Historical Society writing competition winners announced

The California Supreme Court Historical Society has announced the winners of this year’s Selma Moidel Smith Law Student Writing Competition. (I’m on the Society’s board of directors.)

The winners, who will receive cash prizes and have their papers published in the next edition of the Society’s journal California Legal History, are:

First place: Leah Haberman, Columbia Law School (JD Candidate, class of 2024) for “More than Moratoriums: The Obstacles to Abolishing California’s Death Penalty.”

Second place: Ryan Carter, UCLA School of Law (MLS, 2022), for “San Fernando Valley Secession: How a Quest to Change the Law Almost Broke L.A. Apart (and Whether It Still Could).”

Third place: Simon Ruhland, UCLA School of Law (LLM, 2022), for “Wind of (Constitutional) Change: Amendment Clauses in the Federal and State Constitutions.”

The competition judges were Professors Lawrence Friedman of Stanford Law School and Rebecca Latham Brown of USC Gould School of Law.

Justice Guerrero is an ALI member

Justice Patricia Guerrero has been elected as one of 60 new members of the American Law Institute.

The organization’s website says ALI “is a private, independent, nonprofit organization that publishes Restatements of the Law, Principles of the Law, and Model Codes to further its mission to clarify, modernize, or otherwise improve the law to promote the better administration of justice.”

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Goodwin Liu, Leondra Kruger, and Joshua Groban are also ALI members, as are all the members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Defaulting parties have limited new trial motion rights; statute regarding trafficking of stolen goods read broadly

Resolving what it said were “apparent conflicts in the Court of Appeal” regarding two issues, the Supreme Court today held in Siry Investment, L.P. v. Farkhondehpour that a party in default has standing to file a new trial motion asserting legal error relating to calculation of damages and that treble damages and attorney’s fees can be awarded under Penal Code section 496, subdivision (c), in a case involving, not trafficking of stolen goods, but instead, fraudulent diversion of a partnership’s cash distributions.

The court’s opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says “the standing conclusion is supported by the statutory scheme as construed by well-reasoned prior appellate decisions and considerations of judicial economy.” The court didn’t address the damages issues in the new trial motion, but said they “substantially intersect with those that we may address in Los Angeles Unified School Dist. v. Superior Court (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 549, review granted September 1, 2021, S269608.” (See here.)

The court also held that section 496 — covering the receipt of “any property that has been stolen or that has been obtained in any manner constituting theft or extortion, knowing the property to be so stolen or obtained” — applies to the fraudulent diversion of partnership distributions because of “the statute’s unambiguous words and our obligation to honor them.” The court added that if the remedies it approves “are problematic as a matter of policy, the Legislature can be expected to amend the statute accordingly.”

Justice Joshua Groban signed the court’s opinion, but wrote separately for himself and Justice Leondra Kruger “to address the Court of Appeal’s concern that, if read too broadly, Penal Code section 496 could ‘transmogrify the law of remedies’ in a wide range of tort or breach of contract cases alleging that the defendant improperly obtained, diverted, received, or withheld the plaintiff’s money.” His concurrence states, “the majority opinion’s interpretation of section 496 will not allow for the recovery of treble damages in all, or even most, consumer or commercial disputes involving tort or breach of contract claims.”

The court affirmed the Second District, Division Two, Court of Appeal’s published opinion as to the new trial issue and reversed as to the trafficking damages issue.

Death penalty affirmed by divided vote

A 5-2 Supreme Court today affirmed the death penalty in People v. Mataele for a 1997 murder and attempted murder of two people the court says were, with the defendant and others, part of “a criminal enterprise” involved in “an ongoing identity theft and bank fraud scheme” and which later “included the purchase and sale of methamphetamine.” The court did, however, remand the case for the superior court to consider striking two sentence enhancements under legislation enacted after the defendant’s trial.

The justices disagreed whether the erroneous exclusion of penalty phase evidence was harmless. A witness who was not located until after the guilt phase concluded, when questioned by the police at the crime scene, described the shooter as being physically quite different than the defendant.

The court’s opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged the evidence would have been relevant because “a jury determination that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt does not preclude a jury from entertaining lingering or residual doubt as to the nature or extent of the defendant’s guilt.” It even disapproved contrary language in a prior opinion, In re Gay (1998) 19 Cal.4th 771, 814. But the court concluded, “there is no reasonable possibility that the additional testimony defendant could have elicited from [the witness] would have affected the jury’s verdict at the penalty phase.”

Justice Goodwin Liu on the other hand, writing for himself and Justice Leondra Kruger, explained why “the error was of the sort that ‘may have led a single juror to vote for the death penalty, who, if the error had not occurred, would not have done so.’ ” He concurred in the affirmance of the defendant’s conviction.

The court expressed no opinion regarding “whether defendant was prejudiced by defense counsel’s failure to secure [the witness’s] appearance at the guilt phase trial.” Justice Joshua Groban separately concurred to express his belief that “a habeas corpus proceeding would be the appropriate forum to explore such a claim.”

As is typical in death penalty appeals, where the court must hear the case and cannot pick and choose which issues it will decide, the court rejected numerous other defense arguments, including that two prospective jurors were improperly dismissed for their personal views against the death penalty and that the four-year gap between the crimes’ occurrence and defendant being charged was unjustified and prejudiced his defense. The court did find error in failing to give an instruction sua sponte, but concluded the omission was not prejudicial.

Supreme Court will decide PAGA arbitration issues in case against Uber [Updated]

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

  • Supreme Court leaves open possible further discovery of racial discrimination in State Bar disciplinary practices.
  • PAGA arbitration. The court granted review in Adolph v. Uber Technologies, Inc. The Fourth District, Division Three, Court of Appeal unpublished opinion affirmed the denial of a petition to compel arbitration in a representative action under California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act that claims Uber misclassified employees as independent contractors. (Related: here and here.) The appellate court found to be unenforceable a waiver of representative claims and also concluded that a court, not an arbitrator, is to decide whether the plaintiff is an employee who has standing to bring a PAGA action or an independent contractor who does not. The opinion was filed before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month in Viking River Cruises, Inc. v. Moriana. (See here.) Adolph is the second PAGA case the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear since Viking. (See here.) [August 1 update: the court today limited the issue to: “Whether an aggrieved employee who has been compelled to arbitrate claims under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) that are ‘premised on Labor Code violations actually sustained by’ the aggrieved employee (Viking River Cruises, Inc. v. Moriana (2022) 596 U.S. __, __ [142 S.Ct. 1906, 1916] (Viking River Cruises); see Lab. Code, §§ 2698, 2699, subd. (a)) maintains statutory standing to pursue ‘PAGA claims arising out of events involving other employees’ (Viking River Cruises, at p. __ [142 S.Ct. at p. 1916]) in court or in any other forum the parties agree is suitable.” The court also denied the plaintiff’s application for calendar preference and an expedited briefing schedule.]
  • Habeas dissenting vote. The court denied a pro per’s habeas corpus petition in Harris v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but Justice Liu recorded a vote to issue an order to show cause. The docket gives no information about the issues raised by the petition, so we can’t tell the reason for the dissenting vote.
  • Criminal case grant-and-holds. There were 6 criminal case grant-and-holds: four more waiting for a decision in People v. Strong (see here), which was argued in May; one holding for In re Lopez (see here and here); and one more holding for In re Vaquera (see here), which has been fully briefed for over two years.
  • Disposal of grant-and-holds. The court got rid of nine former grant-and-holds, dismissing review in all of them instead of sending any back for reconsideration. Two cases — Melendez v. Westlake Services, LLC (see here) and Hernandez Flores v. Westlake Services, LLC (see here) — were holding for the court’s May decision in Pulliam v. HNL Automotive (2022) 13 Cal.5th 127. Conservatorship of J.Y. (see here) was holding for the April opinion in Conservatorship of Eric B. (2022) 12 Cal.5th 1085. Four cases were holding for both People v. Padilla (2022) 13 Cal.5th 152, which was decided in May, and People v. Federico, which the court transferred back to the Court of Appeal in February. Two cases were holding just for Padilla.

Supreme Court leaves open possible further discovery of racial discrimination in State Bar disciplinary practices

In a long-running case by a lawyer alleging the State Bar’s discipline system “has an unconstitutional blind spot for the plight of Black Male Attorneys,” the Supreme Court yesterday denied a petition for review seeking further discovery but said its order was “without prejudice to additional discovery based on more particularized discovery requests.”

The ruling in Harper on Discipline comes after an early 2021 court remand to the State Bar of a disbarment recommendation so that the Bar’s hearing department could conduct further proceedings “to determine whether the . . . facially neutral disciplinary practices at issue . . . had the effect of discriminating . . . on the basis of race.” (See here.) The remand order also provided for the “reopen[ing] [of] discovery to permit Harper to obtain all data reviewed for purposes of” a 2019 study — commissioned by the Bar itself — about racial and gender disciplinary discrepancies and of a follow-up Bar report.

Yesterday’s order said the new discovery requests could “cover[ ] theories of disparate impact, including but not limited to theories based on the reporting mechanisms regarding, and weight given to prior discipline for, reportable action bank matters in State Bar disciplinary proceedings.”

Harper’s petition for review and reply are here and here. The State Bar’s answer to the petition is here.

Justice Martin Jenkins was recused yesterday, as he was regarding last year’s remand order.

Death penalty, civil trafficking opinions filing tomorrow

Tomorrow morning, the Supreme Court will file its opinions in People v. Mataele and Siry Investment, L.P. v. Farkhondehpour. (Briefs here; oral argument videos here and here.)

These will be the first opinions in the five cases argued on the early-May calendar. Opinions in the other three cases should file by August 1.

Mataele is an automatic direct appeal from an October 2005 judgment of death. Unlike for other cases, the court’s website does not list issues for death penalty appeals. Counsel was appointed in April 2009. Briefing was completed in July 2015.

In Siry Investment, the court is expected to answer these questions: (1) May a party in default file a motion for new trial raising legal error, including the inapplicability of certain remedies under the allegations as pleaded? (2) May a trial court award treble damages and attorney fees under Penal Code section 496, subdivision (c), in a case involving the fraudulent diversion of business funds rather than trafficking in stolen goods? The court granted review in July 2020.

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

Disapprovals of review-denied opinions show the Supreme Court is not an error-correction court

It is often said that the Supreme Court is not an error-correction court, meaning the court’s policy is to not use its discretionary review authority simply to fix a mistaken Court of Appeal decision. Instead, the court will normally opt to hear a case only “[w]hen necessary to secure uniformity of decision or to settle an important question of law.” (Rule 8.500(b)(1).)

The court’s decision last month in Grande v. Eisenhower Medical Center (see here) provided a reminder of this traditional limit.

In Grande, the court held 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. In doing so, the court disapproved Castillo v. Glenair, Inc. (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 262, which, the court said, had “found claim preclusion on similar facts.”

The court concluded that Castillo was wrongly decided. But, when the losing party had previously asked the court to reverse the Castillo decision itself, the court denied review. The Grande opinion leaves the losing parties in Castillo with no more than the small solace that their legal position has been vindicated, but it comes several years too late to make a difference in their case.

Castillo is not an anomaly. Some other recent disapprovals of cases in which the Supreme Court had earlier denied review are:

  • Spikener v. Ally Financial, Inc. (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 151, review denied (Liu, J., voting to grant), but disapproved in Pulliam v. HNL Automotive Inc. (2022) 13 Cal.5th 127 (see here).
  • Lafferty v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 398, review denied, but disapproved in Pulliam v. HNL Automotive Inc. (2022) 13 Cal.5th 127 (see here).
  • Ling v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc. (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 1242, review denied, but disapproved in Naranjo v. Spectrum Security Services, Inc. (2022) 13 Cal.5th 93 (see here).
  • Conservatorship of Bryan S. (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 190, review denied, but disapproved in Conservatorship of Eric B. (2022) 12 Cal.5th 1085 (see here).
  • Department of Forestry & Fire Protection v. Howell (2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 154, review denied, but disapproved by Presbyterian Camp & Conference Centers, Inc. v. Superior Court (2021) 12 Cal.5th 493 (see here).

Related:

The Supreme Court doesn’t decide all important issues.

“Praising her stability, lawyers hope chief stands for retention”

Malcolm Maclachlan reports in today’s Daily Journal about speculation regarding whether Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye will be a candidate in November for a second 12-year term. She has been both noncommittal and positive on the subject. (See hereherehere, and here.) She has until mid-August to declare her candidacy. (See Cal. Const., art. VI, section 16 (d)(1).)

The article quotes this blog post about the Chief Justice’s State of the Judiciary speech in March. The quoted portion said: “The speech had a hint of the valedictory. She noted, ‘I became Chief Justice of California about 12 years ago during the Great Recession,’ and remarked that those years ‘have been book-ended by the Great Recession, and the pandemic.’ ”

As we noted last November, there might be five Supreme Court justices on this year’s ballot. If the Chief Justice does not seek a new term, the ballot will likely feature four justices and one candidate for the Chief Justice’s seat nominated by Governor Gavin Newsom.

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