Tuesday, November 28, 2017
California Supreme Court:
Failure to Issue Statement of Decision Not Reversible Per Se
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The failure of a judge to issue a statement of decision, pursuant to a timely request following a bench trial, does not require reversal where the error is harmless, the California Supreme Court held yesterday.
The opinion for a unanimous court, by Justice Ming Chin, affirms a Jan. 9, 2014 decision of the Third District Court of Appeal.
At issue was the effect of Code of Civil Procedure §632 which provides that in a nonjury trial, the judge “shall issue a statement of decision explaining the factual and legal basis for its decision as to each of the principal controverted issues at trial upon the request of any party appearing at the trial.”
Review was granted, Chin said, “to decide whether a court’s error in failing to issue a statement of decision as this section requires is reversible per se.”
Chin expressed agreement with the Court of Appeal decision, by Acting Presiding Justice Coleman Blease, that Art. VI, §13 of the state Constitution applies. It provides:
“No judgment shall be set aside, or new trial granted, in any cause, on the ground of misdirection of the jury, or of the improper admission or rejection of evidence, or for any error as to any matter of pleading, or for any error as to any matter of procedure, unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”
The appellant, Joseph Monier—who was found liable in the amount of $305,096 to the plaintiff, his cousin, for repeated sexual molestation of her when she was 10 years old and he was 17—argued that there is precedent requiring reversal where a judge neglects to prepare a statement of decision.
“Defendant is correct that many of our decisions suggest a rule of automatic reversal,” Chin acknowledged, but added:
“However, our decisions are not as uniform as defendant argues.”
Many of the cases to which the defendant points, Chin noted, are old ones, decided under earlier statutory provisions.
He pointed out that in 1872, §632 supplanted a statute which provided for written findings by the court, but specifying that “no judgment shall be reversed on appeal for want of a finding.” The statute, in contrast, required that that if the judge failed to file a timely written decision, “the action must again be tried.”
Two years later, however, the Legislature struck the language requiring a new trial where there was no written decision, Chin recited.
The harmless error doctrine has existed “at least since 1851” by statute, he said. The jurist set forth that Code of Civil Procedure §475 was enacted in n 1872, and was last amended in 1897.
“The court must, in every stage of an action, disregard any error, improper ruling, instruction, or defect, in the pleadings or proceedings which, in the opinion of said court, does not affect the substantial rights of the parties. No judgment, decision, or decree shall be reversed or affected by reason of any error, ruling, instruction, or defect, unless it shall appear from the record that such error, ruling, instruction, or defect was prejudicial, and also that by reason of such error, ruling, instruction, or defect, the said party complaining or appealing sustained and suffered substantial injury, and that a different result would have been probable if such error, ruling, instruction, or defect had not occurred or existed. There shall be no presumption that error is prejudicial, or that injury was done if error is shown.”
Chin advised that the harmless error doctrine was elevated to state constitutional status in 1911, with respect to criminal cases, and 1914 as to all cases.
No Automatic Reversal
“[W]e agree with the Court of Appeal that a trial court’s error in failing to issue a requested statement of decision is not reversible per se, but is subject to harmless error review. Nothing in the language of section 632 as it now stands establishes a rule of automatic reversal, and nothing in the statute’s legislative history suggests the Legislature intended the current statute to have that effect. On the contrary, the statute’s evolution—specifically, the deletion, after only two years, of language requiring that an action ‘again be tried’ for noncompliance—cuts against reading the statute in that manner. Thus, there is no statutory directive to override section 475, which…precludes reversal absent prejudice. Nor is there any basis for construing section 632 to conflict with the constitutional mandate of article VI, section 13….”
The action was brought by F.P. in 2006 based on assaults in 1990 and 1991. Monier’s affirmative defenses included consent and assumption of the risk.
A five-day trial took place in Sacramento Superior Court before retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Robert Ahern, now deceased. He awarded F.P. general damages at $250,000 and special damages of $55,096.
Need for Apportionment
On appeal to the Court of Appeal, Monier argued that without a statement of decision, it could not be determined whether Ahern apportioned the general damages, which he asserted was required, between him and F.P.’s father, who was not a defendant in the same case, but who also sexually molested the child. Blease found the contention to be lacking in merit because Monier had not asked at trial for apportionment.
The Supreme Court granted review limited to the question: “Is a trial court’s error in failing to issue a statement of decision upon a timely request reversible per se?”
Chin said in a footnote that no opinion was being expressed as to whether Ahern’s error was, in fact, harmless.
The case is F.P. v. Monier, 2017 S.O.S. 5769.
Chin’s opinion mentions that F.P.’s action against Monier’s parents for negligent supervision was settled before trial. Monier’s opening brief mentions that the parents’ insurer paid $275,000.
It also advises that a few months prior to F.P. bringing suit, Monier’s parents and their daughter sued F.P.
“A few months before F.P. filed this action, Monier’s parents and other sister, Michelle Monier-Kilgore, sued F.P. after the death of Monier’s other sister and F.P.’s cousin, Claudette Monier….The lawsuit alleged that F.P. had obtained numerous benefits from Claudette, including life insurance benefits, through fraud, undue influence and other wrongful acts. While this action was pending, the jury found that F.P. had, indeed, defrauded Claudette and was unjustly enriched by her wrongful conduct. Subsequent to the judgment in this action, the court of appeal affirmed those findings.”
The Third District Court of Appeal, in its unpublished 2009 decision in Monier-Kilgore v. Flores, told of Claudette Monier’s spiritual advisor/healer, Steven Flores, exerting influence on her, sapping her financial resources. He was introduced to Claudette Monier by his girlfriend, F.P. (referred to there by her full name).
Flores was having sexual relations with Claudette Monier during the same period when he was maintaining such relations with F.P. Both Flores and F.P. were authorized to write checks on Claudette Monier’s account and did.
Upon the death of Claudette Monier, Flores and F.P. each made a claim to benefits under life insurance policies, and Flores made claim as sole beneficiary under the will and trust. F.P. was alternate beneficiary, in the event Flores predeceased Claudette Monier.
The jury found for the plaintiffs. F.P. argued on appeal that the jury found that it was Flores, not she, who obtained the decedent’s signature on the will and trust, so those documents should be invalidated as to her.
Then-Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland (now retired) responded that “no portion of the documents were the result of Claudette’s free will, and they must be invalidated in their entirety.”
Other portions of the judgment were reversed.
Also in 2009, in the unpublished decision in Pablo v. Handal, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a $2 million judgment in F.P.’s favor against her father, Anton Handal, based on his sexual abuse of her when she was between the ages of 10 and 12.
Acting Presiding Justice George Nicholson wrote the opinion rejecting Handal’s contentions that he should be relieved from “deemed admissions” based on not responding to requests for admissions while he was acting in pro per, and that the judge erred in barring evidence contradicting those admissions.
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