Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reedy v. Bussell (Cal. Ct. App. - March 27, 2007)

I'm glad that Justice Bedsworth (belatedly) decided to publish this opinion. If only to tell the universe that large components of the Bussell family -- John Bussell, Letantia Bussell, and their son Todd Bussell -- appear to be total jerks, and the kind of people with whom one would prefer to have nothing to do. And that's saying a lot, since I was initially somewhat inclined to be sympathetic to the family, especially since John Bussell committed suicide in 2002.

You'll have to read the opinion to see just how pervasively abusive these family members seem to be. Their misconduct allegedly entailed not merely the underlying transactions -- basically the alleged theft of money from a trust, $20,000 of which was spent on European "study abroad" trips for the Bussell daughters and $200,000 paid to an attorney representing John and Letantia on criminal fraud and tax evasion charges -- but also their pervasive abuse and misconduct during the litigation process. Simply put, these individuals were the litigants from hell: the kind of people you hate litigating against.

Ultimately -- and totally justly -- the trial court grants terminating sanctions against Letantia and Todd. And Justice Bedsworth rightly affirms, and does so with an appropriate amount of derision towards the offending parties. So justice is eventually done.

The only thing that I wanted to add to the opinion, which is definitely worth reading, is to say that I had a tiny different reaction than Justice Bedsworth to the trial court (Judge Monarch). Justice Bedsworth explains that the trial court granted terminating sanctions only after bending over backwards towards Letantia and Todd in an attempt to assist them. The conclusion of Part III exemplifies Justice Bedsworth's approach towards the merits: "We find no abuse of the court's discretion. Indeed, we marvel at its forebearance."

I'd have potentially spelled that last word as "forbearance", but aside from that minor difference, I definitely agree with the underlying sentiment. The trial court was remarkably tolerant of Letantia and Todd -- much more than I would have been. It definitely granted terminating sanctions only after these parties had repeatedly demonstrated their utter contempt for the proper functioning of the civil judicial system, and I agree with Justice Bedsworth that far from abusing its discretion, the trial court showed remarkable restraint.

The one thing that I might add, however, is that exceptional restraint in this setting is not always a virtue. Justice Bedsworth's opinion casts the careful and deliberate nature of the trial court in a favorable light. I generally agree, but there are also real downsides here, and ones that I would have bothered to mention. When a party is, as here, utterly contemptuous, a trial court does not necessarily do justice by sitting back and, as I think Judge Monarch did here, intervening in the process only at the last possible minute. Abuse of this nature requires a more active approach: one that preserves and protects the rights of the non-abusive parties. My keen sense was that Judge Monarch basically allowed, with limited intervention, the discovery and other abuses here until the last possible moment, and only then did he effectively intervene.

Patience of this type has its virtues, but is a vice as well. Sometimes abusive parties need to be slapped down a lot quicker than they are. And, in my view, this case is a perfect example.

I'd have mentioned that fact. Yes, the trial court surely didn't abuse its discretion in granting terminating sanctions. But I'd have potentially painted the trial court a little less favorably than Justice Bedsworth does, and would surely have mentioned the need -- as well as the legitimacy -- of stepping in quickly, and in a very powerful fashion, when parties consistently engage in the type of conduct evidenced in this case.

It's nonetheless a good opinion. Read it. And be glad you weren't the lawyer who had to deal with these schmucks on the other side.