Tuesday, August 12, 2003
C.A. Rules State Court Must Accept Case Rejected by Ninth Circuit
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Citing the doctrine of “law of the case,” the Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday said state courts must accept jurisdiction in a lawsuit by Pacific Bell Directory employees it characterized as a “procedural house of horrors.”
The court reversed a summary judgment granted by Orange Superior Court Judge Randell L. Wilkinson in the case, in which the employees contend their commissions for selling “yellow pages” ads were docked in violation of state law.
Wilkinson had ruled the dispute depended on interpretation of the employees’ collective bargaining agreement and was preempted by the federal Labor Management Relations Act.
But Justice William F. Rylaarsdam, writing for Div. Three, pointed out that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had already rejected the preemption argument accepted by Wilkinson—potentially leaving the plaintiffs with a claim but no court willing to hear it.
“Were we to affirm the trial court’s determination that the state court lacks jurisdiction, we would endorse the incongruous conclusion that neither the federal nor the state court has jurisdiction to decide this controversy,” Rylaarsdam declared. “The law does not demand such an absurdity.”
The justice wrote:
“This action is trapped in a procedural morass. The Ninth Circuit determined the federal court lacked jurisdiction because the action was not preempted by the LMRA. This was based on its finding that resolution of employees’ claims did not require construction of their collective bargaining agreement. After remand, the superior court granted summary judgment on the ground the action was preempted by the LMRA. The doctrine of law of the case resolves the jurisdictional dilemma facing employees and provides the parties with a forum to litigate their dispute.”
Citing Citizens for Open Access etc. Tide, Inc. v. Seadrift Assn. (1998) 60 Cal.App.4th 1053, the justice said that under that doctrine when an appellate court “states in its opinion a principle of law necessary to the decision, that principle becomes law of the case and must be adhered to in all subsequent proceedings, including appeals.” Under that principle, the Ninth Circuit ruling was the law of the case, and Wilkinson was not free to depart from it, Rylaarsdam explained.
He conceded that law of the case is not a binding principle, but said it was “appropriate” to apply it here, where the federal court’s determination regarding federal jurisdiction was entitled to great weight.
Rylaarsdam rejected the argument, advanced by the employer, that since the Ninth Circuit had found federal jurisdiction was absent its finding on the preemption issue was not a necessary part of its ruling.
“We do not understand this argument,” the justice declared. “Not only was the issue of whether federal law preempted a decision in employees’ case necessary, it was part and parcel of the actual decision itself....Were we to follow this circular reasoning we would shortly meet ourselves coming around the corner.”
The employees did not waive law of the case as a basis for appealing Wilkinson’s ruling by failing to rely on it at the trial court level, Rylaarsdam said.
“It is true, the term itself was never used,” he conceded. “But it is not necessary that a party use the magic incantation ‘law of the case,’ as long as that party calls the trial court’s attention to the earlier appellate decision and urges the court to follow it.”
On remand, Rylaarsdam said, Wilkinson could still consider other grounds for summary judgment advanced by the employer.
Justices Richard D. Fybel and Kathleen O’Leary concurred.
The case is Adams v. Pacific Bell Directory, G029343.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company