Monday, February 28, 2022

People v. Phillips (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 28, 2022)

I'm used to seeing 70+ opinions in murder cases -- typically, death penalty cases -- in the California Supreme Court.  It's less common to see them in the Court of Appeal, where (as here) the defendant "merely" receives a life sentence (albeit LWOP).

Michael Phillips murdered a 75-year old man who was already dying of late-stage lung cancer.  His motive was the classic one:  money.

For the first dozen or so pages of the opinion, Justice Stewart recites the facts of the case in exhaustive detail, but my overall reaction was:  "Seriously?  That's all they've got on the defendant?  This seems like an incredibly shaky case."

But then I read the next ten pages.  At which point I got it.  Yeah, I can totally see why Mr. Phillips was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.  No eyewitnesses or confession or anything like that; the victim was killed at his home, and his body wasn't discovered for several days.  But the evidence against Mr. Phillips was nonetheless fairly damning.

Deliberately taking the life of another person for money seems a particularly heartless crime.  Sadly, however, that's not a rare motive.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Balistreri v. Balistreri (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 24, 2022)

If, perchance, you want to know everything there is to know about how you can modify a trust agreement -- in particular, whether you're required to get the signatures notarized -- this is definitely the opinion for you.

Spoiler alert, though:  Both the majority and the concurrence agree that when the trust instrument says quite clearly that any amendment "shall be . . . acknowledged by a notary public," well, yeah, if you want to get the thing amended, you've got to get those signatures notarized.

Perhaps, especially, when -- as here -- the amendment happens the day before the guy dies.

A fact that's technically irrelevant to the holding but that nonetheless may provide some color as to why the panel (like the trial court) was eminently persuaded that the amendment here was ineffective.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

In re Darien R. & S.S. (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 24, 2022)

It's a testament to the times in which we live that in both of these published opinions today, (1) a mother is using methamphetamine (sometimes, daily), and (2) we take her kids away, permanently.

In the first case, the mother was horribly addicted to methamphetamine and both she and the father were using it every day.  Three kids.  In the second case, the mother had her parental rights terminated after the police saw her pushing her four-month old baby around in a stroller (1) at midnight, (2) when it was below 50 degrees outside.

Not fantastic parenting.  At all.

You'd hope that cases like this would be incredibly sporadic (or, preferably, non-existent).  Rather than twice in a single day.

And that's only the published ones.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Dow v. Lassen Irrigation Co. (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 23, 2022)

Justice Robie's opinion is spot on.  Indeed, I can summarize this 14-page missive in a single paragraph (of my own creation):

"The watermaster appointed by a court pursuant to a judgment doesn't have standing to appeal a decision of a trial court giving water to a particular person; instead, the other landowners (if any) thereby deprived of water are the only ones who might be able to appeal. Even if the trial court's decision seems wrong, or makes the watermaster's job more difficult, that doesn't matter -- the watermaster is getting paid for its work, so more work simply means more money, and that's not harm.  In any event, if the watermaster doesn't like the burden, it can quit.  Because it's not harm, it doesn't have standing, so the watermaster's appeal of the decision below is hereby dismissed."

There you have it.

Or, as we sometimes say on the basketball court, "No blood, no foul."

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Grand Canyon Trust v. Provencio (9th Cir. - Feb. 23, 2022)

With the long weekend, there hasn't been much from the Ninth Circuit or California Court of Appeal lately.  But this morning, I read this opinion, which struck me as a fairly good example of "balls and strikes" jurisprudence.

The case involves uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, and whether it should continue.  Now, personally, I'm not exactly thrilled that we're puking out radioactive material alongside one of the natural wonders of the world.  So if you asked me whether it was worth it (as a society to do so), I don't have a definite sense one way or the other (without knowing more), but would lean towards a "Nah, let's leave the place pristine" vote.

But, as a judge, that's not what one does.  You gotta follow the law.  And the law here is admittedly disputed and unclear, but what we gotta do is simply try to figure out what it says the best way we can -- regardless of where it leads.

Legally, the limited question here is whether, under a particular statute, it's okay to ignore sunk costs when deciding whether particular mineral deposits are valuable.  The relevant law withdrew certain public lands from mineral exploitation (including those here), but also says that companies that own existing claims there get to continue to exploit them if there are "valuable mining deposits" there.  So one thing you've got to do to figure out if the deposits are (in fact) "valuable" is to figure out if it'll cost more to dig 'em out of the ground than the deposits are worth.  'Cause if not, then the deposits aren't (practically) valuable.

Easy enough, at least in theory.  But here, some of the expenses that'd be involved in mining the stuff have already been expended -- roads, the first fifty feet of the mine, etc.  We call those "sunk" costs -- a term that's somewhat ironic (but particularly appropriate) given that we're talking in part about a mine shaft.  Do you count those costs as part of the relevant costs?  Or do you ignore them since they were already spent?

That's the legal issue in the appeal.

On that point, I have a definite sense of what's right.  You ignore them.  The money has already been spent.  You can't get it back.  If it only costs, say, $10 million more of drilling to get $50 million worth of gold, it doesn't matter that you previously spent $45 million to get where you are.  It's worth it to spend the $10 million.  So the minerals are valuable.  (Even though, in retrospect, you shouldn't have started the project in the first place.  That ship has already sailed.)

Here, that fact's dispositive.  Since it means that the uranium is, in fact, valuable.  Which means it gets mined.  Even though I'd probably prefer that it not be.  The law's the law.  (And I say that even without the Chevron deference that the panel applies here; in my view, even wholly on the merits, it's a basic and sound economic principle that you ignore sunk costs, so that's the right way to resolve things even if the relevant agency hadn't already spoken on the point.)

I'm not saying that every case gets resolved purely on the meaning of words, without consideration at all of the underlying result.  That's not, in fact, the case.

But this is a good example, to me, of one that properly does.

P.S. - Unexplored in the opinion is how you resolve this issue for materials the value of which can (and does) wildly fluctuate.  For example, here, the company started the mining process when uranium was expensive, but stopped once it became cheap.  Then, when that commodity became expensive again (at the time, $56/pound), wanted to restart, and that's the price at which the cost/benefit ratio was assessed in this opinion.

But for what it's worth, up until about six months ago, uranium prices had fallen again, and were back down to $30/pound.  Which may well mean that the mineral isn't "valuable" any longer.  So does that mean the lands were withdrawn at that point?  And what about now, when the price (in September) spiked up to $50/pound, and has now settled at around $45/pound.  Still "valuable"?  Or no longer valuable?  How do these things work out when commodity prices fluctuate, as they invariably do?  No clue, but interesting.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Rogers v. Dzurenda (9th Cir. - Feb. 14, 2022)

The three different opinions in this death penalty case -- four, if you count Judge Hurwitz twice -- take various different approaches.  But I can summarize the one point on which they all agree in a single sentence:

"Are we seriously appointing lawyers to defend people in death penalty cases who passed the bar four months ago?!"

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

People v. Clements (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 16, 2022)

Defendant asked her ex-husband to kill her brother, and he did so.  That's pretty rare.  Usually you don't kill your brother.  Even then, you usually don't get your ex-husband to do it.

Also unusual:  the brother was only 16 years old.  Not your typical murder victim.

Add to the complexity:  The motive for the murder was, in part, the prior sexual relationship.  Between the sister.  And the brother.  And the ex-husband.  All three.

For these and other sordid details, check out the opinion.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

People v. Reynoza (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 14, 2022)

The Court of Appeal reverses Raymond Reynoza's conviction for dissuading a witness on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  That's a fairly huge win for the guy.  It means he's released from prison and can't be retried, right?

Except for one thing -- something not mentioned anywhere in the opinion.  Mr. Reynoza was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison in 2019.  It's now 2022.  They guy's already out.  With the various extensions of time for the filing of briefs and the reporter's transcripts, the appeal didn't even get heard (much less decided) until pretty much everything was basically already mooted by the passage of time.

Does that make the appeal moot?  No.  Not legally.  It would still (potentially) count as a strike if Mr. Reynoza was convicted of anything in the future, he might still be supervised after his release, etc.

Nonetheless, as a practical matter, even a "huge win" by Mr. Reynoza in the Court of Appeal isn't all that huge after all.  He might not have (legally) done the crime, but already served his time.

Monday, February 14, 2022

People v. Alvarez (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 14, 2022)

You can see why Justice Perluss comes out the way he does in this case. given the questions that were asked and the way the issues were framed.

But the questions that aren't answered are, in my mind, at least as important as the ones that are asked and answered.

(1) The Court of Appeal squarely holds that the first question that the prosecution asked at trial didn't violate Miranda because, technically, the question was simply "Did you ask the defendant if the bag was his?" and the answer was "Well, I didn't, but my partner did."  (I'm simplifying the exchange .)  Okay, yes, technically, at least in light of the answer, the question didn't call for anything the defendant said, so there was no Miranda violation.

But the second question ("What'd the defendant say in response?) definitely called for something protected by Miranda -- at least if he was in custody, which he pretty clearly was, I suspect.  But to that, the Court of Appeal says:  "But there was no objection to that question, so the issue is forfeited."

Which is probably correct as a legal matter.

But it doesn't answer the underlying question:  Was there a Miranda violation or not?  And since that's still an issue, it'll come back again:  this time, as an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  A fairly good one, at that, since there was zero tactical reason not to object to that second question as well.

So, yeah, the Court of Appeal elides the issue for now, but it doesn't really answer the relevant question, which is something they'll have to deal with at some point anyway.

(2) There's a similar thing going on with respect to the "Does wearing a mask during COVID violate the Confrontation Clause" issue.  Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal holds that wearing a mask is fine -- a holding consistent with pretty much every other court to have decided the issue.

That answers the question of whether wearing a mask is permissible.

But the real question -- a much harder one, in my mind -- is whether wearing a non-transparent mask during COVID violates the Confrontation Clause.  There's no doubt wearing a mask that blocks one's view of the mouth and a big portion of the face makes it more difficult (though not impossible) for a jury to decide credibility, which is the whole point of the Confrontation Clause in the first place.  And there's also no doubt that transparent masks are readily available -- ones that would obviate that problem -- and that these masks are likely just as effective at preventing COVID as the cloth and other masks that people are permitted to wear.

So the though question is whether, so framed, there's a Confrontation Clause violation.  Yeah, the state can order people to wear masks.  But if a defendant says "I want the jury to see your whole face; here's a transparent mask, wear that one," is there really a state interest in saying "Nope, the witness is free to obscure half of his face while testifying (and do so behind a plexiglass shield, even) despite the fact there's not really a state interest in making sure the mask isn't transparent?"  That seems the much tougher -- and dispositive -- issue.

Those are the two questions neither asked nor answered in today's opinion.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Kirk v. Ratner (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 10, 2022)

Maybe it's that I'm simply in the wrong field, but until a couple of years ago, I wasn't at all used to seeing settlement agreements in which each of the parties deliberately used fake names on these documents.  Yet nowadays, I stumble across a non-trivial number of cases where, yeah, that's apparently an accepted and common practice.

Take this opinion from earlier today, for example.  Personally, I've never heard of the actress in this case (Charlotte Kirk) -- though, apparently, things involving her caused quite a stir in the movie studio world at some point.  To keep everything quiet, the parties used completely fake names on all their underlying legal documents.  To no avail, ultimately.  As this latest published opinion (using their real names) amply reflects.

I know the whole "confidential settlement" thing is a hot topic these days.  There are definite upsides and downsides to the practice.

Ultimately, just remember that even if you think the stuff is supposed to remain confidential, that doesn't always end up being the case.

No matter how much you try and how many lawyers you employ.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Joseph v. City of Atwater (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 9, 2022)

It looks like Samuel Joseph won't be the chief of police of the City of Atwater any longer, but he might perhaps be a lieutenant on the force -- at least if he wins the hearing to which the Court of Appeal holds he's entitled.  (Plus, presumably, back pay for all those years he was previously off the force.)

The opinion doesn't mention them (at all), but here are some of the allegations against Mr. Joseph.  Maybe they're true, maybe they're not.  I guess we'll eventually find out in the hearing.

But either way -- and even if they're true -- I suspect that Mr. Joseph will get a fair chunk of change.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

U.S. v. Mendoza (9th Cir. - Feb. 8, 2022)

Here's one of those rare opinions that reverses a criminal conviction -- several of them, actually -- for insufficient evidence.

Judge Bea's opinion is pretty darn comprehensive, as well as persuasive.  It's far from a clear-cut case, but I think Judge Bea is spot on in his (extensive) evaluation of the evidence on both sides.  (With one caveat:  I'd have liked to read a bit more discussion of the "police scanner" fact, which the opinion mentions but pretty much otherwise elides.)

I also liked the opening gambit of the opinion, which reads:  "Every parent knows that teenagers make mistakes. A fifteen-year-old Henry Mendoza was no exception, though his error was far more serious than most."  That's a sentiment far too uncommon in modern parlance -- judicial and otherwise.

Even after the opinion, Mr. Mendoza's still convicted of a federal offense. But he's going to serve a lot less time than the 15 years in prison for which he was originally sentenced.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

People v. Mendoza (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 3, 2022)

You don't see many appellate decisions these days involving the crime of extortion.  Some, of course, but not many.  Maybe that's because it doesn't happen all that much.  Maybe it's because practitioners usually get away with it.  Whatever the reason, I simply haven't thought about that particular crime much.

But today's opinion involves a defendant convicted for extortion, and Judge Harutunian (sitting from San Diego) writes something that suggests -- quite accurately, I think -- that the line between "extortion" and simple "robbery" is often an incredibly narrow one.

Take, as here, a guy who walks up to someone and says (in sum or substance) "Give me $100 or I'll beat you."  Sounds like a fairly typical robbery, eh?  But it can also sound like a classic attempt at extortion -- in particular, a demand for payment of "protection" money.

So which is it?  Or is it both?  Regardless, what's the legal distinction?

Here, it seems like it's extortion -- which is what the defendant is in fact convicted of -- if only because the defendant did the same thing to the victim repeatedly and on a schedule (i.e., here, on the first of every month).  That seems clearly a protection racket and, hence, extortion.

But imagine it was only the first time he did it.  And, perhaps, that it was simply a one-time thing:  pay me $100 now or I'll hurt you.  Robbery?  Extortion?  Totally hard to tell.

I'm not certain at all that I can come up with an actual "rule" to distinguish the two crimes, honestly.  I have a keen sense that I know extortion (as opposed to robbery) when I see it, at least in its most classic manifestations.  But were prosecutors to charge someone with extortion in the classic robbery setting -- e.g., the prototypical "mugging" scenario -- I'm not sure I could come up with good arguments for why one crime is the one and the other crime is the other.

There's got to be a difference, that I know:  we don't (and can't) have entirely duplicative crimes.  But what the difference actually is here honestly escapes me.

Perhaps smarter others can figure it out.  But as for me, I remain befuddled.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Panterra GP v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 31, 2022)

Justice Smith begins his dissent by saying: "I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion. The majority, in this rather straightforward case, has gone to great lengths to reverse the trial judge, when the latter correctly resolved this case . . . ."

I like the first sentence, in which the "respectfully" part actually appears respectful (as opposed to sarcastic), but am less certain about the second one.

Yes, the majority opinion (written by Justice Poochigian) reverses, and yes, it seems to fix a problem that pervaded the case.  But I'm not sure it does so erroneously.

Plaintiff says the parties accidentally wrote down the wrong name on the contract and that, as a result, the actual plaintiff (the one who did the work) can't get paid a dime.  That seems plausible to me; I could see that happening sometimes, and (perhaps) particularly in this context.  If that in fact transpired, that's not right, and the law should grant a remedy; something we call reformation.  And that's what the majority opinion says might in fact happen.

No one's saying that plaintiff's definitely right; we're at the pleading stage here.  But if they're right, the law seems to me both can and should grant a remedy.  Writing in the wrong name isn't fatal.  And that's true regardless of the fact that the prior lawyers initially filed a complaint -- presumably relying on the name written in the contract -- on behalf of the wrong name.

It's a fact question.  Let summary judgment and/or trial sort it out.

Even if that means writing a somewhat lengthy majority opinion to allow that to happen.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Zannini v. Liker (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 31, 2022)

This is a medical malpractice case in which the plaintiff becomes a paraplegic, and while the case against most of the defendants gets resolved (one way or the other) before trial, one of the doctors goes to trial and prevails.  The Court of Appeal subsequently affirms.

Nonetheless, when reading the opinion, I gotta say that I don't come away from the thing thinking that that the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Santa Clarita is necessarily the place to which I want to go if I'm in a life-critical situation.  Events like these are definitely troubling to me:

"Mr. Zannini was paralyzed. “I can’t feel my body.” Mrs. Zannini called 911 and the paramedics came within 10 minutes of the call. They took Mr. Zannini by ambulance to the emergency room at Henry Mayo Medical Center in Newhall, where his initial surgery had been performed 11 days earlier. He arrived in the emergency room at 5:25 p.m. . . .

Upon arrival, Mr. Zannini was seriously compromised. He was acutely paralyzed with no motor strength and had no sensation from the nipple line down. He had no anal reflex. He had a priapism (an involuntary erection), a slow heartbeat, and low blood pressure. Dr. Lee knew time is of the essence in every patient who is paralyzed. At 5:26 p.m. she called a Code Trauma . . . .

Dr. Lee ordered the MRI scans at 6:11 p.m. The plan was to determine if there was pathology that could be corrected by surgery. The MRI scanner was located in a separate building which required medical staff to transport Mr. Zannini out of the emergency room, across a street. and into another building about 300 yards away. The MRI team had to be summoned to the hospital. The MRI technician arrived at 6:50 p.m.

In the meantime, Mr. Zannini was in the emergency room experiencing, in addition to his paralysis, difficulty breathing, severely low heartbeat, and low blood pressure. . . .  However, the MRI technicians could not take Mr. Zannini to the MRI suite and put him into the scanner unless he was medically stable; to remain stable, Mr. Zannini needed the Levophed infusion during the MRI. The Levophed pump had to be MRI compatible. The hospital did not have a compatible pump readily available. By the time hospital staff located a compatible pump and Mr. Zannini was stabilized, it was 7:40 p.m. when he was finally transported to the MRI scanner. While Dr. Lee was trying to stabilize Mr. Zannini’s blood pressure and staff looked for a compatible pump, Dr. Liker called Dr. Mortazavi at 6:00 pm. to brief him on what was happening . . . .

He, Dr. Liker, and Dr. Yashar reviewed the MRI scans on their phones. Dr. Mortazavi called the operating room and the emergency room and told the staff to prep Mr. Zannini for surgery and to be prepared to start surgery at 10:00 p.m. when he arrived. Dr. Mortazavi received a response from the hospital that the operating room was not going to be available for Mr. Zannini’s emergency surgery until 11:00 p.m. because there was another operation in progress that would not be finished until then. Mr. Mortazavi asked staff to bring in a second operating room team; he was told that would take even longer.

Both Dr. Liker and Dr. Mortazavi separately called the hospital to no avail to try to expedite the surgery. Dr. Liker called Mrs. Zannini to tell her that Dr. Mortazavi had decided on surgery. Dr. Mortazavi called the hospital and told staff to have Mr. Zannini in the operating room ready to proceed when he arrived.

Now that he knew he could not start surgery until 11:00 p.m., Dr. Mortazavi drove a little more slowly and arrived at the hospital at around 10:50 p.m. He was dismayed to find that Mr. Zannini was still in the emergency room, not yet in the operating room as he had requested. He yelled at the staff. Eventually Mr. Zannini was taken to the operating room where Dr. Mortazavi commenced surgery at 11:35 p.m. and removed the blood clot."

Not exactly what you want to happen when what's at stake is whether you're going to be paralyzed for the rest of your life, eh?