Fisher v. Edgerton (CA1 9/30/14)

The court discusses Rule 77 sanctions as between co-defendants.

The plaintiff in a motor-vehicle case sued Fisher and Edgerton, the drivers of the other two vehicles in the crash. Fisher and Edgerton blamed each other for it. The arbitrator found Fisher to be 100% at fault and awarded plaintiff about $29,000. Fisher appealed. The jury found Fisher 100% at fault but awarded plaintiff only $20,000. Although Fisher was therefore not liable to the plaintiff for Rule 77 sanctions, Edgerton  moved for them. The trial court awarded them. Fisher appealed.

Fisher made three arguments: (1) since, under a case called Vance, she was required to include Edgerton in the appeal absent a stipulation to the contrary, the plaintiff should be responsible for the sanctions; (2) she beat the arbitration award by more than 23%; (3) awarding sanctions in this context was unconstitutional.

As to #1 the court rather summarily concludes that it doesn’t matter and later suggests that the case might be different if Fisher had tried to get a stipulation excusing Edgerton from the appeal. (If, in other words, Fisher had accepted the arbitrator’s allocation of fault.) “Might” since the court raises but expressly declines to answer the question, Fisher having not sought a stipulation.

As to the 23%  the court concludes that “more favorable” applies to the allocation of fault as well as to damages. The language of the rule is “more favorable by at least 23% than the monetary relief, or more favorable than the other relief, granted by the arbitration award.” This must apply to allocation of fault, the opinion says, because “only monetary claims are subject to compulsory arbitration.”  The court seems to have overlooked the fact that because of Rule 7(c) (arbitration by agreement of reference) it is dealing with a set of rules that are not in fact necessarily limited to monetary claims. In any event, it neglects to inform us of a context in which the word “relief” has ever before been applied to findings of fact.

Finally, Fisher’s first constitutional argument analogized to punitive-damage law – she had not received fair notice of the possibility and extent of the award. The court concludes (without, of course, saying it this way) that Fisher should have known that it would construe the rule as it does in this case. As to extent, the rule limits the award to “reasonable” costs and fees; reasonableness  of fees is itself limited by a set of “non-exclusive factors” (the reference is to Granville, which the same panel issues as a companion to this case, thereby suggesting that constitutional violations can be cured ex post facto).

Fisher’s other constitutional argument was that an award against her would chill her right to a jury trial because in a case not subject to compulsory arbitration she wouldn’t be faced with liability to the co-defendant. But the rule is the same for all similarly-situated and the rule has a rational basis and legitimate governmental interest.

The court discusses Fisher’s constitutional arguments at great length while dealing with the others in way that, while managing not be be brief, is largely conclusory. Perhaps the court truly believes that its conclusions are obvious and straightforward rather than novel and far-reaching.

(link to opinion)