Saturday, March 27, 2010

California Outrage - Appellate Court Tries to End St. James Case

Here it is 12:30 a.m., and after just putting up my previous post about how a trial court judge in Indiana has properly applied the doctrine of "neutral principles" to a dispute within the Presbyterian Church, I receive word that the Fourth District Court of Appeal in California has directed that a final judgment be entered against St. James parish, in Newport Beach, based on the earlier decision "on the merits, on this record" by the California "Supreme" Court. The opinion carries the hallmark of a judicial coverup: in contrast to its earlier decision in the matter, the Fourth Appellate District (Division Three) has decreed that its Kafkaesque "resolution" of the St. James case shall remain unpublished -- meaning that it is relegated to California's judicial junkheap, not ever to be cited or applied in any other case to come before the California courts, and without precedential value to anyone -- except, unfortunately, St. James parish in Newport Beach.

It is through such "unpublished" decisions that California judges attempt to conceal their worst excrescences on the body legal -- in essence, by deciding not to publish their decision, they are saying: "This is such a routine matter that our disposition of it does not break any new ground, or require that any other court look to it for any further guidance as precedent."

Except that this decision is precisely not the kind of decision that has occurred routinely in the California courts. In fact, it is fair to say, as the dissent notes, that never before, in the history of California -- or of any other State of the United States, or even in England (the source of our "common law") -- has any court ever seen fit to decree that a final judgment be entered in a case based solely upon the decision of a higher court ruling upon the sufficiency of a challenge to the complaint in a case. Normally, the challenge to a complaint (called a "demurrer" in California procedure) says: "So what if everything the complaint alleges is true? It still does not state a claim upon which the court may grant relief."

What the California Supreme Court decided, in its earlier opinion which I discussed in this post, was that if the allegations in the plaintiffs' complaint are deemed to be true, then the plaintiffs have stated a cause of action, and the defendant should be required to answer the complaint. Initially, the rush-to-judgment liberal Court put language into its opinion that was embarrassingly "final" -- that is, it wrote as though it was deciding the case on its merits, as though it had been fully tried already, with evidence from both sides. But when the defendant St. James parish pointed out, on a petition for rehearing, that the Supreme Court had overstated its ability to resolve the entire case before an answer had been filed, the Supreme Court grudgingly modified its opinion to make clear that "on this record" -- that is, the record on appeal from a challenge (demurrer) to the complaint, before any answer had been filed -- it was deciding only that if what the plaintiffs alleged was proved to be true, then they could prevail in their case.

So with those modifications to its decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal, which had remanded the case to the trial court for "further proceedings" consistent with its rulings. "Further proceedings" mean all of the things that normally take place in a lawsuit: discovery of the relevant facts, trial to the court or a jury, and then judgment, based on the evidence and on who satisfied their burden of proof at trial.

But ECUSA and the Diocese of Los Angeles did not want to have to prove anything at a trial. For them, the decision of the California Supreme Court, on the facts which they had alleged in their complaints, was determinative and binding: it had held that it was ruling on the merits of the property dispute -- based solely on the plaintiffs' complaints -- and so the case was now officially over. Without regard to whatever the defendants wanted to say in their answers to the allegations, the plaintiffs believed the courts had already decided in advance that any and all things they could say by way of an answer would be insufficient as a matter of law. The Fourth District's opinion filed yesterday bears out that claim. Unbelievable as it may seem, two judges on the three-judge panel in the Court of Appeal have decided that the case is over, and that St. James loses its property without ever having a chance to prove the allegations it made in its answers.

The Court of Appeal reaches this result via a complete sleight of hand, and in total disregard of California law. It points out, for example, that after the case was remanded to the trial court, St. James did file an answer to the complaint -- and -- lo and behold! -- that answer referred to the very same letter (see ¶ 10 of the post) which St. James had attached as an exhibit to its motion asking the trial court to find that the Diocese's lawsuit against it be stricken, without having to answer its complaint. Consequently, it reasoned, because the letter (which waived, on behalf of the Diocese, any right to claim the Dennis Canon with respect to certain new property being acquired by the parish for its use) was in "the record" before the Supreme Court, then anything which St. James could possibly allege in its answer, filed after the case had been sent back to the trial court, had already been submitted to the California Supreme Court, and "considered" and decided by that Court about a year ago.

The Court of Appeal's decision yesterday violates due process, and shows an utter contempt for the normal way that cases proceed to trial and judgment. Its reasoning (such as it is) is specious and disingenuous, and is deployed solely toward the outcome it has decided it wants, which is that St. James loses everything it owns --without being able to have a trial to show what were the actual facts, as opposed to what ECUSA and the diocese alleges were the facts in their complaints. A "judgment on the pleadings" (as was entered here) is based on the same grounds as a demurrer to the complaint (Hughes v. Western MacArthur Co. (1987) 192 CA3d 951, 957, 237 Cal.Rptr. 738, 742); here it was based on the answer filed after remand. And since the Supreme Court's opinion simply affirmed the Appellate Court's decision with respect to the defendant's demurrers, before any answer had been filed, and which included a remand of the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with that disposition, it is simply impossible for a lower court now to direct that a final judgment be entered without those further proceedings.

But that is what, incredibly, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District (Division Three) has now done in this case. Through some of the most tortuous reasoning ever advanced, the Fourth District panel attempts to show that the case as "decided" by the Supreme Court is still in the same posture as though the parish's answer had been already filed -- which it had not been. (Don't forget that before the United States Supreme Court, ECUSA argued, as a reason for denying review, that the decision of the California Supreme Court was not yet a final disposition of the case.) The only way the Court of Appeal can now say that the motion should be resolved in the plaintiffs' favor is that the Supreme Court has already ruled on the legal insufficiency of the facts alleged in the answer, which was not before that Court. But the Supreme Court sent the case back for trial after making those rulings. Now the Court of Appeal has, in effect, overridden the Supreme Court and decided that no further trial is necessary, because what the Supreme Court really meant to say is that the case was over. And its authority for so holding is -- the Supreme Court's opinion remanding the case for further proceedings. Go figure.

Your Curmudgeon is appalled. Read the crazy decision, and concurring opinion, and see for yourself just how incompetent some courts in California have become. I will have more detail about the multiple errors and false statements in this opinion later.


  1. Is there any further appeal open to St. James at this point? Or are they simply stuck with an unjust decision?

  2. Yes, Dr.D - St. James will have the right to ask the California Supreme Court to review this decision. As the "majority" opinion smugly states:

    "We have no doubt, of course, that if we are incorrect in relying on the plain language of the Supreme Court's opinion in granting the general church's petition for writ of mandate, the high court will correct our error."

    But the California Supreme Court could just as easily decline review, and allow the decision to stand. Then the only recourse of St. James would be once more to try the U.S. Supreme Court -- and if all else fails, the California legislature. (I am not certain at this point about the exact form that relief from the latter body could take; I would want to consult with others. But there is something so profoundly wrong in denying a defendant their day in court that it almost mandates some sort of relief from the legislature.)

  3. Dear Curmy,

    At least we have the South Carolina precedent, and the recent Indiana ruling in favor of simple "who's name is on the title" logic. It sure looks to NW Bob like we have a national epidemic of "judges gone wild". Despite your clear logical analyses of several situations, judges continue to defy common sense and rule in favor of their apostate buddies. I am really dismayed at watching our legal system in action. I pray there is some way to right this listing ship. Is there any hope?

    In the Faith,
    NW Bob

  4. I have never, in over 20 years of practice, seen a more intellectually dishonest and legally unsupportable ruling from ANY court. Factor in the smug, condescending tone, and you have what may be the most farcical opinion ever, even for the Fourth District.

  5. Can you sue judges for "frivilous" judgments?