Friday, May 06, 2022

Amato v. Downs (Cal. Ct. App. - May 6, 2022)

Justice Raphael's opinion today is perfect. It's relatively short (16 pages), analytically spot on, and reaches the appropriate legal conclusion. It's exactly what you want to see the Court of Appeal do.

The California Supreme Court should nonetheless grant review and reverse the thing.

I know that's a counterintuitive conclusion given the predicate. But bear with me.

There's a ton of stuff in the opinion that I'm 100% in agreement with. The plaintiff is suing because he thinks his listing agent convinced him to his house in Rancho Mirage for less than he should. The plaintiff here is an attorney, but he's an older gentleman -- he was admitted to the bar before I was even born, and I'm 55 years old -- so he has another attorney assist him in the representation. Shortly before trial, plaintiff and his attorney screwed up some procedural stuff, so the judge on their case gets miffed and holds that, as a result of these failures, plaintiff "waived" his right to a jury trial. So the judge holds a bench trial, and at that trial, plaintiff loses badly. Plaintiff then appeals.

Justice Raphael first holds that you can't take away someone's jury trial right for procedural mistakes like the one plaintiff and his counsel made, and that's exactly right. There's a list in Section 631 of the ways in which you can lose your jury trial right, that list is exclusive, and not properly submitting the "trial binder" that the Riverside Superior Court requires isn't one of 'em. So you can sanction the plaintiff and/or his counsel, or do other stuff to them, but you can't take away their right to a jury trial. Exactly right. That's what the law fairly clearly says.

I've got zero problem with that part.

But the defendant's got a creative argument. Generally, depriving someone of their jury trial right is what we call structural error (though Justice Raphael's opinion doesn't use that term), and for structural errors, you don't have to show prejudice. Depriving someone of a jury trial is one of those things. It's not only a fundamental right, but more critically, it's basically impossible to establish error to any requisite degree of certainty. How can you "prove" that a jury would decide the case differently than a judge?

So, for structural errors, it's a per se reversal rule. Same in federal court. No showing of prejudice required before we reverse and remand for a new trial.

The wrinkle here is this: At the bench trial, the trial judge granted a nonsuit based upon plaintiff's failure of proof. Now, as Justice Raphael notes, even though everyone calls it a nonsuit, that's not technically the right term; in bench trials, it's actually a Section 631.8 motion for judgment. But the concept is basically the same thing: plaintiff didn't put forward enough evidence, so defendant's entitled to prevail.

Defendant's argument is thus, essentially, that even if there was error in depriving the plaintiff of his right to a jury trial (and, to be clear, it was), no blood, no foul, since he'd have lost anyway based upon his failure of proof. So go ahead and affirm the judgment.

The problem is -- and, again, Justice Raphael gets this exactly right -- a little thing called precedent. Lots of cases have made clear that if you're deprived of a jury trial right, that's a fundamental error and doesn't require a showing of prejudice. There are lots of Court of Appeal cases that so hold, though (obviously) this panel isn't required to follow horizontal precedent in this regard if it doesn't feel like those cases are well reasoned.

But there's also a California Supreme Court case from the nineteenth century -- In re Estate of Robinson (1895) 106 Cal.493, 496 -- that's basically on point, which reversed the decision in that case based upon the erroneous denial of the right to a jury trial, holding that “[a]s this was a right conferred upon them by statute, they did not waive it by subsequently going to trial under the order of the court, or by their failure to present evidence sufficient to secure a judgment in their favor.” That one the Court of Appeal is required to follow.

Totally makes sense. Which is why I have no problem with today's opinion.

But the California Supreme Court should nonetheless take up the case for the precise purpose of overruling that portion of In re Estate of Robinson. Yes, there was an error here. But it was harmless. Plaintiff didn't have sufficient evidence to survive a nonsuit (or at least, for present purposes, we're assuming that's true, since that's what the trial court found, and there's no current contrary finding). There's no reason to believe that plaintiff would have any additional evidence available at a jury trial that he didn't already submit at the prior bench trial. So if that evidence isn't good enough, reversing and remanding for a new trial is a meaningless (and wasteful) act. Might as well affirm the judgment now. Good for everyone -- the defendant, the system (and taxpayers), and even the plaintiff. No reason to expend private and public resources on something we know has a foregone conclusion.

Is the deprivation of a jury trial usually structural error and result in per se reversal? Yes. Should that be the rule here? Nope. It is - or at least should be -- an exception to the rule.

Notwithstanding a case from 1895 that went the other way.

It might not be an issue that comes up a billion different times. But it's been a century-plus. Time to fix that tiny little mistake. 'Cause it is, in fact, a mistake. 

And the California Supreme Court is the only one that can fix it.

(Which is also appropriate since they're the ones who made it in the first place.)