Tuesday, May 12, 2015
C.A. Voids Judgment in Family Feud Over Trinity Broadcasting
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A judgment purporting to resolve the merits of a controversy is void if the court makes its ruling after the case that it purports to decide has been voluntarily dismissed, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Three vacated a judgment in favor of Trinity Broadcast Network and related companies, in one of several actions that have arisen among current and former insiders since 2011. The controversies started when Brittany Crouch Koper, a month after being named the company’s chief financial officer at the age of 26, claimed TBN was violating tax laws by using ministry funds to pay for the personal extravagances of executives, in particular her uncle, Matthew Crouch.
Koper is a granddaughter of Paul Crouch Sr. and Jan Crouch, who founded Trinity and built it up into what is now billed as the largest Christian television network in the country. Paul Crouch Sr. died in 2013.
After Koper made her allegations, she, her father Paul Crouch Jr.—who now works for another Christian broadcaster—and her husband, attorney Michael Koper, were terminated from their positions. TBN also sued the Kopers, along with Michael Koper’s uncle Joseph McVeigh, and father William Koper.
The network claimed that Brittany and Michael Koper had embezzled money from the company, and that McVeigh failed to repay a loan he had received from a TBN subsidiary.
That action was dismissed after McVeigh removed it to federal court, and McVeigh then filed a malicious prosecution action against TBN and attorneys Douglass Davert and David Loe, alleging that the prior action was brought without probable cause and in retaliation for the Kopers acting as whistleblowers.
The defendants moved to strike McVeigh’s claims under the anti-SLAPP statute. McVeigh voluntarily dismissed his action within weeks, but the defendants subsequently moved for attorney fees under the anti-SLAPP statute.
Orange Superior Court Judge Francisco Firmat—since retired—awarded the defendants $21,000 in fees in a minute order. In the ensuing judgment, prepared by the defendants’ attorneys, he ruled “in favor of” each defendant “and against” McVeigh on the defendants’ “cause[s] of action for malicious prosecution” and in favor of TBN “and against” McVeigh on his cause of action seeking a declaration that he had no further obligations under a promissory note he had executed in favor of the TBN subsidiary.
That judgment was not appealed, and McVeigh paid the attorney fees. More than a year later, however, in October 2012, Tymothy McLeod, an attorney who represented McVeigh in litigating the malicious prosecution action, moved to correct or set aside the judgment.
Sued on Both Coasts
In support of his motion, McLeod explained that he had been sued by Davert and Loe in New York, and by TBN in California, for malicious prosecution, based on Firmat’s findings in favor of TBN on the merits of the malicious prosecution claims. The judge had no authority to make such findings against McVeigh after he dismissed the action, and the judgment was void as being in excess of the court’s jurisdiction, McLeod argued.
The motion was assigned to Judge Charles Margines, who agreed with McLeod that the judgment conflicted with the minute order, in which Firmat explicitly declined to rule on the merits of the malicious prosecution claims; that granting attorney fees was not an implicit ruling on the merits; and that the judgment was void.
He ordered that the judgment “be corrected nunc pro tunc to reflect” Firmat’s ruling.
Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary, in her unpublished opinion yesterday for the Court of Appeal, said Margines was correct, except in one respect—the judgment must be vacated, rather than merely corrected.
“…Judge Firmat’s written judgment reflects the court exercised its jurisdiction far beyond the confines of an attorney fee determination under [the anti-SLAPP statute.] Declaring TBN the prevailing party on the anti-SLAPP motions and on the merits of the underlying causes of action (the very same two causes of action McVeigh voluntarily dismissed), renders the judgment void on its face.”
Because the judgment was void and not merely voidable, she added, McLeod was not subject to a time limit for bringing his motion. And because the issue of vacating versus correcting the judgment is jurisdictional, McLeod’s failure to argue the distinction in the trial court did not bar him from doing so on appeal, she said.
The case is McVeigh v. Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc., G049461.
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