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Friday
Apr112008

Is it too difficult to return a phone call?

By the time I get involved in a case, the client has been through at least one, if not more, attorneys. Not only do I learn about the case, but I also hear about the relationship between the client and his or her attorney. Sometimes I feel like a janitor coming in after a big party and I have the task of cleaning up after the festivities are over. Or perhaps not quite over.

It wasn't too long ago that plaintiff's attorneys were concerned about their negative image with the public. The public perception of trial lawyers is generally not positive. Most of the people I talk to are angry and have lost confidence in their attorneys. It would be easy to say that they are just sore losers but I am not so convinced.

If trial lawyers are interested in improving the image of their profession, they can start with the simple things. Such as returning a phone call. That is the number one complaint that I hear. Average joes simply cannot reach their lawyers. It doesn't matter that they leave voice mail messages, fax notes, or send emails. Their lawyers are too busy.

The second major complaint is that their lawyers just don't care. That indifference can be demonstrated by a lack of preparation or by ignoring the client's efforts to provide information or evidence. Clients understand they are engaging in a business transaction but they just don't want to feel like a product.

Our image with the public could improve a couple of notches just by doing a few simple things. Return the phone call within 24-48 hours. If you can't, have your staff do it. When you talk to your client, show some concern. You might learn a few facts about the client and his or her family. Just because we are in business doesn't mean we shouldn't show a little compassion. Listen to what your client has to say. Sometimes their explanation will fill in the blanks or shed light on areas that cause us concern. After all, they lived the case.
Sunday
Apr062008

Failing to create and present a meaningful record on appeal.


Presenting a sufficient record that demonstrates error overcomes the presumption that the judgment is correct. As noted in Steuri v. Junkin (1938) 27 Cal.App.2d 758, 760, if the record is silent, the presumption of correctness will control, but where the record demonstrates what the trial court did and error below, the presumption is overcome. “When the record clearly demonstrates what the trial court did, we will not presume it did something different.” (Lafayette Morehouse, Inc. v. Chronicle Publishing Co. (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 1379, 1384.)


So, how can an attorney fail to create a meaningful record? You might have a sidebar discussion, which may include a ruling, or an in-chambers conference, that is not reported. You might withdraw certain jury instructions and fail to make those withdrawn instructions part of the record. You might give the court reporter a break and waive reporting certain aspects of the trial, such as voir dire or closing arguments.


Failing to present a meaningful record may be more of a matter of choice. A “meaningful” record does not mean including only the items that favor your position. For instance, if you are appealing from the granting of a summary judgment, denial or granting of a post-trial motion, or an anti-SLAPP motion, you should designate all documents that were considered at the hearing. That shows you are fair and credible, and you believe your position is strong enough that you don't need to hide documents and you will win on the merits.


That doesn’t mean intentionally omitting the opposing attorney’s filings. While this omission could be cured by a counter-designation or a later motion to augment, it does not reflect an objective presentation of the facts and could harm your credibility. In the worst case scenario, the reviewing court may conclude that it does not have an adequate record to make a determination that an error has occurred.


If the appellants fails to present a meaningful record, that puts the respondent in a quandary. Should he or she do nothing and let the reviewing court conclude the record is insufficient? Or should the respondent’s attorney provide the missing parts of the record, especially if the omitted portions will support respondent’s position? That, of course, will depend on the facts of the case.

Sunday
Mar302008

The importance of a meaningful record on appeal.


 


 



The “record” consists of the Clerk’s Transcript or an appendix prepared by one or more of the parties of documents filed with the lower court, the Reporter’s Transcript of the oral proceedings, and the exhibits.

If you are the appellant, you have the burden of showing error on an adequate record. (Iliff v. Dustrud (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 1201, 1209.) That means two things:




  • You must have created a record that shows the error, and

  • You must produce enough of the record for the reviewing court to show that the error occurred.


“‘A necessary corollary to this rule is that if the record is inadequate for meaningful review, the appellant defaults and the decision of the trial court should be affirmed.’” (Gee v. American Realty & Construction, Inc. (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1412, 1416.)

In Denham v. Superior Court (1970) 2 Cal.3d 557, the court stated:


“‘A judgment or order of the lower court is presumed correct. All intendments and presumptions are indulged to support it on matters as to which the record is silent, and error must be affirmatively shown. This is not only a general principle of appellate practice but an ingredient of the constitutional doctrine of reversible error.’”


(Id. at p. 564.)


Failing to create a meaningful record can occur in many ways. In my next post, I will provide a few examples and note some pitfalls in selecting the record.


Friday
Mar212008

Just answer the question!

Despite my best intentions, I haven't been able to blog for a few weeks. Not only was I trying to keep up with my work but I suffered an awful attack of bronchitis that left me with a few bruised ribs from coughing. I just didn't have any wisdom to share!

I am almost fully recovered and my powers of observation are sharpening. Just the other day, I attended an oral argument. One justice asked a question and the attorney quickly launched into what he wanted to say. Perhaps he intended to answer the question at some point, but the justice was noticeably irritated when a direct answer was not the first response out of the attorney's mouth. A few minutes passed and another justice reminded the attorney that he still hadn't answered the question. The second justice encouraged him to answer the question. Realizing the importance of this omission, the attorney then said, "Can you repeat your question?"

There is a simple point to all of this: make answering a justice's question your first priority. When we approach oral argument, we all try to plan our presentations. Sometimes we get so wedded to the presentation, we don't want anyone to stop the flow of words. Keep in mind that your presentation consists of information that you want to give.

Asking a question is a direct path to getting information that the justices want to hear. After all, they have briefed the case and may have some idea of how they feel it should be resolved. A question might be an attempt to fill in a missing piece to the puzzle.

Ignoring a question signals that the justice's question is less important than your magnificent speech. Would you ignore a doctor who asked for more information about your symptoms or the waitress who only wanted to clarify if your steak was to be delivered to the table rare and well done? Think of yourself as part of a problem-solving team.

To make it easier: you might try to practice your oral argument in segments. Mix it up and argue out of order. Write a few questions on slips of paper and respond randomly. More importantly, recognize that answering a question is a great opportunity to deliver the information that might make the difference in how the case is decided.
Thursday
Mar062008

Are two attorneys better than one?

In Adaimy v. Ruhl (February 28, 2008, B193745) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, 2008 WL 518224, a case recently decided by Division One of the Second Appellate District, the Court of Appeal dismissed Mr. Adaimy's appeal as untimely. What happened? Adaimy filed a notice of intent to move for new trial after receiving notice of entry of judgment. The new trial motion was heard on August 3, 2006 and on August 7th, the court entered its order denying the motion. On that same day, the clerk mailed notice of entry of the order.

Under California Rules of Court, Rule 8.108(a), if a party serves and files a valid notice of intention to move for new trial and the motion is denied, the time to appeal is extended until the earliest of 30 days after the superior court clerk mails or a party serves an order denying the motion or notice of entry of that order. If neither the clerk or a party serves notice, the appealing party would have 180 days after entry of judgment to file the notice. According to the facts of this case, the time for filing the notice of appeal commenced to run on August 7, 2006. The court concluded that Adaimy's notice of appeal was due on September 6, 2006 but he did not file it until the following day on September 7, 2006.

In a last ditch effort to save his appeal, Adaimy argued that the lower court did not properly serve notice of entry of judgment or the order denying new trial, thus giving him 180 days to file his appeal. His argument was based on the fact that on May 17, 2006, he filed an association of counsel, adding a new firm, and he requested all documents be served on all counsel. The clerk only served the original attorney.

The crucial issue was whether the clerk was required to serve both law firms. The court of appeal found that service on only one was sufficient and that one attorney received actual notice of the entry of the judgment and subsequent order.

The result may seem unnecessarily harsh. After all, Adaimy was only one day late. But the filing of the notice of appeal is jurisdictional and an absolute prerequisite to the appellate court's power to consider the appeal. (Van Beurden Ins. Services, Inc. v. Customized Worldwide Weather Ins. Agency, Inc. (1997) 15 Cal.4th 51, 56.) A party in a civil case cannot seek an extension from the court or stipulate with the opposing party. And there is no relief under Code Civ. Proc. section 473(b). (Maynard v. Brandon (2005) 36 Cal.4th 364, 372-373.)

There are a few lessons to be learned here:

  • If you have associated into a case, do not assume that the other attorney will take care of matters or that you both have the same documents.

  • Maintain communications with your co-counsel about strategy, job tasks, and calendaring dates.

  • Do not wait to file the notice of appeal until the last day. Your calculations might be off or something can always happen on the way to the courthouse to prevent a timely filing.


Even though Adaimy argued service was defective, it seems that at least one of his attorneys had actual notice and probably thought he or she was filing the notice of appeal on the very last day. Being just one day too late resulted in the loss of Adaimy's appeal (and a possible malpractice action against the attorneys).