Friday, June 05, 2015

Maroney v. Iacobson (Cal. Ct. App. - June 4, 2015)

Here's a really good example of nineteenth century justice.

Plaintiff moves for a new trial after the jury returns its verdict, and the trial court thinks the motion is well founded.  But for complicated procedural reasons, the trial court isn't certain that the motion's timely.

The trial court accordingly decides to "conditionally grant" the new trial motion, saying that it thinks that the motion is right on the merits, but that it wasn't filed in time -- but that if the Court of Appeal disagrees on the (difficult) timeliness issue, then the motion's granted.

This leaves both of the parties in somewhat of a pickle.  Who exactly is the "losing" party here?  Is it the plaintiff, since the motion was only "conditionally" granted?  Or is it the defendant?

To play it safe, both parties appeal.  Which makes sense.

The Court of Appeal ultimately decides that the motion was, in fact, timely.  And publishes its opinion so holding.

So the plaintiff gets its new trial, right?


The Court of Appeal says that the trial court was wrong that the motion was untimely.  So plaintiff was right on that front.  But what the trial court did was a "nullity" since you're not allowed to "conditionally" grant new trials.

Okay.  I get that the trial court did something wrong.  But the plaintiff (1) timely moved for a new trial, and (2) was right on the merits.  So it gets a new trial.

Not according to the Court of Appeal.  It says that there was conflicting evidence at trial, so the plaintiff did not demonstrate that the jury verdict necessarily lacked substantial evidence to support it.  Hence the Court of Appeal couldn't reverse the denial of a new trial by the trial court.

But wait.  The trial court granted a new trial.  It thought that the verdict was contrary to the evidence.  And it's expressly allowed to act as a "thirteenth juror" when deciding new trial motions.  Which is what it did in the present case.  So what's all this about the Court of Appeal not being "allowed" to accept the verdict of the trial judge.  The one judicial officer who was there at trial and who could view (and weigh) the evidence and the credibility of the various witnesses?

Sorry, says the Court of Appeal.  The trial court didn't "really" grant a new trial.  It only "conditionally" granted it in the event the motion was timely.  Which, as the Court of Appeal explained, was a "nullity".  Hence the trial court "really" denied the motion for a new trial.  Which we're required to affirm because the trial court's "denial" of a new trial was supported by some evidence.

That's just crazy.

The trial court admittedly got confused as to what procedure to employ.  But what it held is crystal clear.  It thought the motion was untimely -- a matter of law.  But it also forthrightly recognized that its conclusion on that legal issue might well be wrong.  So it expressly said that, on the merits, it would grant a new trial, were it allowed to do so.

The Court of Appeal turns that into a denial of a new trial on the merits, and then pretends that such a view of the evidence is protected from review on appeal.

Which ain't right.

Imagine that the trial court had said -- in identical circumstances -- "I think the new trial motion's right, but I'm uncertain whether it's timely, but just to play it safe, I'm going to grant the motion, and if the defendant is right on the legal point, they'll win on appeal."  If the trial court had done that, there's no doubt that the Court of Appeal's decision would have to go the other way, and plaintiff would get its new trial.  The motion was timely, and the trial court's decision to grant a new trial despite the timeliness fight would be reviewed for abuse of discretion, and unquestionably affirmed.

The difference between this "hypothetical" and what the trial court did here is insubstantial.  It should make no difference whether the trial court got the timeliness issue -- an issue of law -- right or wrong.  It decided the merits one way.  It decided the timeliness issue another.  If the latter's wrong, then we should grant a new trial.  Period.  Doesn't matter whether the trial court decided the close (legal) issue one way or the other.  If the motion's timely (which it was), and the trial court was within its discretion to grant a new trial (which it was), a new trial should be granted.

Nineteenth century courts routinely elevated form over substance in the way the Court of Appeal does here.  But I thought we were beyond that.  I understand that new trial motions have strict procedural requirements.  But when the trial court (rightly) decides the merits, and simply wrongly decides a legal issue, that's doesn't vitiate the exercise of its discretion on the merits.  If the legal issue comes out the other way on appeal, the trial court's grant of a new trial should be effectuated, not negated by an artificial (and unjust) claim that the Court of Appeal is compelled to deny a new trial on the basis of "deference" to a denial on the merits that does not, in fact, exist.

The Court of Appeal decides to persist in its erroneous course even after a rehearing.  That's unfortunate.  It's not twenty-first century justice.