A cautionary tale about stipulated judgments

What can a plaintiff do when the trial court guts your case, leaving you to face the music at trial without your most valuable claims?

In Wisely v. State, 2007 WL 4105562, appellants made the wrong choice, resulting in the loss of their appeal. They filed a class action on behalf of prison visitors who were subjected to an intimate encounter with an X-ray machine They claimed the machine, which could take detailed images of a visitor's anatomy, violated their constitutional rights.

The trial court granted the government's motion for summary adjudication on 10 causes of action, tossing out any claim for damages. That left appellants with a single claim for declaratory and injunctive relief.

Shortly before trial, the parties entered into a stipulation and requested the trial court enter judgment, thus clearing the way for an appeal. The stipulation only pertained to damages, not injunctive relief, and included provisions for continuing jurisdiction upon the renewed use of the machine.

The court of appeal dismissed the appeal, finding it lacked jurisdiction because the stipulation and order did not finally resolve all issues between the parties. As such, it was not an appealable judgment, which is a jurisdictional prerequisite to an appeal

Stipulated judgments are not appealable, because the party is not "aggrieved" and lacks standing to appeal. An exception exists where the consent is given to facilitate an appeal. "[I]t is 'wasteful of trial court time' to require the plaintiff to undergo a probably unsuccessful . . . trial merely to obtain an appealable judgment." (Building Industry Assn. v. City of Camarillo (1986) 41 Cal.3d 810, 817; Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 401-401.) If you decide to take this approach, be sure to make a record that you do not intend to waive the right to appeal.


Appellant loses appeal due to a defect in his notice of appeal

Failing to timely file a notice of appeal delivers a death blow to your appeal.  There is generally no relief from a late notice of appeal; the exceptions are so rare as to be nonexistent.

In Morton v. Wagner, 2007 WL 3277026, the Sixth District concluded Walter Wagner had missed the appellate boat. Considering the facts of the case, it is hard to feel sorry for Wagner, a lawyer, who harassed the respondent, Gail Morton, starting from their law school days in the 1970's!   In 2005, the trial court issued an injunction, requiring Wagner to stay at least 100 yards away from Morton. Wagner moved for reconsideration. Four months later, the trial court denied the motion and found Wagner was a vexatious litigant.

Wagner filed a notice of appeal "from the decision and order . . . denying reconsideration . . ." and the order finding him to be a vexatious litigant. Wagner failed to identify the judgment in his notice of appeal!

The court concluded Wagner failed to appeal the judgment granting the petition for an injunction. The court explained that while a notice of appeal should be liberally construed, "[c]are must be taken in drafting the notice of appeal to identify the order or judgment being appealed so as not to mislead or prejudice the respondent." (Slip Opn., pg. 3.) The court also noted a split of authority as to whether an order denying a motion for reconsideration is separately appealable, with the majority holding it is not.

So, a simple error in failing to properly describe the judgment cost Wagner his appeal. Wagner could have saved his appeal by identifying the order or judgment being appealed, as required by California Rules of Court, Rule 8.100(a)(2), and appealing in a timely manner from the judgment, rather than from a nonappealable motion.

Appellate Assistance at the Trial Level

In a recent article in the L.A. Times, the author, Laura Ernde, noted that more and more trial attorneys are turning to appellate attorneys for help before there is a final judgment. Appellate attorneys can be of great assistance in fashioning motions in limine, jury instructions and special verdict forms. One appellate specialist, Jerry Falk of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin in San Francisco, described a case where one of his clients lost a $90 million contract fraud case because of a technicality. By the time Falk got involved, there was nothing he could do.

All of the appellate attorneys interviewed for the article noted a change in trial preparation in the last ten years as trial attorneys are willing to seek assistance to prevent errors and make sure they have adequately preserved the record. Big firm practitioners at Reed Smith and Horvitz & Levy in Southern California indicated that bringing in an appellate specialist at the early stages of trial preparation is almost “standard practice.” Small firms should also incorporate this intelligent planning into their trial preparation. This wisdom applies with equal force to motions that can terminate your case, such as a motion for summary judgment, an anti-SLAPP motion, or even a demurrer.

Having worked with trial attorneys, I have often told them of the need to think about the appellate process as they handle their cases at the trial court level. I’ve written articles and spoken frequently on the subject. The problem is that these warnings sound great while the attorney is attending a conference, but the lessons are soon forgotten when the attorney returns to his or her daily routine. I felt there was a need to publish these tips in a format that could be saved and referenced when necessary.

This blog is meant to be interactive. I welcome your comments and experiences. In future blogs, I look forward to having my colleagues and members of the judiciary share their wisdom and experience. Hopefully, this will enable trial attorneys to avoid many mistakes that commonly occur and either win or lose their cases on the merits.


Trial attorneys need to understand fundamental rules of appellate procedure.

Trial attorneys need to know the fundamental rules of appellate procedure. You cannot leave it to the appellate attorney because by the time we get involved, it may be too late to raise the issue or preserve the record. You are the one who has the opportunity to create the record; appellate attorneys are limited by your creation.

Let’s take one of the most fundamental rules of appellate procedure: new issues ordinarily cannot be raised for the first time on appeal. (Yes, of course, there are exceptions but we won’t discuss them here.) These “issues” can range from something as simple as failing to object and obtain a ruling on your objection to ignoring serious misconduct by the court, opposing counsel or the jury when it occurs. They may also include raising new theories of liability, defenses, and damages.

Documents and facts that were not presented below do not become part of the record, and as a consequence, they cannot be considered on appeal. (Doers v. Golden Gate Bridge etc. Dist. (1979) 23 Cal.3d 180, 184, fn. 1; Pulver v. Avco Financial Services (1986) 182 Cal.App.3d 622, 632.) If you decide not to bring out certain facts at trial, the appellate court will never know they existed. The appellate attorney is powerless to present those facts and documents that you failed to present at trial.

What does that mean for the trial attorney? It means trial attorneys cannot ignore the need to understand the appellate process. They must learn how to act at the trial court level to protect their clients’ rights on appeal. They certainly don’t want to find themselves in a situation where they are deemed to have waived their clients’ right to object or even invited the error of which they now complain.

I cannot stress the importance of the need for trial attorneys to do their job. Time and time again, I have been retained to work on an appeal, only to discover a point on appeal has been lost due to the acts or omissions of the trial attorney. By saying “lost,” I don’t mean the issue can be “found” or resurrected. No, it is lost forever. And sometimes it is just one issue of several, but on other occasions, the loss will deal a death blow to the entire appeal.


My First Appeal to Reason

At a recent dinner party, I was talking to a seasoned trial attorney. When I told him that I was an appellate attorney, he became quite animated. “I don’t know anything about appeals!” He announced with unmistakable pride. “I just win my cases and don’t worry about appeals.”

I could not help but look at him in awe. Yes, I was in awe of his . . . arrogance. Not only was my role in the appellate process ignored – I was unnecessary! – but I was concerned his arrogance might eventually cause his clients to lose their appeals.

His attitude, although taken to an extreme, is not that unusual. I have received calls from trial attorneys asking about the procedures involved in the appellate process. Their common refrain is “I don’t handle appeals. It’s not my area.” While appellate procedure is a specialized area of law and procedure (although one can still find trial attorneys handling their own appeals), it often overlaps into the realm of the trial attorney.

If a client came to you to discuss a potential personal injury claim, you would certainly advise them of the applicable statute of limitations and the final date a complaint could be filed. In my opinion, the same principle applies at the end of the case. Once a judgment has been entered (or even before), you need to advise the client in writing about the deadline for filing an appeal. At a minimum, trial attorneys must understand enough about the appellate process to know the deadlines for filing a notice of appeal. And if they ignore what happens after the judgment is rendered, they do so at their peril.

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