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You’ve Heard of Unpublished Court Decisions, But How About Unwritten Decisions?

Tim Kowal     December 21, 2021

One of the criticisms against the uncitability of unpublished appellate opinions is that the fact they are not published feeds a suspicion they are not always thought quite all the way through. Certainly you are more likely to find typographical errors in an unpublished opinion, for instance, than you might in a published one. And I often find myself a bit unsatisfied at the level of legal analysis in an unpublished opinion.

But an unpublished analysis is better than no analysis at all. That is what the litigants got in Center Street Dev. Co. v. Superior Court (D1d2 Nov. 24, 2021) no. A160894. Based on the briefing (downloaded for a fee from the Superior Court’s website), the real estate dispute involved 2,750 acres on the Mendocino-Sonoma County line just off Highway 101. Several heirs held an interest in the property. One of the heirs, Robert, sold his 20% interest, plus his fractional interest as beneficiary of a trust and as a beneficiary of the trust. The other heirs obtained an adjudication the transfer of the 20% was a breach of fiduciary duty. The transferee moved for summary adjudication to quiet title to the transfer as to the other fractional interests.

The trial court denied summary adjudication, finding that the transfers of the other fractional interests were invalid because Robert never actually acquired an interest from the estate, and because Robert was barred from transferring under the trust’s spendthrift provisions.

As summary adjudication orders are not appealable, the plaintiff-purchaser petitioned for a writ of mandate. The First District Court of Appeal issued a Palma notice, indicating it may issue a peremptory writ in the first instance. (Palma v. U.S. Industrial Fasteners, Inc. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 171, 177-180.)

After briefing, the court concluded:

“Petitioner's right to relief is obvious, and no useful purpose would be served by issuance of an alternative writ, further briefing, and oral argument. (Ng v. Superior Court (1992) 4 Cal.4th 29, 35; 1 * attr(page-number) see Lewis v. Superior Court (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1232, 1236-1237, 1240-1241; Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri, Inc. v. Superior Court (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1233, 12401244.)”

“In its August 20, 2020 order, respondent court erred by granting summary adjudication on real party in interest's second (quiet title) and third (declaratory relief) causes of action. Therefore, let a peremptory writ of mandate issue directing respondent superior court to set aside and vacate the August 20, 2020 order granting real party in interest's motion for summary adjudication and to enter a new order denying the motion.”

That’s it. The court provided no other analysis. The court did not explain why the trial court was incorrect that Robert never acquired the real property interest from the estate. And the court did not explain why the spendthrift provisions in the trust did not prevent Robert from transferring the property.

Having only read part of the briefing (it is not available except for a charge of $0.50 per page), this observer cannot tell why the trial court was “obviously” wrong. It is safe to say the trial judge did not think she was “obviously” wrong. It is clear the defendant did not think the judge was “obviously” wrong.

Under article VI, §14 of the California Constitution, the appellate courts of this state are required to provide reasons for their rulings: “Decisions of the Supreme Court and courts of appeal that determine causes shall be in writing with reasons stated.” An opinion need not be exhaustive, but “a decision directing the issuance of a peremptory writ in the first instance is a ‘judgment’ ” within the meaning of provisions of Art. VI, “and the court must set forth the grounds for such a decision.” (Lewis v. Superior Court (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1232.) “[A]n opinion sufficiently states ‘reasons’ if it sets forth the ‘grounds’ or ‘principles’ upon which the justices concur in the judgment.”

The opinion in Center Street does not conform to this standard. That much, it seems safe to say, is obvious. If the court missed this obvious point, is it possible its summary reversal missed other points as well?

Tim Kowal is an appellate specialist certified by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Tim helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at CALpodcast.com, and publishes summaries of cases and appellate tips for trial attorneys. Contact Tim at [email protected] or (949) 676-9989.
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