Friday, December 20, 2019

City of Desert Hot Springs v. Valenti (Cal. Ct. App. - Dec. 19, 2019)

I'm a little befuddled by the last line of this opinion.

There's a motel in the City of Desert Hot Springs that's an alleged nuisance, so the City files a suit against its owner to abate the thing.  There are a couple of different defendants (one with a lien, etc.), but all of them get dismissed fairly quickly, which left only the owner of the motel as a defendant.  And as far as I can tell from the docket and the Court of Appeal's opinion, the owner (Irene Valenti) never gets a lawyer, never appears in the lawsuit; basically, does nothing at all.  Which is consistent, I suspect, with letting the dilapidated motel fall into total disrepair.  Just ignore the thing.  Not worth it.

But the City wants to appoint a receiver to repair the motel and then sell it, which requires court approval.  So it files a motion.  Which, again, as far as I can tell, no one at all opposes.

But the trial court says (essentially):  "Hold on.  This falling-down five-room motel in the middle of the desert is a total craphole.  It doesn't make any sense to me to appoint a receiver, pay money to repair and refurbish the thing, and then try to sell it.  This One Star At Best Motel In The Desert would cost more to repair than it'd ever be worth.  Total waste of money.  Give me a supplemental brief, City, on why your proposal makes any sense at all."

So the City submits its supplemental brief trying to argue that its proposal makes economic sense.  And, again, no one files an opposition.  But the trial court's not persuaded.  It refuses to appoint a receiver and dismisses the lawsuit.

The City appeals.  The Court of Appeal concludes that, at this preliminary (appointment of the receiver) stage, the trial judge shouldn't have addressed the merits.  So reverses and remands.

Okay.  I'm fine with that.

But the last line of the opinion says:  "The City shall recover its costs on appeal."

I get that the City's the prevailing party.  And that, normally, the prevailing party is entitled to costs.

But the defendant never showed up.  She didn't argue against the appointment of the receiver below.  She didn't argue against the appointment of the receiver on appeal.  She was, apparently, totally fine with all of the above.  It was the trial court, acting on its own, that refused to appoint the receiver.  I know we're not going to impose costs against the trial judge.  But I really wonder whether it's fair to impose costs against someone for an appeal they had no role in creating.  When you don't oppose a lawsuit, or a motion therein, or the resulting appeal of the trial court's sua sponte denial of such an (unopposed) motion, I would think that the general equitable rule should be that the parties should typically bear their own costs on appeal.

Even if, under the rules, the Court of Appeal is permitted, in its discretion, to do otherwise.

I don't blame the City from wanting to tear the thing down (or make it habitable).  I don't blame the City for filing the motion for a receiver, or for appealing the trial court's refusal to do so.

But I also don't blame Ms. Valenti for the resulting appeal.  At least if I'm reading the docket right, and she didn't oppose the motion either below or on appeal.

All this may be practically irrelevant.  I suspect that Ms. Valenti is not Donald Trump, and that the motel at issue is not Mar-A-Lago, and hence there's not going to be enough money to go around to pay a cost award anyway.

But still.  No reason not to do the right thing initially.

I'd have the parties bear their own costs on the appeal.