Monday, January 26, 2009

Sanai v. Saltz (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 26, 2009)

I'm impressed by this case on a variety of different levels.

First, it tells a tale of litigation run amok. A tale that explains, in part, why some people hate lawyers; and, in particular, engaging in transactions with them. It all starts back in 1997 -- over a decade ago -- when Cyrus Sanai rents an apartment in Newport Beach. He's paying rent of around $2,165 a month for a couple years, and thereafter gets a letter from the new owner of the apartment complex that (in a fairly obvious misprint) says that the new rent is $1,410. To which Cyrus Sanai, a graduate of Harvard College and UCLA Law School -- responds: "Deal."

Sanai gets away with paying the reduced rent for a while, but ultimately gets booted from the apartment. The owner wants the part of the rent that Sanai didn't pay, but doesn't file suit; however, eventually, he does report the alleged rental delinquency to consumer reporting agencies. Which Sanai finds out about when he allegedly is denied for an American Express card. Which causes Sanai to go ballistic. And to file a lawsuit that has now spent the last nine years in litigation, up and down the appellate chain.

For a sense of the merits of the lawsuit, let me just highlight the following line from Judge Terry Green (up in LA), when ruling on the defendant's motion for attorney's fees and awarding them over a million dollars as a result of Sanai's conduct:

"This court specifically finds that this entire action has been prosecuted and maintained in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment. . . . Further, Plaintiff’s prosecution of this matter has been malicious, as evidenced by, among other things, the altering of documents presented to the Clerk’s office and the recording of illegal judgment liens with malice, and then refusing to remove them despite being ordered by the Court to do so. Several other Courts have bluntly noted and condemned Plaintiff’s litigation tactics. It is now this Court’s turn. This Court specifically finds that all unsuccessful pleadings, motions, and papers filed by Plaintiff in this lawsuit were done so in connection with an action under 15 USC Section 1681, and further that these pleadings, motions and papers were filed in bad faith and with the purpose of harassment."

So it's a nightmare of a case. And worth reading if for only that reason alone.

Second, and perhaps even more impressively, is the fact that Justice Perluss doesn't do what I would imagine many, many judges might be inclined to do in this setting. Let's be blunt -- the attorney here, Cyrus Sanai, is a person who's his own worst enemy. He does not look good. Looks horrible, even. As the trial court noted, he is a litigant who's arguably out of control not only in this case, but in others as well. (For a glimpse, take a look at this and this, both of which were engendered from Sanai's role in the whole Judge Kozinski mess.)

For that reason, it would be totally unsurprising -- perhaps even expected -- if Justice Perluss were to have found a way to affirm the judgment. Any way. And it wouldn't have been impossible here; there's enough on the merits to lead even a fair-minded judge to conclude that the trial court may have gotten it right. And for a judge who's interested in "doing justice" writ large, there's a huge (and understandable) incentive to find a way to rule against Sanai and to give him the punishment that he so richly deserves.

But Justice Perluss doesn't do that. He instead plays it straight up, ultimately reversing (albeit remanding) the attorney fee award and a portion of the dismissal of the complaint.

Lots of people would be loathe to reach such a result. Especially when it means, as it does here, that the case will continue into its second decade. Something that no one wants, and that certainly isn't "equitable" in a big picture view.

Nonetheless, when the law says X, then a judge should do X. Even when X means that someone who's abusing the system gets to keep doing it for a while longer. Yes, it sucks for the defendant. I'm sorry about that, I truly am. But that's what the system has to be. The alternative simply reposes too much power to dispense "justice" on an ad hoc basis. We can't -- and shouldn't -- allow that.

I applaud Justice Perluss and the rest of the panel for avoiding that temptation. Perhaps with the realization that, in the end, Mr. Sanai will surely get what's coming to him. Karma. Destiny. Desserts. Whatever. In the end, I have faith that the law will get this one right. No need to shortcut it.

Even if the long way takes a decade and 42 pages. It's worth it.