Farm intentionally or negligently underinsured plaintiffs’ homes. Plaintiffs argued their homes were insufficiently insured due to State Farm’s alleged failure to calculate reasonable or adequate policy limits on their behalf for the full replacement cost of their homes. After the trial court granted State Farm’s motion for summary judgment against Andrighetto, Dalin and Vulk stipulated to entry of judgment in favor of State Farm. Each plaintiff timely appealed, and the Court of Appeal consolidated the appeals for argument and disposition. Thereafter, the Court requested that the parties discuss in their briefing whether the judgments in the Dalin and Vulk matters needed to be reversed pursuant to Magana Cathcart McCarthy v. CB Richard Ellis, Inc., 174 Cal.App.4th 106 (2009). After review, the Court affirmed the trial court in the Andrighetto matter; the Court reversed in the Dalin and Vulk matters, and remanded those for further proceedings. View "Vulk v. State Farm General Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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Milan and Dmitry Piterman were married in 1990. In 2013, Milan filed a petition for legal separation. Korchemny, a close friend of Dmitry’s, sued Dmitry, Milan, and Milan’s Trust based on two promissory notes. Dmitry filed a cross-complaint against Milan and the trust. After years of extensive litigation, Milan and the trust obtained summary judgment against Korchemny based on their affirmative defense of usury. They were later awarded $318,000 in attorney fees. Korchemny appealed both the judgment and the attorney fee order. On Dmitry’s cross-complaint, Milan and the trust obtained judgment on the pleadings against Dmitry.The court of appeal affirmed. When the payments made under the promissory notes are applied to reduce principal in accordance with California usury law, the result is that a 2000 note was fully paid off by May 2011 and the 2001 note fully paid off by January 2017. The attorneys’ fees award was fully supported. There was nothing for which Dmitry could be indemnified or get contribution; if Dmitry had acted like a defendant typically does, and fought against plaintiff Korchemny, Dmitry too, would have proven usury, and would thus not be liable to Korchemny. He would have been the prevailing party, entitled to his costs. View "Korchemny v. Piterman" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Sayedeh Sahba Amjadi appealed the dismissal entered after a settlement was entered by her attorney on her behalf and over her objection with defendant Jerrod West Brown, and appealed an order denying her subsequent motion to vacate the judgment. The settlement was entered by plaintiff’s attorney pursuant to a provision in the attorney’s contingent fee agreement, which purported to grant the attorney the right to accept settlement offers on the client’s behalf in the attorney’s “sole discretion,” so long as the attorney believed in good faith that the settlement offer was reasonable and in the client’s best interest. The Court of Appeal determined such a provision violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and was void to the extent it purported to grant an attorney the right to accept a settlement over the client’s objection. Accordingly, the Court held the settlement to be void and reversed the resulting judgment. The Court also referred plaintiff’s former attorneys to the State Bar for potential discipline, as required by law and by Canon 3D(2) of the Code of Judicial Ethics. View "Amjadi v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and her late husband, Grant Tinker, signed a premarital agreement (PMA) that in relevant part governed the ownership and testamentary disposition of their marital home. Respondents, Larry Ginsberg and his law firm, represented plaintiff in connection with the PMA and approved the PMA as to form on her behalf. Non-attorney Sidney Tessler, Tinker's longtime accountant and business manager, negotiated terms and approved the PMA as to form on Tinker's behalf. Plaintiff, the estate, and Tinker's children subsequently litigated plaintiff's and the children's claims, which were ultimately resolved in a global settlement.Plaintiff then filed suit against Ginsberg for legal malpractice in connection with the preparation and execution of the PMA, alleging that the PMA was unenforceable due to Ginsberg’s failure to ensure that Tinker signed a waiver of legal representation. The trial court granted Ginsberg's motion for summary judgment on the ground that Tinker ratified the PMA.The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that there is a triable issue of material fact as to the threshold issue of whether Tinker satisfied the requirements of Family Code section 1615 when he executed the PMA. The court explained that, if the factfinder determines that Tinker did not comply with section 1615, and the PMA was therefore not enforceable, the question becomes whether Tinker's subsequent amendments to his estate plan could ratify the PMA and thereby rectify the statutory violation. The court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding that they could and did. The court held that a premarital agreement that is not enforceable under section 1615 is void, not voidable, and accordingly cannot be ratified. Because none of the other grounds asserted in the summary judgment motion support the trial court's ruling, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings on plaintiff's malpractice claim. The court denied plaintiff's request for judicial notice as moot. View "Knapp v. Ginsberg" on Justia Law

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Hom rented a San Francisco building to Entertainment for a restaurant. The lease allowed Entertainment to encumber its leasehold in favor of its lenders. A lender with an encumbrance could do anything required of Entertainment under the lease, foreclose on the leasehold, receive copies of notices, cure any breach by Entertainment, and enter into a new lease following any default by Entertainment; the parties were not allowed to modify or cancel the lease without the lender's consent. The lease stated that the prevailing party in any dispute is entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees. Entertainment later signed promissory notes with Lenders and pledged all of its assets as security. A dispute arose between Entertainment and Hom that resulted in litigation. Entertainment sued for breach of contract. Hom’s cross-complaint alleged that Lenders interfered with Hom’s ability to collect rent and evict Entertainment, that the loans were a sham.The court enforced a settlement between Hom and Entertainment, dismissing the cross-complaint with prejudice. Lenders sought attorney’s fees based on the lease. The court of appeal affirmed the award of approximately $150,000 in fees. Because the lease goes into such detail regarding lenders’ rights, it was reasonably foreseeable that disputes involving lenders would arise over those rights. It is natural to conclude that the landlord and tenant intended to give lenders the same rights to attorney’s fees as the direct parties. View "Hom v. Petrou" on Justia Law

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After completing MoneyGram's Transfer Send Form, Fisher, a 63-year-old veteran with poor eyesight, initiated Moneygram money transfers at California Walmart stores, one for $2,000 to a Georgia recipient, and another for $1,530 to a Baton Rouge recipient. The funds were delivered to the intended recipients. Fisher never turned over the Send Form to read the Terms and Conditions, which included an arbitration requirement. He would have been unable to read the six-point print without a magnifying glass. Fisher sued MoneyGram, claiming that the transfers were induced by a “scammer,” and that MoneyGram knew its system was used by scammers but failed to warn or protect customers; MoneyGram’s service was used frequently in fraudulent transactions because the money was immediately available at a Walmart store or other MoneyGram outlet. Other services (bank transfers) place a temporary hold on funds to discourage fraudulent transactions. Fisher alleged MoneyGram had been the subject of an FTC injunction, requiring it to maintain a program to protect its consumers.Fisher’s class action complaint cited the unfair competition law. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of MoneyGram’s petition to compel arbitration. The provision was unenforceable as procedurally and substantively unconscionable, and not severable. The small font, placement, and “take it or leave it nature” were “indications” of procedural unconscionability. The one-year limitations period, a requirement that any plaintiff pay arbitration costs and fees, and waiver of attorneys’ fees were substantively unconscionable “in the aggregate.” View "Fisher v. MoneyGram International, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the unanimous jury's finding in favor of Underwood Ranches in an action for breach of contract and fraud, as well as the award of $13.3 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages. Huy Fong, a business that produces Sriracha hot sauce, contracted with Underwood Ranches, a pepper farmer, to purchase peppers, which resulted in a 28 year relationship for the parties. For the first 10 years, the parties executed written agreements specifying the price per pound and volume to be supplied. Thereafter, the parties dealt with each other informally with oral agreements.The court concluded that there is more than ample evidence to support a finding of fraud based on fraudulent concealment and affirmative misrepresentation; the jury's findings are consistent and easily reconciled where, read together, the jury found that the parties had an ongoing contractual relationship that included the 2017 jalapeño growing season; the court rejected Huy Fong's contention that the trial court abdicated its responsibility to sit as a 13th juror in ruling on its motion for a new trial; the court upheld the $10 million punitive damage award; and, because the court affirmed the judgment against Huy Fong, it is unnecessary for it to consider Underwood Ranch's appeal. View "Huy Fong Foods, Inc. v. Underwood Ranches, LP" on Justia Law

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A jury awarded plaintiffs, the adult children and heirs of songwriter Terry Gilkyson, $350,000 based on its finding that Disney, and its music publishing subsidiary Wonderland, had failed to pay contractually required royalties in connection with certain limited uses of "The Bare Necessities" and several other Gilkyson-composed songs in home entertainment releases of Walt Disney Productions's 1967 animated film The Jungle Book. The trial court then awarded an additional $699,316.40 as damages for the period subsequent to the jury's verdict through the duration of the songs’ copyrights. Both parties appealed.The Court of Appeal agreed with Disney that interpretation of its agreements with Gilkyson is subject to de novo review; Gilkyson's right to receive royalties from exploitation of the mechanical reproduction rights in "The Bare Necessities" and other songs he wrote for The Jungle Book was dependent on Wonderland receiving payment for such exploitation; and the express language of the contracts granted Disney sole discretion to decide how to exploit the material, including whether a fee should be charged for Disney's own use of the material in home entertainment releases. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded with instructions to enter a judgment in favor of Disney. View "Gilkyson v. Disney Enterprises, Inc." on Justia Law

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Hue Thi Dong Mai was sued for breach of contract by a prospective purchaser of the apartment building she owned, brought about because of fraudulent conduct on the part of Mai’s real estate agent. The prospective purchaser ultimately dismissed the breach of contract action, and Mai invoked the “tort of another” doctrine in suing, by cross-complaint, the agent and her employer to recover the attorney’s fees Mai incurred defending the contract action. In the course of that litigation, Mai’s counsel failed to appreciate the difference between presenting a claim for attorney’s fees as damages at trial, and one for fees as costs of suit in a posttrial motion. By its own admission, the trial court was equally confused. The cross-defendants submitted, as dispositive authority, the Court of Appeal decision in Copenbarger v. Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, Inc., 29 Cal.App.5th 1 (2018). Figuring it was bound by Copenbarger, the trial court decided it had no discretion to guide the case to what it believed was a fair resolution. Urging Mai to appeal the decision, it ultimately concluded it could not award anything on her claim for attorney’s fees. Mai appealed, presenting two issues: (1) to what extent did Copenbarger accurately define the minimum showing required to sustain an award of attorney’s fees as damages?; and (2) was the trial court correct in believing that Copenbarger eliminated its discretion to allow Mai to present her attorney’s fee claim on the merits? As to the first issue, the Court of Appeal concluded Copenbarger’s analysis, some of which was dicta, might mislead trial courts by causing them to disregard well-established and binding precedent that predated it. For that reason, the appellate court offered a narrow reading of Copenbarger that harmonized it with other case authority to the extent that was possible. Regarding the second issue, even accepting Copenbarger’s analysis at face value did not, as the trial court here seemed to believe, eliminate all discretion the court possessed to make mid-trial adjustments and accommodations that respect defendants’ right to a fair trial while also allowing plaintiffs to litigate the merits of their claims. Accordingly, judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for a limited retrial on the issue of attorney’s fees as damages in which the court could both apply the proper legal principles and exercise its discretion to achieve substantial justice between the parties. View "Mai v. HKT Cal, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Sellers bought an Oakland property to “flip.” After Vega renovated the property, they sold it to Vera, providing required disclosures, stating they were not aware of any water intrusion, leaks from the sewer system or any pipes, work, or repairs that had been done without permits or not in compliance with building codes, or any material facts or defects that had not otherwise been disclosed. Vera’s own inspectors revealed several problems. The Sellers agreed to several repairs Escrow closed in December 2011, but the sewer line had not been corrected. In January 2012, water flooded the basement. The Sellers admitted that earlier sewer work had been completed without a permit and that Vega was unlicensed. In 2014, the exterior stairs began collapsing. Three years and three days after the close of escrow, Vera filed suit, alleging negligence, breach of warranty, breach of contract, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. Based on the three-year limitations period for actions based on fraud or mistake, the court dismissed and, based on a clause in the purchase contract, granted SNL attorney’s fees, including fees related to a cross-complaint against Vera’s broker and real estate agent.The court of appeal affirmed. Vera’s breach of contract claim was based on fraud and the undisputed facts demonstrated Vera’s claims based on fraud accrued more than three years before she filed suit. Vera has not shown the court abused its discretion in awarding fees related to the cross-complaint. View "Vera v. REL-BC, LLC" on Justia Law