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Posts Tagged ‘California’

Plaintiffs’ Burden to Establish Punitive Damages: Farmers & Merchants Trust Co. v. Vanetik

Posted on: April 18th, 2019

By: Jennifer Weatherup

A recent decision from the California Court of Appeal has outlined the requirements for establishing a defendant’s financial condition as a prerequisite to an award of punitive damages, and has further emphasized that it is the plaintiff’s burden to provide a comprehensive picture of the defendant’s financial condition in support of a punitive damages award.

In Farmers & Merchants Trust Co. v. Vanetik, Plaintiff F&M Trust, who was the trustee and administrator of a pension plan, sued Defendants Yuri and Tony Vanetik[1] for breach of contract and fraud. F&M Trust claimed that the Vanetiks made several false statements and representations, which induced it to acquire stock in their company. At trial, the jury found the Vanetiks’ liable, and F&M Trust was awarded over $3 million dollars in punitive damages from the Vanetiks.

The Court of Appeal struck down this award because F&M Trust failed to present sufficient evidence of the Vanetiks’ financial condition. Because punitive damages are intended to punish wrongdoing and deter future misconduct, juries must consider three elements when determining an appropriate punitive damages award: (1) the wrongfulness of a defendant’s conduct, (2) the amount of compensatory damages, and (3) the defendant’s wealth. Wealth must be considered in order to determine whether a particular award is significant enough to punish that particular defendant.

As the Vanetik Court observed, a plaintiff wishing to impose punitive damages on a defendant must present evidence that provides a “balanced overview” of their financial condition. Thus, a plaintiff cannot cherry pick details relating to a defendant’s assets while failing to present evidence of liabilities or encumbrances on their property. Because F&M Trust only presented circumstantial evidence of the Vanetiks’ income, failed to determine whether Tony Vanetik’s home was subject to a lien or even owned by Tony, and failed to consider the Vanetiks’ liabilities, the Court found that there was insufficient admissible evidence to support a punitive damages award.

The Court further rejected F&M Trust’s claim that they should be excused from their failure to present evidence of the Vanetiks’ financial conditions because Defendants did not produce that evidence. Prior caselaw does provide that punitive damages may be awarded without evidence of a financial condition if a plaintiff’s failure to produce evidence is the result of the defendant’s failure to comply with discovery obligations. However, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the lack of evidence was the defendant’s fault, and F&M Trust failed to satisfy this burden.

As the Court noted, F&M Trust never filed a motion for pretrial discovery into the Vanetiks’ financial condition, even though a plaintiff must obtain a court order before conducting discovery into a defendant’s financial condition. Similarly, the trial court did not order the Vanetiks’ financial condition before the punitive damages portion of the trial. Thus F&M Trust’s failure to produce sufficient evidence of the Vanetiks’ financial condition is not excused, and the punitive damages award must be stricken.

The Vanetik case provides useful authority for professionals and other defendants who are facing a substantial punitive damages award, as it demonstrates the extent to which plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing defendants’ financial condition, and emphasizes the need for plaintiffs to present a complete picture of defendants’ finances, rather than relying on selective, incomplete, or circumstantial evidence.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jennifer Weatherup at [email protected].

[1] Plaintiff also sued the Vanetiks’ attorney. The Court separately found that the attorney could not be found liable for conspiracy.

Can a California Lawyer be Disciplined for a Paralegal’s Misconduct?

Posted on: March 27th, 2019

By: Greg Fayard

In some circumstances, a California lawyer can be disciplined by the State Bar for a paralegal’s misconduct. This type of discipline was not possible under the State’s old lawyer-ethics rules. Rule 5.3 of the new rules requires attorney-managers to make sure nonlawyers—such as law students, investigators, legal assistants or paralegals—are not violating any ethical rules. A supervising lawyer, which could be an associate (so long as he or she has direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer), can be responsible for the ethical breach of a paralegal if the lawyer is aware of an ethical violation, had a chance to avoid or mitigate the ethical lapse, but did nothing.

For example, if a paralegal is disclosing confidential client information without the client’s consent (a clear ethical breach, see Rule 1.6) and the paralegal’s supervisor knew about it, but did nothing, the supervising lawyer can be disciplined for the paralegal’s misconduct.

California lawyers, therefore, are obligated to make reasonable efforts to ensure that their law office has measures which assure that nonlawyer conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of lawyers. This directive applies to both nonlawyer employees and independent contractors. Further, under Rule 5.3, any measures ensuring nonlawyer ethics compliance should consider whether the nonlawyers have legal training.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

Watch for the Sucker Punch… Joint and Several Liability for Professional Negligence?

Posted on: March 20th, 2019

By: Jon Tisdale

Litigants are forever looking for new ways to blame their lawyers when their mediocre case goes south. (As an aside, pay close attention to your intake protocol and “just say no” to those mediocre cases, because when they go bad, so will your relationship with your former client.) So, why is this a special problem for lawyers?

Like most states, California draws a bright line between economic and non-economic damages. In an effort to keep underinsured deadbeats from stiffing tort victims, California has enacted a statute with the stated economic impact being to hold “deep pocket” defendants (yes, the statute actually employs that disgraceful terminology) responsible jointly and severally for economic damages so as to not deprive an innocent victim of recovery of their medical bills, without regard to apportionment of fault. Non-economic damages (for “pain and suffering,” the so-called pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow) remain collectible only to the extent of an actual apportionment of negligence by the trier of fact. This legislative enactment was, at least in California, aimed at the damages recoverable as a result of countless personal injury actions arising from car accidents. But wait… the statute applies to TORT actions… which means that it also applies, apparently unwittingly, to Professional Negligence actions.

California Jury Instructions (CACI) attempt to clearly define economic versus non-economic damages. Economic damages are verifiable, out-of-pocket monetary losses. Non-economic damages are the pie-in-the-sky general damages for physical pain, mental suffering and emotional distress that lead to the “Stella Award” type of verdicts. But that’s typically not the danger of professional negligence actions. CACI clearly instructs jurors that: “you will be asked on the Verdict Form to state the two categories of damages separately” (which is a legislative proclamation that if a trial judge permits a verdict form that does not require segregation of economic and non-economic damages, it will in fact be reversible error).

Why is this dangerous in professional negligence cases? Because, generally speaking, in cases involving the tort of professional negligence virtually all of the damages are economic! Professional negligence cases have a nominal “emotional distress” element to them, but the meat and potatoes of the tort is WHAT DID YOUR NEGLIGENCE COST ME OUT OF POCKET? It is not so much about how did it make the litigant feel, but how much did it cost them.

Increasingly we see cases in which litigants with less than clearly meritorious cases change lawyers mid-case, sometimes more than once. If it goes south, they are going to sue everyone. This is the danger that you need to be alerted to and cognizant of. You could be defending a lawyer who was just one of several lawyers in the chain of representation and who did seemingly nothing wrong.  But if the economic damages are millions of dollars and your client is found 1% at fault… he/she has joint and several liability for the full amount of the economic damages! More than a little scary…

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jon Tisdale at [email protected].

Before bringing or defending an enforcement action filed in court involving an HOA, ask, does your state first require ADR or that a request for ADR be made?

Posted on: March 12th, 2019

By: Michael Shepherd

As courts across the country become more congested, many courts now order the parties to participate in some form of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or non-binding arbitration. When it comes to Homeowners Associations, many state legislatures have taken the affirmative step of requiring HOAs or owners bringing an enforcement action to at least request ADR before filing a lawsuit in court.

It is important to carefully examine your state’s laws to see (1) whether ADR or a request for ADR is required and (2) under what circumstances. For example, California only requires a request for ADR in civil actions that (1) solely seek declaratory, injunctive, or writ relief; (2) solely seek declaratory, injunctive, or writ relief in conjunction with monetary damages not in excess of the limits for small claims actions; and (3) seek to foreclose on an owner’s interest. Cal. Civil Code §§ 5930(b) and 5705. Moreover, a request for ADR is not required in California if the action is filed in small claims court or if preliminary or injunctive relief is necessary. Cal. Civil Code §§ 5930(c) and 5950(a)(3).

In California, the Davis-Sterling Act prevents associations or owners from filing an enforcement action in court before the parties have attempted to submit their dispute to ADR. An enforcement action is defined as a civil action brought to enforce the Davis-Sterling Act, to enforce the Nonprofit Mutual Benefit Corporation Law, or to enforce the governing documents of the HOA. Cal. Civil Code § 5925(b). ADR can take the form of mediation, arbitration, conciliation, or any other nonjudicial procedure that involves a neutral party in the decision-making process. While there is no requirement that the parties participate in ADR, a party’s unreasonable refusal to participate in ADR may be considered when attorney’s fees and costs are recoverable. Cal. Civil Code § 5960. Furthermore, the parties must file a certificate of compliance with the civil action stating that ADR was requested or that a request is not required under the circumstances. Failure to file the certificate of compliance exposes the complaint to a demurrer or a motion to strike.

In today’s world of congested courts, it is important to be apprised of when ADR is required as it is often implemented as a way to relieve court dockets. This is just as true in enforcement actions involving HOAs. Therefore, before bringing or defending an enforcement action involving an HOA, be sure to learn whether your state requires ADR or a request for ADR.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Michael Shepherd at [email protected].

Trends in Real Estate Claims

Posted on: March 5th, 2019

By: Peter Catalanotti

In representing real estate brokers through their Errors & Omissions insurance for over a decade, I often get asked what types of claims are trending. What follows is my experience regarding real estate broker claim trends.

Real estate broker claims tend to track the economy.

In increasing and level markets, the claims against real estate brokers often include equitable relief such as specific performance. Often times the plaintiff/buyer will be a plaintiff/attempted buyer. With increasing or level markets, sellers may receive multiple offers. The decision of which offer a seller should take is sometimes a close call. When something goes wrong during the transaction or delays the close of escrow, the seller often prefers to get out of the purchase contract and sell to a backup buyer. Sellers may think that the backup buyer will be less trouble. Occasionally, the seller will offer to repurchase the property.

In decreasing markets and recessions, we see more claims for misrepresentation, failure to disclose, and fraud cases. Sometimes, these cases often involve buyer’s remorse. Plaintiff/buyer then sues for damages. The property they purchased is worth less than they paid for it, so the buyer has an interest in recouping this loss. At least in California, there is almost always a defect in a transaction that an expert can exploit. A buyer who was marginally able to afford a property may be looking for a way out. Buyers behind on mortgage payments may sue the lender, mortgage broker, and real estate broker in an attempt to renegotiate the terms of their mortgage.

One of the reasons that real estate broker claims are hard to track is that the cases that make it to an appellate court or state supreme court were most likely filed years earlier. Therefore, when analyzing a real estate broker claim, it is important to take note of the economy at the time of purchase and the motivations of the plaintiff. Understanding the plaintiff’s motivation can at times help bring the case close to an early resolution.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Peter Catalanotti at [email protected].