Monday, July 15, 2013

Abers v. Rohrs (Cal. Ct. App. - July 15, 2013)

Some condo owners and the property owner get into a fight about how much rent is owed.  There's an initial declaratory relief action and then the case goes to arbitration.

After the arbitration is over -- with an award in favor of the property owners -- everyone knows there will be a fight about whether the award should be confirmed.  So the property owners run into court and file an ex parte request (in the technically "pending" declaratory relief action) asking the court to require that any confirmation fights be filed under a new case number.  The condo owners oppose the request, and the trial court says it doesn't feel like resolving this issue until someone actually files.

The condo owners indeed want to fight the arbitration award.  Rather than squander scare resources on the somewhat meaningless issue of whether such a petition should be filed under the "old" or a "new" case number, they decide to do it the way the property owners wanted, and file it under a new case number.  As the opposing party (the property owners) wanted.  They then serve the petition by mail on opposing counsel.

But there's an 100-day deadline to vacate an arbitration award.  And after the deadline expires, the other side then says:  "Sorry.  You filed it under a different case number.  Which means you can't serve things by mail.  That would have been fine under the old case number.  But since you did it the way we wanted -- by filing under a new number -- you had to serve us personally.  Which you didn't do within 100 days of the arbitration award.  So now you lose.  Gotcha!"

The Court of Appeal agrees.

Deadlines are harsh.  I'm sympathetic to the Court of Appeal's view that in a case like this, in which the condo owners are represented by counsel, a failure to understand how something has to get served within a particular deadline isn't something that gets a party relief.  The deadline's the deadline, and it was blown.  You can potentially sue your attorney, but you can't resurrect the deadline that's passed.

The one thing I'm not as confident about is the Court of Appeal's argument in response to the condo owner's (understandable) focus on equity.  The condo owners say it would be inequitable to allow the property owners to sleaze them.  The Court of Appeal, however, responds that equity is categorically inapplicable whenever a party makes "deliberate" strategic decisions; e.g., the decision to file under a new case number here in order to avoid resulting disputes.  Having made a "deliberate" decision, the party is purportedly precluding from obtaining equitable relief.

That doesn't seem right.  Equity grants relief for lots of deliberate decisions. Indeed, I'd imagine that most affirmative decisions in equity involve deliberate decisions, in one form or another, on the part of the requesting party.  The fact that a decision is deliberate and/or "strategic" may well be a factor in whether to grant equity.  But I don't think that equity categorically excludes relief for a deliberate act.  Particularly, when, as here, that act seems well-motivated; e.g., to avoid unnecessary cost to both sides (as well as the judiciary).

Again, here, the result nonetheless seems defensible.  Counsel should have known better.

But the Court of Appeal's dicta might perhaps be less categorical as well.