Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hoopes v. Dolan (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 12, 2008)

It's always informative when California does something differently than the federal system. It's especially interesting when the difference involves something (as here) in which the divergence may be explained at least in part by the differential treatment of a historical relic. Which, in the present case, involves the time-honored -- and yet largely (but not entirely) abandoned -- distinction between law and equity.

I admit that I've always been interested in the lingering consequences of this historical difference, as I grew up (as most of us did) in the modern era, in which separate law and equity courts were (thankfully) merely a thing of the past. The distinction is still relevant, of course, in a number of different areas, the most important of which is whether you're entitled to a jury trial, but for the most part, you can go through life just fine with only a dim appreciation for the complexities occasionally engendered by the difference between law and equity (and, by implication, legal and equitable claims).

But sometimes, you gotta know more. And getting the answer right isn't easy. Like here.

When equitable issues are intertwined with a legal dispute (for example, when there are equitable defenses to a legal claim -- as there often are), it's an interesting issue as to which claims should be resolved first, as the first claims resolved may be preclusive of the other. California has a strong preference for resolving the equitable claims first; i.e., for having the judge adjudicate those things. The theory being that resolution of these judge-decided issues may obviate the need for a trial. By contrast, the federal system has a strong preference for resolving the legal claims first; i.e., for having the jury decide. The theory being that the right to a jury trial is important -- indeed, of constitutional magnitude -- and shouldn't generally be taken away by a judge. These two systems correctly identify and understand the interests at stake, but nonetheless come to competing conclusions. Which is always fun.

It gets especially interesting when, as here, the law/equity distinction intertwines with other relatively complex judicial doctrines; here, issue preclusion (a.k.a. collateral estoppel). Justice Sepulveda does a very good job explaining the resulting difficulties in a way that even non-procedure junkies can understand. Which is no small feat. And it's an important contribution as well, since even from reading this single case, one can garner the strong impression that one or more of the parties might have done things a bit differently had they fully understood the implications of what the initial jury instructions/findings might have on the subsequent disputes on the equitable defenses.

So for anyone who doesn't fully grasp what the judiciary does (or should do) in the relatively common cases in which both legal and equitable claims are raised, this is a very good opinion to read. I have a strong suspicion that virtually anyone who reads it will learn something. And can think of no higher praise for an opinion.