Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Moniz managed a staffing firm's (Adecco’s) relationship with Google. Correa was assigned to work at Google. Moniz and Correa sued Adecco to recover civil penalties for alleged violations of the Labor Code. Under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), an employee aggrieved by alleged Labor Code violations may act as an agent of the Labor Workforce and Development Agency (LWDA) to bring an action to recover civil penalties. If an aggrieved employee settles such an action, the court must review and approve the settlement; civil penalties are distributed 75 percent to the LWDA and 25 percent to the aggrieved employees.Moniz settled her case first. The court approved the settlement. Correa challenged the settlement process and approval, including the manner in which the court treated Correa's and LWDA's objections to the settlement, the standard used by the court to approve the settlement, numerous alleged legal deficiencies, and the trial court’s ruling denying her attorney fees and an incentive payment. The court of appeal reversed. While the court applied an appropriate standard of review by inquiring whether the settlement was “fair, adequate, and reasonable” as well as meaningful and consistent with the purposes of PAGA, it is not possible to infer from the record that the trial court assessed the fairness of the settlement’s allocation of civil penalties between the affected aggrieved employees or whether such allocation comports with PAGA. View "Moniz v. Adecco USA" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs purchased Berkeley property intending to demolish an existing structure and build a new residence. Richards, a licensed contractor, demolished the structure but did not build the new house. Plaintiffs sued Richards alleging breach of oral contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and promissory estoppel. Richards propounded requests for admission (RFAs) asking the plaintiffs to admit the parties did not enter into an oral contract and did not have a meeting of the minds. Plaintiffs denied the RFAs.The trial court denied Richards’s motion for summary judgment finding triable issues of material fact. After the close of evidence, Richards unsuccessfully moved for a directed verdict. The jury returned a defense verdict, concluding that Richards did not make a promise with clear and unambiguous terms. Richards moved for attorney fees and costs (Code of Civil Procedure 2033.420), arguing that the plaintiffs had no reasonable basis to deny the RFAs and “failed to realistically evaluate their claims and perform a reasonable investigation.” The court awarded Richards $239,170.86 in attorney fees and costs. The court of appeal affirmed. the trial court was well-positioned to evaluate the reasonableness issue as it presided over the case from start to finish. Neither the denial of summary judgment nor the denial of a directed verdict precluded the award. View "Spahn v. Richards" on Justia Law

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The parties’ son was born in November 2018. Mother initiated a claim for child support. Testing established father’s paternity. and a stipulated judgment entered. In February 2019, father requested protective orders under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act and sought sole custody, submitting evidence of mother’s repeated online cyberstalking and harassment. Criminal charges were filed against mother. Much of the harassing behavior involves the child. In March 2019, the court awarded father sole custody of the child. Proceedings on the domestic violence restraining order were stayed pending resolution of felony charges against mother. In August 2020, the court denied mother’s request to modify custody and continued her supervised visitation.In connection with requests for modification of the custody and visitation orders, mother requested attorney fees. Following a hearing, the court denied mother’s request for fees, noting that father had not exhibited any conduct to warrant a sanction-based award. Other statutes apply only to married parties and were inapplicable; there has been no finding that father made false allegations of child abuse. Mother is not the prevailing party in an action to enforce an out-of-state custody order. The court of appeal reversed in part. Mother may be entitled to attorney fees under Family Code 7605, which requires a court to “ensure that each party has access to legal representation to preserve each party’s rights,” using the appropriate needs-based criteria. View "C.T. v. K.W." on Justia Law

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Guzman, driving a truck for his employer (Progressive), rear-ended the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff was driving a truck for his employer. Following the accident, the plaintiff returned to work for three weeks, but then left his employment. During the following months, the plaintiff continued to receive treatment. His former employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier, Liberty, paid for the treatment.Plaintiff sued The defendants served a $200,000 offer to settle (Code of Civil Procedure 998). Plaintiff rejected the offer. The parties stipulated that a $256,631.76 workers’ compensation lien existed and that the defendants would admit negligence, but not causation as to the plaintiff’s injuries. The jury returned a verdict of $115,000.Opposing the plaintiff’s fee petition, the defendants argued that the plaintiff should not recover fees and post-offer costs because the verdict did not exceed the section 998 offer. Defendants’ costs totaled $174,830.29. The court awarded the plaintiff $50,600 in attorney fees and the $475.98 pre-offer filing fee in costs. Although Labor Code section 3856 requires costs to be paid from the judgment, the court added the fees and costs to the verdict, then concluded the defense had a net gain over the plaintiff and was the prevailing party and entered an $8,754.22 final judgment in favor of the defendants.The court of appeal affirmed. The court erred by adding attorney fees to the verdict when calculating the net judgment. A $59,354.31 defense judgment should have been entered there was no “judgment for damages recovered” from which the plaintiff’s reasonable litigation expenses and attorney fees or Progressive’s workers’ compensation lien could be paid. (Lab. Code 3856(b)). The defendants had not challenged their $8,754.22 judgment. View "Oakes v. Progressive Transportation Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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Letgolts and Plattner (plaintiffs) remodeled their home in 2008. The contractor, Pinchevskiy, did some demolition and then walked away, causing extensive damage to the home. The plaintiffs retained attorney Marks, who sued Pinchevskiy, the plaintiffs’ home insurer, and their insurance agent who allegedly inaccurately advised the plaintiffs that their existing homeowners' policy would cover possible property damage by Pinchevskiy. The complaint detailed property damage but did not mention personal injury. Marks withdrew from the case in 2012. The plaintiffs retained Pierce, who secured a default judgment against Pinchevskiy in 2015; his insurer, National, filed for liquidation before Pierce could collect on the judgment. Pinchevskiy was bankrupt.The plaintiffs sued Pierce for negligent delay in seeking recovery from National. Pierce’s lawyers argued the plaintiffs could never have prevailed against National because Pinchevskiy’s policy did not cover construction defects. The court entered judgment for Pierce. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting the plaintiffs’ attempt to assert a personal injury claim based on Plattner’s alleged 2008 fall from temporary stairs installed by Pinchevskiy. National’s policy did cover personal injuries but the tardy, uncorroborated claim was at odds with the detailed lists of problems given to the insurer years before. Pursuing insurance money from National was a lost cause from the start, so whether Pierce committed malpractice did not matter, View "Letgolts v. David H. Pierce & Associates PC" on Justia Law

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Union Square owns the San Francisco building where Saks has operated a store since 1991. The lease's initial 25-year term was followed by successive options to renew; it mandates arbitration to determine Fair Market Rent for renewals. Section 3.1(c)(iv) states that “[e]ach party shall share equally the fees and expenses of the arbitrator. The attorneys’ fees and expenses of counsel for the respective parties and of witnesses shall be paid by the respective party engaging such counsel or calling such witnesses.” Section 23.10 permits a prevailing party to recover costs, expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees, “Should either party institute any action or proceeding to enforce this Lease ... or for damages by reason of any alleged breach ... or for a declaration of rights hereunder,The parties arbitrated a rent dispute in 2017. The trial court vacated the First Award, in favor of Union Square. To avoid re-arbitration, Union Square sought mandamus relief, which was summarily denied. While discussions concerning another arbitration were pending, Union Square filed a superior court motion to appoint the second arbitrator. The court-appointed arbitrator ruled in favor of Saks.The court of appeal affirmed the orders vacating the First Award and confirming the Second Award. Saks sought $1 million in attorneys’ fees for “litigation proceedings arising out of the arbitration,” not for the arbitrations themselves, citing Section 23.10. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the motion. Each party agreed to bear its own attorneys’ fees for all proceedings related to settling any disagreement around Fair Market Rent under Section 3.1(c). View "California Union Square L.P. v. Saks & Company LLC" on Justia Law

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Moreci sustained work-related injuries assertedly caused by his use of scaffolding constructed by Scaffold Solutions. Moreci received workers’ compensation benefits, paid by Starstone Insurance. Moreci, while represented by the Boxer law firm, filed a personal injury action against third-party defendants, including Scaffold. Moreci settled the case. As part of the settlement, Moreci agreed to assume the defense of Scaffold for claims arising from Moreci’s accident and pay any resulting judgment. Before the dismissal of Moreci’s action, Starstone intervened, seeking reimbursement from the defendants for the benefits it had paid to Moreci. Boxer became associated co-counsel for Scaffold, which filed an answer to Starstone’s complaint in intervention.Starstone Insurance moved to disqualify Boxer, arguing conflict of interest. The trial court held Starstone had no standing to seek the disqualification of counsel and denied the motion. The court of appeal affirmed. Because disqualification would have no effect on the alleged harms, Starstone sought the wrong legal remedy by bringing a disqualification motion. Any harm to Scaffold or Moreci stemming from a breach of the duty of loyalty in any way by their attorneys is “of no concern” to Starstone. View "Moreci v. Scaffold Solutions, Inc." on Justia Law

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In this California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) case, the Court of Appeal granted the petition for writ of mandate and directed respondent Los Angeles Superior Court to vacate its order awarding attorney fees to Charter and to conduct a new hearing to reconsider Charter's motion for attorney fees. At issue is whether an employer's arbitration agreement authorizes the recovery of attorney fees for a successful motion to compel arbitration of a FEHA lawsuit even if the plaintiff's opposition to arbitration was not frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.The court concluded that, because a fee-shifting clause directed to a motion to compel arbitration, like a general prevailing party fee provision, risks chilling an employee's access to court in a FEHA case absent Government Code section 12965(b)'s asymmetric standard for an award of fees, a prevailing defendant may recover fees in this situation only if it demonstrates the plaintiff's opposition was groundless. In this case, no such finding was made by the superior court in the underlying action before awarding real party in interest Charter its attorney fees after granting Charter's motion to compel petitioner to arbitrate his FEHA claims. View "Patterson v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The court of appeal consolidated appeals from three attorneys’ fees motions by a judgment creditor (Wertheim) seeking over $800,000 for its efforts to enforce a 2009 judgment entered after a jury awarded it approximately $39,000. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of fees as to the appeal bond fee motion but reversed, in part, the denial of fees as to post-judgment enforcement fees. The court noted that even standing alone, these fee claims are striking in relation to the amount of the underlying judgment and also must be considered in light of the more than 40 appeals occasioned by the parties’ competing businesses in the last 12 years. The court concluded that the motion for post-judgment enforcement fees was timely but characterized Wertheim’s litigation strategy as “unnecessary and objectively unreasonable.” View "Wertheim, LLC v. Currency Corp." on Justia Law

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Alevy was an owner, officer, and board member of Amusement, a real estate company, engaged in the ongoing Stern Litigation. In 2010, Alevy offered Missakian employment as in-house counsel at Amusement, including working on the Stern Litigation. Under the Oral Contract, Missakian would receive a salary of $325,000, and, after the Stern Litigation ended, Missakian would receive a bonus of $6,250 for each month he had worked on that litigation plus 10 percent of the recovery, excluding ordinary litigation costs. The parties exchanged multiple written drafts but never signed a written contract. Missakian left Amusement in 2014. The Stern Litigation settled months later. Amusement received $26 million. Missakian never received the Monthly Bonus or the Stern Litigation Bonus.A jury issued a verdict in favor of Missakian on the claims for breach of oral contract and promissory fraud and made special verdict findings in favor of Alevy on promissory fraud. The trial court granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on Missakian’s promissory fraud claim against Amusement.The court of appeal reversed. The Oral Contract is void under Business and Professions Code section 6147, 2 which requires contingency fee agreements to be in writing. The jury’s special verdict on promissory fraud was inconsistent because it found Alevy did not make a false promise, but that Amusement (acting only through Alevy) did. Because the court cannot choose between the jury’s inconsistent responses, the court should have ordered a new trial. View "Missakian v. Amusement Industry, Inc." on Justia Law