Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Vesco v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 6, 2013)

Here's a "loophole" -- some would say, "scam" -- that I'm glad the Court of Appeal (largely) closed.

It's a result of unambiguously good intentions.  California Rule of Court 1.100 requires courts to grant accommodations to disabled people.  Rightly so.  It also says that requests for accommodations are generally confidential.  Again, for good reason.  Just because you want an accommodation doesn't mean everyone's suddenly entitled to view the expansive details of your medical condition.  Sure, the judge who reads the papers, law clerks, and the like get to know the details.  But no one else.

All this makes sense.

It also makes sense that "accommodations" can potentially include continuances of trials.  You can see why.  If you're, say, hit by a car, and can't make it to your trial because you're in the hospital, it makes sense to have a rule that says that a court must accommodate your disability.  Good policy.

Which leads to the loophole.  Amply demonstrated by this case.

David Vesco buys a home.  He's in long-term relationship with Tawne Newcomb at the time.  But David pays for the house entirely himself.

Their relationship ends.  But -- David alleges -- Tawne now has sole possession of the home, and won't leave.  Even though it's completely his.

So he sues to get his house back.

Fair enough.  Disputes like this happen all the time.  That's why we have courts.

Admittedly, our courts are super backlogged.  So David's got to wait a year-plus to actually get a trial date.  During which Tawne gets to continue to live in the house rent-free.

Not optimal.  But it happens.  At least David's eventually going to get his trial.  Which is scheduled for April 22, 2013.

Except once April comes, Tawne files an ex parte "motion for accommodation" with the trial court.  Saying that she's got a disability, and for that reason, requests that the trial be continued.

Tawne surely serves the motion on David, right?  Both because he's (1) adversely impacted by the requested continuance, and (2) should have an opportunity to oppose the thing if he wants?

Nope.  Tawne says she doesn't have to.  Because all this stuff is "confidential" under Rule 1.100.

The trial court agrees.  And accordingly continues the trial until June.  The first David knows about the thing is when he gets the minute order from the court.  At which point he's in no position to do anything anyway.

But at least he's getting a trial in June.

Except he's not.

'Cause guess what happens in June?

You know it.  Tawne did it again.  Requesting another continuance of the trial on the basis of her alleged disability.  Saying, yet again, that David was not entitled to view anything at all about this request.  Not the motion, not any underlying documents, not anything.  All confidential.

The trial court agrees.  Continuing the trial, yet again, until August.

David says that Tawne's a big faker.  Constantly filing false affidavits (which he thinks he can prove in spades), making up false injuries, etc.  So he wants to be able to oppose her request.  Which he can't do if he doesn't even know about the thing, or provided with an opportunity to be heard.

So David files a writ.

Which the Court of Appeal grants.

Justice Gilbert's opinion not only makes total sense from a policy perspective, but also as a pure matter of statutory interpretation.  Rule 1.100 says that only those people "involved in the accommodation process" are allowed to see the relevant confidential materials.  Of course that includes judges and other judicial staff.  It also properly includes opposing parties.  At least when, as here, they're affected by the request at issue; i.e., the proposed continuance.  They're "involved" in the process because they're "involved" in the lawsuit.  So they're entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard on the motion.  Which includes actually getting a copy of the thing.

That's part of the rule.  That's part of justice.  That's part -- an important part -- of what "due process" entails.

So good job by the Court of Appeal granting the writ and publishing the opinion.

Because I'm certain that Tawne's not the only litigant who's figured out this trick.