Settlement didn’t preclude plaintiff’s second lawsuit against a different defendant

Resolving a conflict in the Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court today in Grande v. Eisenhower Medical Center holds that an employee’s settlement of her Labor Code and Unfair Competition lawsuit against a staffing agency did not bar her from then alleging the same claims against her employer in a later action.

The court’s unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says that the employer’s claim preclusion defense “can be asserted only by a party in the first action or someone in privity with a party in the first action” and that the staffing agency and the employer have “different legal interests.” The opinion explains, “ ‘privity’ is not merely a term that describes a close relationship between two entities; it implies that a judgment against one could have been used against the other, even though that entity was not a party to the judgment.”

The court also finds the settlement agreement releasing the staffing agency’s “agents” did not cover the employer in this particular case, although it warns in general, “the broader notion that a client is an ‘agent’ of a staffing agency is not free from doubt.” Additionally, the opinion concludes, the staffing agency’s agreement to indemnify the employer cannot bar the employee’s second lawsuit because the employer “has not established that the staffing agency was sued in its capacity as indemnitor.”

The court affirms a divided Fourth District, Division Two, Court of Appeal published opinion. It disapproves the Second District, Division Two, decision in Castillo v. Glenair, Inc. (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 262, with which the Fourth District had disagreed. The Supreme Court denied review in Castillo.

No straight grants this week

There were no straight grants at the Supreme Court’s conference yesterday, but there were some actions of note, including:

  • Pardon greenlighted.
  • Pandemic-delayed trial. The court denied review in People v. Harrison, where the Fourth District, Division Two, Court of Appeal’s unpublished opinion, in affirming a second degree murder conviction, rejected two arguments related to a 60-day pandemic-caused interruption in the defendant’s trial. The defendant claimed that the timing and length of the delay deprived him of a fair trial and that the superior court erroneously declined to individually question the jurors before resuming the trial about possible safety concerns. The pause in the trial was required by a general jury-trial-suspending order by the Chief Justice. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Carol Corrigan — respectively, the chair and a member of California’s Judicial Council — were recused from ruling on the petition for review. (Related: see the write ups of Stanley v. Superior Court and People v. Breceda, here and here.)
  • Disposal of grant-and-hold. The court sent Betancourt v. OS Restaurant Services, LLC back to the Second District, Division Eight, to reconsider in light of Naranjo v. Spectrum Security Services, Inc. In Naranjo, for which Betancourt was a grant-and-hold (see here), the court last month held that the extra-hour’s pay an employer owes for improperly making an employee work during all or part of a meal or rest break constitutes statutory “wages” that must be reported on required wage statements and be paid by specified deadlines when an employee leaves the job. Violations of the wage-statement and pay-deadline mandates can trigger penalties.
  • New legislation. The court granted review in People v. Hunt and transferred the case back to the Third District to reconsider its decision in light of Senate Bill 775. That legislation has been the catalyst for numerous reconsideration orders, including in two straight-grant cases after briefing was complete. (See here.)
  • Criminal case grant-and-holds. There were 11 criminal case grant-and-holds: five more waiting for a decision in People v. Strong (see here), which was argued last month; two more holding for People v. Faial (see here); one more holding for People v. Williams (see here); one more holding for People v. Espinoza (see here); one holding for both People v. McWilliams (see here) and People v. Tacardon (see here); and one holding for Camacho v. Superior Court (which is technically a civil case, involving a civil commitment under the Sexually Violent Predators Act (see here)).

Pardon greenlighted

The Supreme Court today gave Governor Gavin Newsom permission to pardon Julie Ruehle for 1999 convictions of possession of a controlled substance and taking a vehicle without consent. The state constitution requires a governor to get an affirmative court recommendation before granting clemency to anyone who, like Ruehle, has been “twice convicted of a felony.”

The court has said it reviews clemency recommendation requests under a deferential standard. (See here and here.) And Newsom has a nearly perfect record — he withdrew one request before a ruling, but the court has approved all 50 of his other requests. That’s better than former Governor Jerry Brown, who had the court without explanation block 10 intended clemency grants. The denial of a request implies that a clemency grant would be an abuse of power.

It’s been just 21 days since Newsom submitted his recommendation request regarding Ruehle. That’s a fast turnaround. In fact, it ties two other rulings for fastest recommendations during the Newsom administration. (See here and here.) At the other end of the spectrum are two rulings that were made 338 days after requests were submitted. (See here.) The median time until decision is 83 days.

Scope-of-settlement opinion filing tomorrow

Tomorrow morning, the Supreme Court will file its opinion in Grande v. Eisenhower Medical Center. (Briefs here; oral argument video here.) It will be the last opinion in the three cases argued in April.

When it granted review in Grande in May 2020, the court limited the issue to:  “May a class of workers bring a wage and hour class action against a staffing agency, settle that lawsuit with a stipulated judgment that releases all of the staffing agency’s agents, and then bring a second class action premised on the same alleged wage and hour violations against the staffing agency’s client?”

The opinion can be viewed tomorrow starting at 10:00 a.m.

The story behind a California Supreme Court abortion rights decision

A few years before Roe v. Wade (1973) 410 U.S. 113, California’s Supreme Court reversed the criminal conviction of a physician for abortion and conspiracy to commit an abortion. The court’s 4-3 decision in People v. Belous (1969) 71 Cal.2d 954, cited in Roe, said, “The fundamental right of the woman to choose whether to bear children follows from the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s and this court’s repeated acknowledgment of a ‘right of privacy’ or ‘liberty’ in matters related to marriage, family, and sex.” (Id. at p. 963.)

The backstory of the Belous case is recounted by Brittny Mejia in the Los Angeles Times: “How a California’s illegal abortion paved way for Roe.” The article is about Cheryl and Cliff Palmer, Cheryl’s abortion before they were married, and Dr. Leon Belous, a Los Angeles physician and advocate for changing abortion laws who referred them to a Chula Vista physician — licensed in Mexico but not California — to perform the abortion.

Related:

“California’s Supreme Court already declared a constitutional right to abortion. So why are state leaders pushing for a ballot measure?”

Supreme Court affirms death penalty for two murders, one of a witness to the other murder

The Supreme Court today affirms the death sentence in People v. Pineda for the 2002 murder of one person and the 2004 jailhouse murder of a person who testified against the defendant about the first murder. The testimony was given during a prosecution that ended in a mistrial.

The court’s opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye rejects numerous arguments, including that a prospective juror was improperly dismissed because of his views about the death penalty and that the superior court erroneously allowed evidence of the defendant’s gang membership. The court assumed there were some evidentiary errors, but found them harmless.

Justice Goodwin Liu concurs separately. He repeats what he said in his concurring opinion in People v. McDaniel (2021) 12 Cal.5th 97 (see here) that U.S. Supreme Court Sixth Amendment case law “ ‘raises serious questions about the constitutionality of California’s death penalty scheme.’ ” The issue is whether a jury must be unanimous in finding at least one specific aggravating factor that supports a death penalty verdict. He says that, in this case, “Without a unanimity requirement, each juror was permitted to reach his or her own conclusion as to whether any of the ten incidents offered by the prosecutor had been satisfactorily proven to constitute prior criminal activity.” But Justice Liu concludes any error in that regard was harmless.

Death sentence affirmed for white supremacist gang member

The Supreme Court today affirms the death sentence in People v. Poore for a 1999 Riverside County murder committed by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang. The jury, however, had rejected gang enhancements.

As is typical in direct, automatic capital appeals where the court cannot decline to hear a case or limit the issues it will decide, the court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Carol Corrigan addresses — and rejects — numerous arguments. Among other things, the defendant claimed that the absence of mitigating evidence required reversal of the penalty (even though he directed his attorney to not present such evidence) and that he was improperly required to wear a stun belt and to be confined to a restraint chair during trial.

The court does find there was a statutory violation in the defendant’s absence from the trial during a part of jury voir dire, but concludes the error was harmless. It also concludes that, although it was a “close” question, substantial evidence supports the superior court’s dismissal of two prospective jurors because of their views on the death penalty.

Justice Goodwin Liu signs the court’s opinion, but also writes a concurrence. He says it remains an open question whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCoy v. Louisiana (2018) 584 U.S. _ [138 S.Ct. 1500] “affects our precedent on the right of a capital defendant to control counsel’s presentation of mitigating evidence.” A McCoy violation caused a death penalty reversal in April.

Cert denied in landmark death penalty case that wasn’t

A Supreme Court call for supplemental briefing raised hopes in some and fears in others that the court’s opinion in People v. McDaniel would make dramatic changes in California death penalty jurisprudence and lead to a wholesale voiding of capital sentences. (See here.) High-profile editorializing and amicus submissions soon followed. (See here and here.) But the unanimous decision affirming a death sentence last summer (People v. McDaniel (2021) 12 Cal.5th 97) turned out to be a rather run-of-the-mill affirmance (if any condemned prisoner’s appeal can ever be considered run-of-the-mill).

The defendant then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. His certiorari petition raised an issue other than those that were the subject of the required additional briefing. The additional briefing was about unanimity of verdicts on factually disputed aggravating circumstances and the burden of proof on the ultimate penalty determination (12 Cal.5th at p. 141), but the petition concerned a Batson claim, i.e., racial discrimination by the prosecution in jury selection.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the certiorari petition.

Two death penalty opinions filing Monday

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court will file its opinions in People v. Poore and People v. Pineda. (Briefs here; oral argument videos here and here.)

These will be the first opinions in the three cases argued in April. An opinion in the third case — the employment law case of Grande v. Eisenhower Medical Center (see here) — will probably file on Thursday.

Poore is an automatic direct appeal from a February 2002 judgment of death. Unlike for other argued cases, the court’s website does not list issues for death penalty appeals. Counsel was first appointed in September 2007, but new counsel was appointed in July 2012 and, after the opening brief was filed, another new attorney was appointed in January 2019. Briefing was completed in September 2021.

Pineda is an automatic direct appeal from a February 2007 judgment of death. Counsel was appointed in December 2010. Briefing was completed in August 2016.

The opinions can be viewed Monday starting at 10:00 a.m.

Supreme Court takes two more cases

At the Supreme Court’s conference yesterday, actions of note included:

  • Supreme Court will answer Ninth Circuit’s take-home Covid questions.
  • Review granted in PAGA case.
  • Bail. The court made grant-and-transfer orders in two habeas corpus matters. (See: Teeing up an unresolved bail question.) Additionally, although there was no petition for review of, or request to depublish, the Second District, Division Seven, Court of Appeal opinion in In re Brown, the Supreme Court specifically considered granting review on its own motion (see here), but decided not to. Division Seven concluded setting a defendant’s bail at $2.45 million violated the constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in In re Humphrey (2021) 11 Cal.5th 135 (see here). The appellate court ordered the superior court “to hold a new hearing at which it is to consider nonmonetary alternatives to money bail, determine Brown’s ability to afford the amount of money bail if it is to be set, and follow the procedures and make the findings necessary for a valid order of detention if no conditions for pretrial release will adequately protect the government’s interests in the safety of potential victims and the public generally or the integrity of the criminal proceedings.”
  • Youth offender parole. Over another Justice Goodwin Liu recorded dissenting vote, the court denied review of the Second District, Division Six, unpublished opinion in People v. Barrascout, which rejected an equal protection challenge to a statute making youth offender parole hearings unavailable for defendants sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed between the ages of 18 and 25. It’s an issue of continuing interest to Justice Liu. (See here and here.)
  • Assumption of the risk. The Supreme Court denied review in Brown v. El Dorado Union High School District, where the Third District’s published opinion affirmed summary judgment against a student who sued his school district for traumatic brain injury he suffered during a junior varsity football game. Based on a release the student and his father had signed, the Third District held “summary judgment was proper due to the Browns’ express assumption of the risks associated with [the student’s] participation in the football program.” Horvitz & Levy represented the School District on appeal, including opposing the petition for review.
  • Criminal case grant-and-holds. There were 4 criminal case grant-and-holds: one more waiting for a decision in People v. Strong (see here), which was argued last month; one more holding for People v. Prudholme (see here); one holding for People v. Reyes (see here); and one more holding for People v. Faial (see here).
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