Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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After a jury awarded plaintiff $16 in unpaid minimum wages and $16 in liquidated damages and found against her on causes of action alleging she had been raped by her employer, the trial court determined that plaintiff was the prevailing party for purposes of Code of Civil Procedure section 1032 and awarded her $19,523 in costs, as well as $3.20 in attorney fees based on the formula in section 1031 that multiples the wages recovered by 20 percent.In the published portion of the opinion, the Court of Appeal concluded that, in this case where plaintiff lost all of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) claims, lost some non-FEHA claims, and prevailed on some non-FEHA claims, the award of costs is governed by the interaction of section 1032 and Government Code section 12965, subdivision (b). The court concluded that section 12965, subdivision (b) bars plaintiff from recovering the costs caused solely by the inclusion of the FEHA causes of action in this lawsuit. Furthermore, the other costs incurred in the lawsuit are recoverable under section 1032, subject to the discretionary exception in section 1033, subdivision (a). The court directed the trial court on remand to determine which cost items, if any, are barred by section 12965, subdivision (b) before entering an award in accordance with sections 1032 and 1033.The court also concluded that the parties' dispute over attorney fees requires an interpretation of section 1031 and Labor Code section 1194. The court explained that the literal terms of these attorney fees provisions cover this case because of the recovery of minimum wages. In situations where these statutes overlap, the court concluded that section 1194 controls because it is the more specific statute and its attorney fees provision is the most recently enacted. Therefore, the trial court court should have exercised the discretion granted by section 1194 and awarded plaintiff reasonable attorney fees, rather than applying section 1031 and awarding 20 percent of the wages recovered. The court remanded for reasonable attorney fees. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings on the issues of attorney fees and costs. View "Moreno v. Bassi" on Justia Law

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Jensen was charged as a coconspirator in a felony indictment alleging a scheme under which members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department issued hard-to-obtain concealed firearms permits in exchange for substantial donations to an independent expenditure committee supporting the reelection campaign of Sheriff Smith. Jensen is a sheriff’s department captain identified as the individual within the sheriff’s department who facilitated the conspiracy. Jensen unsuccessfully moved to disqualify the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him, alleging that that office leaked grand jury transcripts to the press days before the transcripts became public which created a conflict of interest requiring disqualification. He also joined in codefendant Schumb’s motion to disqualify the office due to Schumb’s friendship with District Attorney Rosen and Rosen’s chief assistant, Boyarsky.The court of appeal rejected Jensen’s arguments for finding a conflict of interest requiring disqualification: the grand jury transcript leak, Schumb’s relationships with Rosen and Boyarsky, and a dispute between Rosen and Sheriff Smith about access to recordings of county jail inmate phone calls. The trial court could reasonably conclude Jensen did not demonstrate that the district attorney’s office was the source of the leak. Jensen himself does not have a personal relationship with Rosen or Boyarsky. The trial court could reasonably conclude that Jensen did not establish a conflict of interest based on the existence of a dispute between the district attorney and the elected official with supervisory power over Jensen. View "Jensen v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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Schumb was charged as a coconspirator in a felony indictment alleging a quid pro quo scheme in which members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department issued hard-to-obtain concealed firearms permits in exchange for substantial monetary donations to the reelection campaign of Sheriff Smith. Schumb is an attorney with a history of fundraising for elected officials; he accepted the donations as a treasurer of an independent expenditure committee supporting Sheriff Smith’s reelection. Schumb is a friend of Rosen, the elected Santa Clara County District Attorney, and previously raised funds for Rosen’s campaigns.Schumb unsuccessfully moved to disqualify the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him, arguing that his friendships with Rosen and Rosen’s chief assistant, Boyarsky, created a conflict of interest making it unlikely Schumb would receive a fair trial. Schumb asserted that he intends to call Rosen and Boyarsky as both fact and character witnesses at trial and. despite their personal connections to the case, neither Rosen nor Boyarsky made any effort to create an ethical wall between themselves and the attorneys prosecuting the case. The court of appeal vacated and directed the lower court to enter a new order disqualifying the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office in Schumb's prosecution. View "Schumb v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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Reck purchased a new car manufactured by FCA, experienced frequent issues with the vehicle, and unsuccessfully requested its repurchase. Reck sued under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, Civ. Code, 1790 After discovery, FCA served Reck with a second Civil Code section 998 offer, proposing to settle the matter for $81,000 plus costs, expenses, and attorney fees. Their counsel, Knight, had incurred $15,000 in legal fees. The Recks rejected the offer. Two days after trial commenced, the case settled for $89,500 plus fees and costs to be determined separately.Counsel sought attorney fees under section 1794(d): $46,487.50 in services provided by Knight and $78,344 in legal services provided by Century Law. FCA objected, arguing that the Recks incurred approximately $100,000 in attorney fees between April 2018, when the $81,000 settlement offer was refused, and August 2018, when they agreed to settle; that adding a second law firm to try the case resulted in unnecessary duplication of effort; and that three of their motions had been denied or withdrawn. The trial court found the case “not particularly complex” and awarded $20,158 in attorney fees with a requested .5 multiplier, finding that the $8,500 difference did not justify an award of fees for any hours spent preparing for trial.The court of appeal reversed. The Song-Beverly Act mandates the recovery of reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff based upon “actual time expended.” The trial court did not undertake a lodestar analysis of fees reasonably incurred following the rejection of the settlement offer. In the context of public interest litigation with a mandatory fee-shifting statute, it is an error of law for the court to categorically deny or reduce an attorney fee award on the basis of a plaintiff’s failure to settle when the ultimate recovery exceeds the section 998 settlement offer. View "Reck v. FCA US LLC" on Justia Law

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Appellant Sekayi White was an incarcerated and self-represented plaintiff who filed suit after his criminal defense lawyer, respondent Michael Molfetta, failed to respond to repeated requests for his case file. Having exhausted all avenues of direct state appeal of his conviction, White wanted to use the file to help him prepare petitions for collateral habeas relief. Molfetta received White’s letters, but believed he was prohibited from producing the file because it included protected materials. Instead of explaining the problem directly to his former client and producing the unprotected parts of the file, Molfetta effectively ignored the letters. Molfetta produced the file, minus protected materials, only after being ordered to do so by the trial judge in the underlying litigation here. By the time of the production, White’s deadline to file a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus had expired; his petition in the state court was also denied. White sued to recoup the money he spent reconstructing the file, later asking for emotional distress damages. He got neither. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment in Molfetta’s favor, “but we publish in the hope the embarrassment we feel about the case can lead to improvement. … absent a miscarriage of justice (of which we have no evidence here) our moral and professional assessments, however deeply felt, cannot create a cause of action in tort. As explained herein, we must agree with the trial court: White failed to adequately plead and prove injury from Molfetta’s wrongful behavior.” View "White v. Molfetta" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Michael O’Shea hired attorney Susan Lindenberg to represent him in a child support action. After O’Shea’s ex-wife was awarded what he believed to be an excessive amount of child support, he filed this action, alleging Lindenberg should have retained a forensic accountant. The case went to trial and the jury concluded, in a special verdict, that Lindenberg owed a professional duty of care that she breached. The jury was unable to agree, however, on whether the breach of duty caused him damage, and the judge declared a mistrial. Lindenberg moved for a directed verdict on the grounds that the evidence presented at trial did not support a finding of causation, specifically, that without the alleged malpractice, O’Shea would have received a better result. The trial court agreed and directed a verdict in Lindenberg’s favor. After review, the Court of Appeal found O’Shea failed to present sufficient testimony on the issue of causation, and therefore affirmed the directed verdict. View "O'Shea v. Lindenberg" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's award of attorney fees to the Trust after the Trust successfully enforced the terms of a conservation easement. In this case, defendants owned land that is the subject of a conservation easement granted by previous owners in favor of the Trust and they intentionally violated the easement.The court rejected defendants' argument that, because the Trust's insurance policy covered its fees up to $500,000, the trial court was required to deduct that amount from the lodestar. Rather, the court concluded that the trial court was not required to reduce defendants' liability for attorney fees simply because the Trust had the foresight to purchase insurance. In any event, the court noted that the Trust will not receive a double recovery because, under the insurance policy, it must reimburse the insurer from any damage award. The court also rejected defendants' other challenges, concluding that the number of hours was not excessive; the lodestar was not disproportionate to the public benefit; and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by adding a fee enhancement. View "The Sonoma Land Trust v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Chicago Title and others for damages and to rescind the sale of his two-unit residence in San Francisco. After plaintiff resolved the case with other defendants and rescinded the sale, he sought to recover as damages against defendants the attorney fees he spent in securing and quieting his title due to the rescinded sale, attorney fees he incurred defending against his possible eviction from the property, the rent he paid to live in the property before the sale was rescinded, and rental income he lost for the time he was off title.The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the trial court erred by deciding that it was legally unforeseeable to defendants that plaintiff would suffer loss of damages following the close of escrow by defendants. The court explained that this is not one of those "occasional" cases where foreseeability may be decided by the trial court as a question of law. Rather, as with most issues related to foreseeability, it is a question of fact for a jury. The court also concluded that the trial court erred in denying plaintiff's motion to amend where the evidence did not support a finding that defendants were surprised or would be prejudiced by allowing plaintiff to amend his second amended complaint as requested. Finally, the court noted the continued viability of nonstatutory motions for judgment on the pleadings, like motion in limine No. 10, is unclear. The court merely flagged the issue for future reference and to highlight potential pitfalls these motions often create for trial judges, as happened in this case. View "Tung v. Chicago Title Co." on Justia Law

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The arbitration award at issue here involved claims by a former investment fund manager and his former employers, namely, the investment funds. All parties were sophisticated and engaged in a business - not consumer - dispute. Both law firms were frequent users of the services of the ADR provider, JAMS. The motion to vacate was based on the sole ground that the arbitrator did not disclose the extent of JAMS’s “business relationship” with O’Melveny & Myers (one of the law firms) and the arbitrator’s ownership interest in JAMS (not more than .1 percent of total revenue in a given year). Appellant contended the arbitrator failed to make required disclosures. The sole basis for the appeal was the argument the arbitrator did not disclose information that could cause a reasonable person aware of the facts to entertain a doubt that the arbitrator would be able to be impartial. The trial court granted a motion to confirm an arbitration award and denied a motion to vacate that award. Based on the facts and circumstances shown by this record, and applying the analytical framework the Court of Appeal held that the arbitrator’s and JAMS’s disclosures were sufficient, and the arbitrator was not required to disclose more information about the extent of JAMS’s business with O’Melveny & Myers, or the arbitrator’s own ownership interest in JAMS. "There is no issue of a repeat party or lawyer being favored over a non-repeat party or lawyer; the parties in this business dispute are sophisticated; and the law firms were both frequent users of JAMS to the same extent." View "Speier v. The Advantage Fund, LLC" on Justia Law

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After an employee brought a wage and hour class action against her employer and prior to certification, the parties settled. The employer paid a sum to the employee and she dismissed the class claims without prejudice, with court approval. Then the employer brought a malicious prosecution action against the employee and her counsel. The employee and her counsel each moved to strike the action under the anti-SLAPP law, which the trial court denied on the basis that the employer established a prima facie showing of prevailing on its malicious prosecution cause of action.The Court of Appeal concluded that, because the prior action resolved by settlement, the employer is unable to establish that the action terminated in its favor as a matter of law. The court explained that the class claims are not severable from the individual claims for the purposes of the favorable termination analysis. Furthermore, the entire action terminated by settlement – a termination which was not favorable to the employer as a matter of law. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded for determination of one unadjudicated anti-SLAPP issue, and whether the employee and her counsel are entitled to an award of attorney fees. View "Citizens of Humanity, LLC v. Ramirez" on Justia Law