Court of Appeal:
Edmon Says Court Erred in Vacating Judgment on Ground That Damages Exceeded What Plaintiff Sought
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A $7 million judgment following a bench trial in which the defendant, who was in pro per, did not participate, was not a “default judgment” that was subject to being set aside on the ground that the amount awarded exceeded what was sought in the complaint and in the statement of damages, Div. Three of the Court of Appeal for this district has declared.
The unpublished opinion, filed Tuesday, centered on an application of Code of Civil Procedure §580(a) which provides that a judgment “granted to the plaintiff, if there is no answer, cannot exceed that demanded in the complaint” or the statement of damages. It adds that “in any other case, the court may grant the plaintiff any relief consistent with the case made by the complaint and embraced within the issue.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rupert A. Byrdsong viewed an Oct. 15, 2018 amended judgment obtained following a bench trial before a colleague, Yvette M. Palazuelos, as having been a default judgment because defendant Olivia Lee had absented herself from the proceedings. (Byrdsong had taken over the department in which Palazuelos previously sat.)
The judge vacated the judgment on Sept. 17, 2020.
In an opinion reversing that order, Presiding Justice Lee Edmon said:
“It is undisputed that a default judgment is void, and thus can be set aside at any time, if it is entered in an amount greater than the amount specifically demanded in the plaintiffs complaint or statement of damages…. Accordingly, if the first amended judgment was a default judgment, then it properly was vacated because the amount awarded exceeded the damages pled in the complaint and statement of damages.”
But, she wrote, “[o]n its face…, the judgment was not a default judgment—it was, instead, a judgment entered following a court trial, albeit an uncontested one.”
Under §580(a), Edmon noted, a judgment cannot exceed the demand “if there is no answer,” but Lee did file an answer. The operative portion of the statute, she said, is: “the court may grant the plaintiff any relief consistent with the case made by the complaint and embraced within the issue.”
In accordance with that language, she observed, “courts routinely have affirmed judgments supported by substantial evidence at trial, even if the judgments exceeded the amount demanded in the complaints or statements of damages.”
Nature of Action
The plaintiff in the action against Lee was Joel Ashman who runs a special effects company that does work for movie studios. He sued for defamation in connection with incendiary posts about him made by Lee on various websites such as thedirty.com and riporrreport.com, such as one in which she contended:
“[C]razy Joel Ashman can’t get work in visual effects anymore this sick alcoholic and drug addict tricked Uber and became an Uber driver for only 1 day in his sh*tty cheap black truck and then was fired and arrested for sexually abusing an 85 year old lady by forcing himself on Grandma and trying to touch her between her legs. Please get this criminal worthless bum off the streets of LA and into a tiny jail cell as soon as possible to get him man handled by all the inmates.”
In her trial brief, Lee contended:
“Here, the postings to the webpage thedirty.com are clearly not to be taken seriously. The website contains ONLY hyperbole and is obviously viewed by the public as a forum rife with juvenile name-calling that is not to be believed. The audience of thcdirty.com knows that statements on the website are not to be taken seriously, but rather the posts, if they were in fact ever read by a third party, would be laughed at or at least viewed as not factual. The posts mock the Plaintiffs genitals, question his net worth, state that he is unattractive, and question his sexual preference. All these sorts of statements are common childish insults that the public in general, and thedirty.com readers in particular, would clearly see as pure hyperbole.”
She went on to say:
“They say that ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ but that same could be argued for scorned male paramours. Plaintiff filed this suit against his former romantic partner in a scheme to squeeze money from her.”
The case is Ashman v. Lee, B307847.
Attorneys on appeal were Barry A. Bradley, Robert A. Crook, and Dawn Cushman of the Glendale firm of Bradley & Gmelich, for Ashman, and Edward McLean Lyman III of the mid-Wilshire Cochran Firm for Lee.
Edmon noted that Lee was subjected to criminal proceedings in connection with her efforts at retaliation toward Ashman after their romantic relationship ended. She related:
“In June 2016, a four-count criminal complaint was filed charging Lee with violating Penal Code sections 653m, subdivision (a) (harassment through repeated telephone calls or contact by means of an electronic device) and 528.5, subdivision (a) (impersonation of another on an Internet site for the purpose of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding). Lee was convicted by a jury of all four counts and was sentenced to serve 30 days in county jail. She further was ordered to obey a criminal protective order, remove all postings identified in a sentencing memorandum, complete one year of psychiatric and psychological counseling, attend Alcoholics Anonymous, and pay restitution to Ashman.”
A March 2, 2017 Los Angeles Superior Court complaint Lee filed against Ashman begins:
“Dear Judge, prosecutor and to whom its may concern,
“I would like to explain my side of the story about this issue we have. Because You only heard one side of Joel Ashman.”
In the complaint, Lee identified herself as a medical doctor.
Her action was consolidated with Ashman’s. On Nov. 19, 2017, Palazuelos sustained Ashman’s demurrer without leave to amend.
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