Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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In a suit concerning oil and gas royalties, Poole, an attorney, represented only himself. Poole's interest in the royalties is “less than 1%,” the other owners were members of two families. Poole sought “$50,745 for fees and [$1,572.75] for costs for work successfully defending the trial court judgment on appeal” plus “$46,020 for fees and $1,269.29 for costs for work performed in the Superior Court.” Poole requested that payment be made from the interpleaded royalties, citing the equitable common fund theory, which allows a party, who has paid for counsel to prosecute a lawsuit that creates or preserves a fund from which others will benefit, to require those other beneficiaries to bear their fair share of the litigation costs. Other parties objected, reasoning that an award would deplete the royalties available for distribution to family members; one told the court that Poole’s involvement was "counterproductive.”The court of appeal affirmed the denial of an award of attorneys’ fees under the common fund theory. An attorney who represents only himself and does not pay or become liable to pay consideration in exchange for legal representation may not recover attorney fees under the equitable common fund doctrine but may seek recovery of legitimate, reasonable costs excluding attorney fees under that doctrine. View "Leiper v. Gallegos" on Justia Law

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The appointment of a guardian ad litem for a parent in a dependency proceeding radically changes the parent's role, transferring direction and control of the litigation from the parent to the guardian ad litem. While necessary to protect the rights of an incompetent parent—an individual incapable of understanding the nature and purpose of the proceeding or unable to assist counsel in a rational manner—appointment of a guardian ad litem is not a tool to restrain a problematic parent, even one who unreasonably interferes with the orderly proceedings of the court or who persistently acts against her own interests or those of her child.The Court of Appeal reversed the order appointing a guardian ad litem for mother, concluding that the appointment of a guardian ad litem for mother is not supported by substantial evidence and was not harmless. In this case, mother's clashes with counsel were not the result of any mental health disorder but were deliberate and strategic, designed to frustrate and delay proceedings she believed were going to be unfavorable to her. The court noted that, while mother is unquestionably a difficult party, a guardian ad litem cannot be appointed without any finding of her incompetence. View "In re Samuel A." 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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Rozanova, self-represented, sued her neighbors, the respondents, in 2019. Rozanova had previously asserted claims involving the same property in 2013. The respondents unsuccessfully moved to have Rozanova declared a vexatious litigant and to require her to post bond or dismiss the action. The trial court later granted their motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding the action was “barred by res judicata/collateral estoppel and the statute of limitation.”Respondents filed a memorandum of costs, seeking $2,905.69 from Rozanova: $1,080 in filing and motion fees, $90 in court reporter fees, $1,253.04 for preparing photocopies of exhibits, and $482.65 in electronic filing or service fees. Among her objections, Rozanova claimed that recovery for photocopies “is limited to trial exhibits” under Code of Civil Procedure section 1033.5(a)(13). The trial court reduced the amount for electronic filing and service fees and approved an award of $2,743.04. The court found the motions to declare Rozanova a vexatious litigant and for an order restricting discovery “were made in good faith.” The court of appeal affirmed. The costs are recoverable outside the context of trial under section 1033.5(a)(13), View "Rozanova v. Uribe" 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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Retired superior court judges who have participated in the Temporary Assigned Judges Program (TAJP) challenged recent changes to the program made by the Chief Justice, including limits on the duration of service in the program with some exceptions. Plaintiffs, claiming these changes discriminate against “older” retired judges, filed suit, alleging disparate impact age discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The trial court dismissed without leave to amend on the ground legislative immunity bars the suit.The court of appeal reversed and remanded to allow the plaintiffs to amend their complaint. Legislative immunity shields the Chief Justice and the Judicial Council from suit, regardless of the nature of the relief sought, to the extent plaintiffs’ discrimination claim is based on the Chief Justice’s promulgation of changes to the TAJP. Legislative immunity does not foreclose suit to the extent the claim is based on the defendants’ enforcement of the challenged provisions through individual judicial assignments. Judicial immunity applies to the Chief Justice’s assignment of individual judges under the new TAJP provisions, and while judicial immunity forecloses monetary relief, it does not foreclose prospective declaratory relief. The plaintiffs’ current allegations are insufficient but a disparate impact age discrimination claim can be based on disparate impact on an older subgroup within the class of persons protected under the Act--employees 40 years of age and older. View "Mahler v. Judicial Council of California" on Justia Law

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It is improper for counsel to assert or imply facts not in evidence that counsel knows could be refuted by evidence the court has excluded; it is also improper to argue facts not in the record, and to continue to argue those facts after the court has instructed counsel to stop.The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's order granting defendant's motion for a new trial based on attorney misconduct during closing argument in this vehicle collision case. The trial court found, among other misconduct, that defense counsel falsely argued excluded evidence did not exist and argued facts outside the record. The court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting defendant's motion for a new trial on causation and damages, concluding that defense counsel's improper arguments resulted in a miscarriage of justice warranting a new trial. View "Jackson v. Park" on Justia Law

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Judge John W. Ouderkirk (Ret.) was the privately compensated temporary judge selected by petitioner, Angelina Jolie, and real party in interest, William Bradley Pitt, to hear their family law case. Jolie filed a statement of disqualification challenging Judge Ouderkirk based on his failure to disclose, as required by the California Code of Judicial Ethics, several matters involving Pitt's counsel in which Judge Ouderkirk had been retained to serve as a temporary judge. After the superior court ruled against Jolie, she petitioned for writ of mandate and supporting papers.The Court of Appeal granted the writ of mandate directing the superior court to vacate its order denying Jolie's statement of disqualification and to make a new order disqualifying Judge Ouderkirk. The court concluded that Judge Ouderkirk's ethical breach, considered together with the information disclosed concerning his recent professional relationships with Pitt's counsel, might cause an objective person, aware of all the facts, reasonably to entertain a doubt as to the judge's ability to be impartial. Therefore, the court concluded that disqualification is required. View "Jolie v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County" on Justia Law