Depublication orders usually aren’t exactly the most earthshaking thing on the California Supreme Court’s weekly conference summaries. Nevertheless, I took particular notice of one on last week’s summary: Dattani v. Lee. Dattani is worthy of note for a couple of reasons. First, the Court took the unusual step of depublishing the Court of Appeal’s opinion on its own motion – nobody had filed a depub request. Second (and more importantly), Dattani underlines one of the most important lessons in all of appellate law (see the end of this post for the takeaway).
It’s not uncommon for those of us in the defense bar to find that a common legal theory serves as the foundation for many but not all of a plaintiff’s claims. If the trial court rejects that theory pre-trial, the plaintiff faces a dilemma: go to trial with what are often sideshow claims before getting appellate review, or seek an interlocutory appeal.
Every jurisdiction has various avenues to possible interlocutory review; in California, it’s usually through a petition for writ of mandate, while in Illinois, Rules 304, 306, 307 or 308 might serve, depending on the facts. But the thing is, in most cases, review is discretionary. The appellate court can simply refuse to hear the matter – and usually, that’s exactly what happens. Interlocutory orders that are reviewable as of right are rare.
To understand the significance of Dattani, it’s necessary to briefly revisit a major decision the Supreme Court handed down last year: Kurwa v. Kislinger. In Kurwa, the plaintiff sued for breach of fiduciary duty and assorted related claims. The parties traded claims and cross-claims for defamation.
Before trial, the court held that once the parties formed a corporation, they didn’t owe each other any fiduciary duties. That was pretty much that for the fiduciary duty count and all the related stuff. But there was nothing final about the ruling: the defamation counts were still viable.
So the parties worked out a deal. The plaintiff dismissed the fiduciary duty and related claims with prejudice. Both parties dismissed their defamation claims without prejudice and swapped waivers of the statute of limitations. Then off the plaintiff went to the Court of Appeal.
Ultimately, it didn’t work. The Supreme Court pointed out that given the statute of limitations waiver, the parties were apparently planning to go right back to court regardless of what happened on appeal, so the dismissals weren’t final and appealable.
Fast forward to Dattani.
Dattani arose from a four-count complaint. In 2012, the trial court granted the defendant summary adjudication on the first count. When the defendant appeared for trial in September 2012 on the remaining claims, the plaintiff’s attorney said he was dismissing those claims to pursue an appeal.
The request for dismissal was filed on the proper Judicial Council form. The court’s register of actions for that day stated that “a dismissal of all the other causes of action” had been filed and removed the matter from the master calendar. But the section of the Judicial Council form for the clerk to note whether dismissal had been entered as requested was never filled in.
Seven months later, on April 16, 2013, the trial court filed a take-nothing judgment prepared by the plaintiffs’ counsel stating that the “remaining causes of action” had been dismissed on September 10. On May 6 – less than thirty days later – the plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal.
The defendants moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the plaintiff’s mere request for dismissal of all remaining claims was the equivalent of a final judgment as of the day it was filed – in September 2012, long before the notice of appeal was filed. The Court of Appeal agreed.
There’s a line of cases going back thirty years allowing plaintiffs or cross-plaintiffs to in essence manufacture finality after losing on a key point of law by voluntarily dismissing the remaining claims. The rationale is that even though voluntary dismissals aren’t generally appealable, in such cases it’s not really a voluntary act – it amounts to a request for entry of judgment on the adverse ruling of law.
The Court of Appeal concluded that Kurwa isn’t to the contrary. Sure, the Supreme Court refused to allow an appeal from a voluntary dismissal, but in the Dattani court’s view, finality hadn’t been destroyed in Kurwa by the voluntary dismissal itself – the problem was the mutual statute of limitations waivers.
Bottom line, the Dattani court held, even though no judgment was filed until seven months later, the mere filing of the notice of voluntary dismissal, coupled with the earlier loss on the pretrial order, amounted to a final and appealable judgment. Since that happened in September 2012 and the notice of appeal wasn’t filed until May 2013, the notice of appeal was untimely, and the appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Although the Supreme Court regularly reminds us that an order to depublish isn’t an expression of their opinion one way or the other about the Court of Appeal’s opinion, it seems clear that the Supreme Court didn’t want a published Dattani opinion knocking around in the Official Reports. Nevertheless, the takeaway seems clear. Consider the Dattani facts one more time. There was no judgment entered at the time the Court of Appeal says finality happened. The plaintiff had filed a notice of dismissal, but the section of the form reserved for the clerk to note that dismissal had actually occurred hadn’t been filled in. The only indication anywhere (apparently) that the court staff regarded the matter as concluded was the register of actions.
A timely notice of appeal is jurisdictional everyplace I’m aware of. In most jurisdictions, there’s no remedy for an untimely filing; even in places where one exists, it’s extremely limited.
So if you’re even in the same zip code as anything that seems remotely like the end of the line in a case, extraordinary caution is called for. Confirm everything, assume nothing, and check everywhere (remember that register of actions from Dattani). Finality – and the possible tolling of the time to appeal – is an intricate area of the law. Nevertheless, it’s a question counsel has to get right.
Image courtesy of Flickr by John Morgan.