Thursday, August 05, 2010

Henderson v. PG&E (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 5, 2010)

I'm of two minds here.

On the one hand, it seems silly -- irrational, even -- to allow for mandatory relief from defaults based on attorney errors (as long as they file an affidavit) and yet not similarly allow relief from, say, summary judgment motions based on similar errors. An attorney fails to file an answer; we grant relief, even though the neglect is inexcusable. But when an attorney fails to file an answer to a summary judgment motion, we don't grant relief. Doesn't make sense.

Plus, we prefer adjudication on the merits. Seems overly harsh to not to grant relief if there's indeed a valid defense. Sure, we'll spank the lawyer with sanctions. But why not grant relief?

On the other hand, clients choose counsel at their peril. This is why clients should hire good attorneys rather than bad ones. Good attorneys work a long time on their summary judgment papers. Bad ones, like here, (1) wait until the last minute, (2) assign a law clerk to prepare the entire thing, (3) don't supervise 'em or make sure they're making progress, and then (4) are screwed if the associate gets sick, can't finish the work, or (as here) goes on a cruise and simply can't get it done on time. Not a good business strategy. And, sure, I feel bad for the client, but you can always sue your lawyer.

So I'm not sure there's a clear answer to this one. Though I know the rule (at least according to the Court of Appeal): You get relief from defaults, not summary judgment. That's the scoop.

P.S. - I like how Justice Gomes begins the opinion: "Plaintiff Susan Henderson's counsel went 'all in' on a bad bet. First, he waited until the eleventh hour to begin opposing a summary judgment motion he had known about for months. Next, he assigned the preparation of that opposition to a paralegal who he failed to supervise. Finally, learning that the paralegal had left the state with the opposition the last business day before it had to be filed without his having seen it, he hoped for a miracle instead of immediately going to court to request an extension of time." Nice poker reference.

That said, if you're going to slam an attorney for not adequately supervising a clerk, you might want to make extra sure that the opinion in which you do so doesn't have similar clerk-induced errors. See, e.g., The Last Sentence on Page 17 of the Opinion, which reads: "She asserts this is the type of mistake a reasonable sole practitioner might make. !(AOB 17)!"

Oopsies. The law clerk/research attorney was supposed to pull out all the "! xxx !" record cites before the opinion was actually published, but this one got missed. Not a big deal, but somewhat embarrassing given the context, eh?