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Getting Personal 2007 Travel & Gift Guide
2007 Holiday Travel & Gift Guide
December 2007 / $4
E A R N MCLE CR E D I T
Liability
for Water
Contamination
page 29
Getting
Personal
Los Angeles lawyer
Eric C. Peterson
points out the personal
liabilities faced by
directors and officers
of companies in
bankruptcy
page 22
PLUS
E–Discovery on Home Computers page 12
Risks in Green Construction page 17
Electronic Calendaring Services page 36
/
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LexisNexis, lexis.com, and the Knowledge Burst logo are registered trademarks of Reed Elsevier Properties Inc., used under license. Other products
and services may be trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies. © 2007 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.
All rights reserved.
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Other products or services may be trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies. © 2007 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
AL1037
F E AT U R E S
22 Getting Personal
BY ERIC C. PETERSON
Bankruptcy status may strip away many of the personal liability protections
directors and officers enjoy
29 Muddy Waters
BY EARL L. HAGSTRÖM
Recent court decisions on water contamination have chipped away at healthbased standards in favor of property rights and product liability theories
Plus: Earn MCLE credit. MCLE Test No. 165 appears on page 31
38 Special Section
2007 Holiday Travel & Gift Guide
D E PA RT M E N T S
Los Angeles Lawyer
the magazine of
11 Barristers Tips
Understanding the 90-day rule
BY BENJAMIN G. SHATZ
The Los Angeles County
Bar Association
December 2007
Volume 30, No. 9
COVER PHOTO: TOM KELLER
44 Closing Argument
Putting some common sense back into
patent enforcement
BY ELIOT G. DISNER
12 Practice Tips
Gaining e-discovery access to home
computers
BY BRIAN ZAYAS
17 Practice Tips
Managing liability risks in green
construction
7
Letters to the Editor
41 Classifieds
42 Index to Advertisers
43 CLE Preview
BY JEFFREY D. MASTERS AND JOHN R. MUSITANO JR.
12.07
36 Computer Counselor
Minimize risk with better calendar
management
BY JOSEPH C. SCOTT
20 Years Blue Chip
Experience
Resolving the
World’s Most
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(310) 849-8653
[email protected]
VISIT US ON THE INTERNET AT www.lacba.org/lalawyer
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EDITORIAL BOARD
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CHAD C. COOMBS
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LOS ANGELES LAWYER (ISSN 0162-2900) is published monthly, except for a
combined issue in July/August and a special issue in the fall, by the Los Angeles
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4 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
HONORABLE
LAWRENCE W. CRISPO
(RETIRED)
L
ast year, after years of experience as a lawyer and
CPA, I had, for the first time, the experience of being
a client. My mother passed away, and I became the
trustee of my family’s trusts. My mother was the last member of my immediate family, and although she was elderly,
her passing was somewhat unexpected. While dealing with the loss, I found myself
going through the house that had been our family home since my childhood, sorting through years of memorabilia and looking for records and documents to piece
together the estate, which included commercial real property.
While I am a tax lawyer, I am not an estate planner, and I knew that I would need
the help of a number of professionals, including an experienced estate lawyer. And
even though I have negotiated many real estate transactions, I did not want to make
the mistake of being my own lawyer. I also was fortunate to have the assistance of
experienced accountants, real estate brokers, and appraisers.
But I knew I could not rely entirely on professionals. I would have to make a number of important decisions and ultimately be responsible for those decisions. I realized that I would need to coordinate the efforts of the various professionals and learn
enough about estate law to ask the right questions. One of the professors who teaches
estate taxation in USC’s master’s in business taxation program graciously invited me
to sit in on a few classes. I also became familiar with the day-to-day property management issues, which I had never faced before and never imagined having to face.
Being a lawyer and a CPA, I believe, has helped me to make better decisions as
a client. I know from personal experience that tax professionals are often asked to
give simple answers to seemingly simple questions in sometimes very complex matters, without having the opportunity to review supporting documents or even prior
year tax returns. This can be a dangerous practice. In tax law, even slight nuances
in facts and circumstances that nontax practitioners would never recognize can often
lead to strikingly different—and unexpected—results.
I also am aware that conferences among colleagues are often frowned upon as
a waste of time. I disagree. My parents’ trusts involve numerous legal and tax
issues, and I want my professionals to have the full benefit of reviewing all documents and discussing all issues among themselves. I am not shopping for answers
among professionals. Rather, I appreciate the benefit of bringing professionals
together—each with his or her different experiences and perspectives—to offer
points and counterpoints, with the ultimate decision being mine.
My experience as a client has helped me to be a better lawyer. I have been able
to see what it is like to work with professionals from a client’s point of view. But
while I expect to make the ultimate decisions, I know many clients—particularly those
who may not have the necessary background to understand the issues or inclination
to make decisions—may place that responsibility on their counsel, even if the matter is largely a personal or business decision. Giving a client advice and guidance is
one thing, but making their business decisions for them is quite another. Lawyers
need to be careful regarding how far to go in making decisions for clients.
In my case, one of the hardest decisions I had to make was to sell the family home,
which I did this past spring. To my surprise, it is now a vacant lot. While selling the
home was the right decision at the right time, more important, it was my decision. ■
Mediator
Referee
Arbitrator
213-926-6665
www.judgecrispo.com
Chad C. Coombs is a shareholder in the Los Angeles office of Buchalter Nemer, APC, where he
specializes in tax law. He is the chair of the 2007-08 Los Angeles Lawyer Editorial Board.
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 5
LOS ANGELES LAWYER IS THE OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF
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6 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
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letters to the editor
Stipulations in Deposition
As licensed court reporters and past presidents
of Deposition Reporters Association of
California, we sincerely appreciate Steven D.
Archer’s article “The Dangers of the ‘Usual
Stipulation’ in Deposition Practice” (The
Survival Guide for New Attorneys, fall 2006).
It is a good discussion of the hazards of the
all-too-common practice of stipulating away
proper handling of the transcript by the deposition officer. We would like to add some
additional thoughts, from the perspective of
the reporter, both for consideration and clarification.
Mr. Archer mentions that reporters follow
different customary rules, depending on
whether they are in Northern or Southern
California. We wish to emphasize that the difference arises from the fact that in Northern
California attorneys generally choose to follow the law as written, the provisions in the
California Code of Civil Procedure, whereas
in Southern California it has become almost
unheard of to go “per Code”; it’s not a matter of whether to do a stipulation, but rather,
what the stipulation should say.
It is a mystery how this practice of relieving the reporter of his/her statutory duties
began, but it has resulted in many attorneys
in Southern California believing—as we have
actually heard stated in depositions—that a
stipulation must be done before they can
close the record. A favorite line was, “We have
to do a stipulation, otherwise the reporter will
just keep writing.” Perhaps it was said in
jest, but no one so much as chuckled, and no
one challenged the assertion.
Mr. Archer writes, “In Southern
California, court reporters will usually agree
to abide by a stipulation entered into between
all counsel present at the deposition that calls
for their release of the original transcript.”
Our silence should not be interpreted as
agreement. If reporters don’t interject regarding the stipulation in a deposition, it is because
we are in no position to educate attorneys on
the law, are ethically bound not to comment
on the proceedings in any way, and that we
certainly don’t want to jeopardize working
relationships by being labeled as a “troublemaker” because we refuse to accommodate
the wishes of the parties.
Unfortunately, it appears that the stipulation has become so universal in Southern
California that even well-respected attorneys
and publications are unclear about how the
transcript would actually be handled “per
Code.” Under the section with the subheading “Where,” Mr. Archer writes, “The court
reporter then maintains custody of the original transcript and lodges it directly with the
court upon request by one or more parties.”
With all due respect, that is not the practice
in any area of the state, nor is it the Code per
Code of Civil Procedure Section 2025.550(a).
Realistically, no reporter would (or should)
accept responsibility for maintaining the original transcript, let alone lodging a deposition transcript with the court.
That faulty premise makes Mr. Archer’s
statement that “In Northern California, court
reporters are loath to release possession, custody, and control of the original transcript”
also inaccurate. The objection to deviating
from the code requirements stems from an
uncertainty whether attorneys have the right
to stipulate away a deposition officer’s duties,
either with or without agreement by the
reporter. The Code of Civil Procedure clearly
states that there are certain provisions that can
be modified by stipulation; for instance,
method of recordation of the deposition,
Code of Civil Procedure Section 2025.330(b),
and the ability to waive signature or change
the time period for review and signing, Code
of Civil Procedure Section 2025.520(a) and
(b). Absent specific language that parties alone
have discretion to modify procedures, many
would contend that, at a minimum, the court
reporter must be a party to the stipulation. Just
as the Code of Civil Procedure provides that
a witness must agree to waive signature, it
seems reasonable that a reporter must agree
to waive his/her duties.
Following that line of thought and adding
to Mr. Archer’s nightmare scenario that a
blanket stipulation relieving a “reporter of
his/her duties under the code” has many unintended ramifications, consider that by entering into either the “usual stipulation,” or one
along the lines of Mr. Archer’s suggestion that
the reporter shall provide a preposted and
preaddressed envelope so that the witness
may then send the reviewed, corrected, and
executed original transcript and errata page to
counsel, it effectively removes the deposition
reporter from any responsibility regarding
review, corrections, signature, and notification
to the parties thereof. Under that scenario, the
reporter has no ability to certify the witness’s
execution of the original transcript and cannot ensure that all parties are notified of corrections, if any. Reporters have often discussed the propriety of attorneys themselves
assuming duties that, by law, are required to
be done by the independent officer of the
court.
Perhaps more importantly, when opposing counsel is made responsible for overseeing corrections and signature, any certified
transcript provided by the reporter at a later
date, either to a party or a nonparty, will
not reflect such corrections or changes made
by the witness. It then becomes incumbent on
the attorney to seek out important information regarding witness review.
Lastly, we wish to express our belief that
stipulating away the original to opposing
counsel effectively means the noticing attorney is subsidizing his/her opponent’s case.
Antitrust laws prohibit reporters from discussing specific rates; however, our combined
personal experience of working for deposition
firms throughout the state seems to bear out
that rates for an O&1 are generally significantly higher in Southern California as compared to Northern California. It appears that
Southern California rates reflect the fact it is
customary for the noticing attorney to provide opposing counsel a “free” transcript
(the original). In contrast, lower rates in
Northern California for the O&1 reflect an
expectation that opposing counsel will order
a certified copy of the transcript, which would
seem to be a proper allocation of expenses in
civil cases.
A byproduct of opposing/witness’s counsel receiving essentially a free copy (the original) is that they have no financial stake in the
length of the deposition transcript. Some
have been known to take that opportunity to
ask endless questions, sometimes exceeding
that of the noticing attorney, to make his/her
record. Perhaps it is a style; perhaps it is a tactic to increase costs for the noticing attorney.
In either case, it has at times resulted in arguLos Angeles Lawyer December 2007 7
ment, with the reporter being asked by the
noticing attorney to close the record, only to
be reopened on opposing counsel’s dime, so
to speak. Per Code of Civil Procedure Section
2025.470, a reporter may not go off the
record without agreement of the witness and
all parties present unless a party or the witness states an intention to move for a protective order. Reporters cannot rule on
whether the examination is “outside the
scope.” Reporters do not “work” for the
noticing attorney, so the admonition that
“I’m paying you, and I instruct you to go off
the record” will fall on deaf ears. This is just
another consideration in deciding whether
to release a “free” transcript to opposing
counsel.
In closing, we offer two thoughts: First, we
repeat our appreciation that Mr. Archer’s
article raised the topic and covered significant
points. Second, should the current law need
revision, perhaps attorneys and reporters can
work together to change it, creating uniform
practices throughout the state and eliminating the need to determine whether a stipulation protects or jeopardizes the integrity of the
deposition transcript.
In the interim, given that procedures in the
Code of Civil Procedure seem to work well
in Northern California, we would advocate
that Southern California attorneys rethink
the custom and practice of a stipulation at the
end of every deposition.
Lynda Goddard
Certified Stenotype Reporter
Holly Moose
Certified Stenotype Reporter
The Poor Loser Syndrome
I have been a member of LACBA for many
years, and this is the first time that I felt compelled to complain about something related
to the Association. However, I feel that the
decision to publish the Closing Argument
titled “Arbitration and the Poor Loser
Syndrome” (Los Angeles Lawyer, September
2007) by Ronald E. Wood is, at a minimum
questionable, if not totally inappropriate.
The article appears to me to be a vehicle
for the losing party’s attorney to criticize a
trial court judgment (“a court simply lost its
way”) which is currently on appeal. Indeed,
it does even more than that since it, in essence,
appears to me to threaten the imposition of
sanctions on the appellant. In short, I believe
it is a totally one-sided presentation of matters in litigation which have not been finally
resolved.
To me, the use of Closing Argument in this
manner sets a bad precedent which is reinforced by a portion of the title given to the
article (“poor loser syndrome”). I wonder
8 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
who, indeed, is the poor loser at this stage of
the proceedings? Does the publication of this
article become the basis for any member of
LACBA to vent in Los Angeles Lawyer his or
her unhappiness with a case he or she is
appealing? It seems to me that the proper
place for such argument is in the appellant’s
opening brief and not in Los Angeles Lawyer
magazine, and the proper time for analyzing
the result of the case is after it is concluded
on appeal.
Harry B. Sondheim
Editors reply: The general policy of Los
Angeles Lawyer is to avoid printing Closing
Argument columns that merely rehash a losing party’s disagreement over a judicial decision. We felt that this column raised a sufficiently general point on arbitration to fall
on the other side of a blurry line. After reading your response, we acknowledge that we
may have been in error.
Correction on Probate Law
In the sixth paragraph of Elizabeth A. Nixon’s
article, “Default Judgment—Dying without
a Will” (Barristers Tips, Los Angeles Lawyer,
October 2007), she states that when a married woman with two children dies intestate,
half of her community property passes to
her husband and the balance to her children.
This is mistaken. What actually happens is
that at death, the intestate succession statutes
provide that the surviving husband will wind
up with both halves of the community property—the children inherit no interest in the
community. On the death of a married person, half of the community property belongs
to the surviving spouse and the other half
belongs to the deceased spouse. Probate Code
Section 100(a). The surviving spouse then
inherits the deceased spouse’s share of the
community property by virtue of Probate
Code Section 6401(a).
E. Grant Hardacre
I just finished reading your article on “Default
Judgment—Dying without a Will,” by
Elizabeth A. Nixon. Within the article she
states that community property is to be divided
equally between a parent and children if one
parent dies without a will. This is completely
inaccurate information, at least regarding the
Probate Code. According to Probate Code
Section 6400, if one spouse passes away without a will, the property immediately defaults
to the surviving spouse, not the children, nor
is it automatically split with the children.
Having recent personal experience with
the death of a parent who did not leave a will
and the remaining parent laying claim to the
entire legacy (under California law), these
types of articles carry a lot of weight to them.
And, they carry a sense of hope for anyone
who might presently be in a situation similar
to the one given as an example.
Jennifer Jacobsen
Legal Assistant
More on Medi-Cal Rules
The article on Medi-Cal benefits in the
October 2007 Los Angeles Lawyer, “Care
Package” by James A. Busse Jr., contains a
number of errors that require correction. The
mistakes relate to in-home care, reverse mortgages, allowed maintenance amounts, gifts,
the home exemption, liens and life insurance.
The article states a purpose of borrowing
money from a home is “to generate funds for
in-home care—which is not covered in any
way by Medi-Cal.” Medi-Cal in fact provides in-home care under the In-Home
Supportive Services program for about
150,000 people in Los Angeles County alone.
See Welfare and Institutions Code Sections
14132.95 (Personal Care Services) and
14132.951 (In-Home Support Services Plus
Waiver).
In addition, there are a number of significant statewide Medi-Cal waiver programs—
combined as of January 1, 2007, under the
Nursing Facility/Acute Hospital (NF/AH)
Waiver—that allow persons who would otherwise be placed at intermediate, skilled nursing, or subacute facilities to obtain care at
home instead of at an institution. See Welfare
and Institutions Code Section 14132(t).
Information regarding Medi-Cal’s home-andcommunity based waiver services can be found
at http:www.dhcs.ca.gov/formsandpubs
/publications/Pages/HCBSWaivers.aspx.
The article says that “reverse mortgages
by nature are counterproductive, because
they increase the share-the-cost fraction.”
While the structure of each loan must be
examined on a case-by-case basis, reverse
mortgages generally do not increase share of
cost. State law provides that “reverse mortgage loan payments made to a borrower shall
be treated as proceeds from a loan and not as
income for the purpose of determining eligibility and benefits under means-tested programs of aid to individuals.” See Civil Code
Section 1923.9.
The article says an institutionalized spouse
is allowed to keep a small amount of spending money—“currently $30 per month.” Any
institutionalized person is actually allowed to
keep $35, not $30, per month for personal
and incidental needs. See 22 California Code
of Regulations Section 50605(a)(1).
In the article’s example, therefore, for the
husband with a monthly pension of $2,000
and investment income of $1,666, the
Community Spouse Resource Allowance
increase would not “result in $1,095 of husband’s retirement income being paid to the
nursing home,” as stated in the article, but
rather $1,095 (minus $35) being paid to the
nursing home. See 22 California Code of
Regulations Section 50605(a)(1).
The article says, under current rules, that
“if an applicant gives $40,000 away, the
applicant is disqualified from receiving nursing home care for $40,000 divided by $5,101,
or almost 8 months.”
The disqualification penalty would actually be exactly 7 months because, in accordance with the current rules, the result of
the equation is rounded down to the nearest
whole number. See D.1 of Period of
Ineligibility for Nursing Facility Level of Care
Work Sheet in All County Welfare Directors
Letter No. 98-08 (February 16, 1998).
“If the applicant gave away $40,000 in
September 2006 and applied for Medi-Cal in
February 2007,” the article continues, “the
period of disqualification would only be 1 to
3 months (depending on what day in each
month the triggering event occurs).” The
period would actually be zero to two months,
depending on whether the gift was made all
at once in September or in smaller increments, which totaled $40,000, on different
days in September. Each separate gift in
September would be divided by $5,101 and
rounded down to the next whole number to
get a penalty period that began in September.
If the gifts of $40,000 were $5,000 each and
made on different days in September, there
would be no ineligibility period. If the gift was
made at once on the same day in September,
however, the penalty would expire seven
months later in April and thus result in a
maximum period of disqualification of only
two months—that is, February and March.
See Period of Ineligibility for Nursing Facility
Level of Care Work Sheet in All County
Welfare Directors Letter No. 98-08 (February
16, 1998).
The article states: “If item 51 [indicating
the applicant’s intent to return home] is not
checked, the home is not exempt.”
Even if item 51 regarding the applicant’s
intent to return home were not checked, however, the home can still be exempt for a variety of other reasons, for example, if a spouse,
child under age 21, or dependent relative is
living there. See 22 California Code of
Regulations Section 50425(c).
The article says that the “personal representative, successor trustee, or surviving
spouse” of the Medi-Cal recipient must
inform the state within 90 days of the recipient’s death and then the state “may then
place a lien on the decedent’s property.”
Currently, after the death of the Medi-Cal
recipient, the state may only “propose” a
“voluntary” lien on property if certain circumstances exist. See 22 California Code of
Regulations Sections 50960.36, 50965.
Finally, the article says a Medi-Cal recipient is allowed to have “a life insurance policy with a face value of $1,500 or less.” A
Medi-Cal recipient can actually keep life
insurance policies with a face value well in
excess of $1,500, since it is the net cash value
of life insurance policies that is counted for
policies with combined face value in excess of
$1,500. Term policies are not counted at all
regardless of the amount of face value. See 22
California Code of Regulations Section
50475.
Thus, for example, a senior’s universal
life insurance policy with no net cash value
and a very large face value—which can often
be valuable if it is sold on the secondary life
insurance market—would be counted as
valueless in the determination of Medi-Cal
eligibility.
Terry M. Magady
Author’s reply: I thank Mr. Magady for his
comments. They do point out the complexity in the law.
It is important to note that the article was
meant to discuss the differences between current policy and those we may see under the
Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) and not
a treatise on current law and rules.
Mr. Magady correctly notes that Medi-Cal
covers in-home care. The article correctly
states that the method of financing in-home
care by having the children pay a loan secured
by the elderly person’s home is not paid for
by Med-Cal. The paragraph should be read
as a proactive way for one to pay his or her
own healthcare costs rather than a method
used as a last resort because the taxpayers
won’t. That is why the topic sentence reads,
“One method that does not save the estate…”
and uses the phrase “keeps the state out of the
estate” later in the paragraph.
I thank Mr. Magady for correctly pointing out the personal monthly allowance is
$35, not $30.
Mr. Magady points out that reverse mortgages may not increase the share the cost
fraction and that each reverse mortgage must
be carefully examined. In some cases a reverse
mortgage will not increase the share the cost
fraction. Code of Civil Procedure Section
1923.9 says that the income from a reverse
mortgage will be treated as receipts from a
loan. Reverse mortgages or any loan payment will not be counted as income as long
as they are spent within the same month they
are received. If the funds are not spent, they
are treated as income. Additionally, they
could accumulate and push the recipient’s
resources over the allowable limits for
Medicaid or SSI eligibility. Finally, payments
from a reverse annuity mortgage—a very
common reverse mortgage loan—are counted
as income for purposes of Medi-Cal whether
or not the funds are spent within the month
they are received.
I thank Mr. Magady for his work up of the
exact period of disqualification under the
current rules by rounding down. Additionally,
he shows that by making the gift in installments the period of disqualification can be
altered. I think this is of great value even
though Mr. Magady’s example is not aligned
with the article. There are many ways to give
gifts that reduce or eliminate the waiting
period. Each case is different, as he has
pointed out.
As to the round down comment, the DRA
requires the state not to round down, so
under the new law the period of disqualification remains 7 months 25 days.
Additionally, under the DRA, the state may
aggregate the gifts and apply them at the latest date part of the gift was given. The important thing is the split gift strategy mentioned
by Mr. Magady may not be advantageous
when the DRA rules are implemented. Putting
this together: The period of disqualification
currently is zero to two whole months and not
one to three whole months; so the impact of
the DRA is worse by an additional one to two
months than the five to seven months
(rounded but not exceeding seven months
25 days) than the article shows.
Mr. Magady expands the article’s comment that the state may place a lien on the
decedent’s property. The article correctly says
the state may place a lien on the property if
not notified within the 90-day period.
Mr. Magady points out the complexity in
evaluating the value of a life insurance policy. However, the article correctly states that
one can have a life insurance policy with a
face value of $1,500 or less. The SSI instruction for the question regarding life insurance is:
Question 5 asks whether you (and
your spouse, if you live together) have
any life insurance policies with a total
combined face value of $1,500 or
more. The face value is the same as the
death benefit—the sum of money that
is paid when you die. If you answer
“Yes” to Question 5, you must report
the cash value—that is, the amount
you would receive if your insurance
policy was cashed in right now—even
if it is less than the face value.
Important note: If you have any outstanding loans against the policy, the
cash value is reduced.
Mr. Magady is correct that one can take
a loan against the policy and reduce the cash
value of the policy. However, if the face value
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of the policy is $1,500 or less, neither the face
value nor the cash value need be reported. Mr.
Magady’s term policy example is interesting.
Neither term policies without cash surrender
value nor burial policies count in the qualification process.
Mr. Magady correctly points out that
there are ways to ensure the home is
“exempt” other than checking box 51. The
paragraph dealt with the home being exempt
for permanent transfer to anyone—i.e., if
you transfer an exempt asset it remains
exempt and, when transferred, is no longer
available for recovery. His example of leaving a disabled person in the home only makes
the home not subject to recovery for only
the proportionate share of the decedent’s
estate or property that passes to that recipient by survival or distribution, under Welfare
and Institutions Code Section 14009.5(2).
See Welfare and Institutions Code Section
14009.5(3). So more needs to be added to Mr.
Magady’s comment to make it correct under
the statute. The regulations under 22 California Code of Regulations Section 5045(c)
conflict in this regard with the statute in that
it parses “personal property used as a home,”
which is treated differently than real property
used as a home.
In summary, Mr. Magady’s letter to the
editor is a welcome expansion of the article
by a leader in the field. Mr. Magady’s comments and alternate fact patterns add to the
article and show this is a complex and evolving area of the law.
James A. Busse Jr.
Praise for Los Angeles Lawyer
I just finished the October 2007 issue of Los
Angeles Lawyer and am again impressed
with the high quality of the truly useful articles the magazine carries. I continue to be
amazed by the number of in-depth insightful
well written articles you present in each issue.
The state bar should look to you as a model
to improve its offering. Keep up the great
work!
Robert Giffin
The Ethics of Bluffing
Robert A. Steinberg's article on bluffing in settlement negotiations (“Calling the Bluff,”
Los Angeles Lawyer, November 2007) was
excellent but had what may be a puzzling
omission.
While Mr. Steinberg correctly discussed the
privileged nature of settlement negotiations,
primarily through Civil Code Section 47's
litigation privilege, he failed to mention the
powerful tool provided by Code of Civil
(Continued on page 40)
10 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
barristers tips
BY BENJAMIN G. SHATZ
Understanding the 90-Day Rule
NEWS STORIES ABOUT BACKDATING often relate to corporate scandal, but the backdating of judicial decisions has recently received
attention in the legal press too.1 Every California judge is familiar
with the requirement to issue timely decisions under a constitutional provision (Article VI, Section 19) that sets a deadline for
judicial decisions: 90 days after the matter is submitted for decision.
This constitutional provision also includes a penalty: “A judge of a
court of record may not receive…salary…while any cause before the
judge remains pending and undetermined for 90 days after it has been
submitted for decision.”
In other words, a judge’s paycheck is contingent on timely decision
making. This is why judges typically end hearings or oral arguments
with a variation of the phrase “the matter stands submitted.” This is
the trigger for a decision. But how does the state controller (who issues
judicial paychecks) know whether a judge has had an undecided
pending matter on the court’s docket for more than 90 days? The “constitutional and statutory scheme for prompt decisions is largely selfenforcing. It depends on the good faith and industry of the judges.”2
More specifically, the legislature implements the directive through
Government Code Section 68210, which requires judges to “make
and subscribe…an affidavit stating that no cause before him remains
pending and undetermined for 90 days after it has been submitted for
decision.” Thus, to be paid, judges must sign a salary affidavit shortly
before the end of each month. A judge that falls behind does not forfeit pay for the delay; rather, payment is postponed until overdue matters are decided.3
For several reasons, however, this does not mean that a decision
is guaranteed to issue on or before the 90th day after submission. First,
if the 90th day falls on a weekend or holiday, the deadline moves to
the next business day by operation of law.4 Second, as a practical matter, judges are paid at the end of each month and only have to sign
their salary affidavits shortly before then. Therefore, if the 90th day
falls near the beginning or middle of the month, the judge still could
have several days or weeks before having to sign the affidavit. In effect,
the 90-day rule is not a strict 90 days but a practical deadline at the
end of the month in which the 90th day falls.
Third, judges have the ability to vacate submission and resubmit
cases—thereby restarting the 90-day period.5 That means judges
have the power to grant themselves an extension. Exercising this power,
however, is fairly unusual and requires a valid reason (e.g., a court
is awaiting a decision from a higher court that will control the pending matter).6 Finally, it is possible—albeit rare—that a judge simply
may fail to comply with the 90-day rule.7
A superior court judge in Alameda County recently was publicly
censured for “willful misconduct” based on his “reckless submission
of erroneous salary affidavits at times when he was aware he had overdue rulings, with disregard for whether they were true or false.”8
Similarly, a superior court judge from Riverside County recently
faced charges that he backdated orders to make it appear that he had
not violated the 90-day rule.9 In one instance, a judgment apparently
was backdated to nearly a year earlier, and when one of the parties
appealed, the court of appeal dismissed the appeal as untimely since
the notice of appeal was filed over a year after entry of judgment.10
At the appellate level, the 90-day rule has an effect on the scheduling of oral arguments. Ninety days may not be enough time to carefully analyze complicated legal issues, draft a well-reasoned opinion
(especially one for publication), and obtain a majority of justices to
sign the opinion. As a result, California’s appellate courts typically
ensure timely compliance by entertaining oral argument only after they
have a tentative decision.
Although undue delay may provide a basis for a writ of mandate
to compel a judge to make a decision, it seems unwise to take that
step except in the most drastic circumstances.11 Fortunately, judicial
misconduct of this sort is very rare. Indeed, from 1990 to 1999 the
Commission on Judicial Performance imposed discipline only 50
times for misconduct categorized as “decisional delay/tardiness/attendance/other dereliction of duty.”12
Clearly, the overwhelming majority of judges comply with their constitutional and ethical duties to issue timely decisions. Nevertheless,
lawyers should understand the 90-day rule, if for no other reason
than to answer the client’s inevitable question: “When can we expect
a ruling?”
■
1 Judge’s Behavior Is Prejudicial Misconduct, L.A. DAILY J. (Feb. 15, 2007); Judge
Quizzed about Blown Deadlines, L.A. DAILY J. (Nov. 16, 2006); Judge Denies He
Backdated Orders, L.A. DAILY J. (Oct. 5, 2006); Watchdog Agency Charges Judge
with Misconduct, L.A. DAILY J. (May 4, 2006).
2 Hassanally v. Firestone, 51 Cal. App. 4th 1241, 1246 (1996).
3 Id. at 1244-45.
4 Id. at 1243 (citing CODE CIV. PROC. §12a).
5 See, e.g., CAL. R. CT. 2.900(b); CAL. R. CT. 8.256(e)(2), 8.524(h)(2) (Supreme court
or court of appeal may vacate submission only by an order stating the court’s reasons and setting a timetable for resubmission.); see also INT. OP. PRAC. & PROC. OF
THE CAL. SUPREME CT. §§VII, X (“Unless good cause to vacate submission appears,
the opinions are filed on or before the 90th day after submission.”).
6 Hassanally, 51 Cal. App. 4th at 1241 (improper to “resubmit” a case unless justified by “unusual circumstances”).
7 See Mardikian v. Commission on Judicial Performance, 40 Cal. 3d 473 (1985);
McCullough v. Commission on Judicial Performance, 49 Cal. 3d 186, 197 (1989);
In re Jensen, 24 Cal. 3d 72 (1978).
8 See http://cjp.ca.gov/CNCensure/Freedman%20Severe%20Censure%206-26
-07.pdf
9 See Lawyer Says Messiness Delayed Judge, L.A. D AILY J. (Jan. 23, 2007);
http://cjp.ca.gov/Notice%20of%20FP/Spitzer%207-18-06.pdf (8/2/2006).
10 See http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov/search/case/dockets.cfm?dist=42&doc_id
=669624&doc_no=E036521 and http://cjp.ca.gov/Notice%20of%20FP/Spitzer%207
-18-06.pdf.
11 Hassanally, 51 Cal. App. 4th at 1245-46 (“Only the boldest of counsel is likely
to protest while the case remains undecided in the hands of the trial judge.”).
12 See COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE, SUMMARY OF DISCIPLINE STATISTICS
1990-1999, app. tbl. 6-B, available at http://cjp.ca.gov/publicat.htm.
Benjamin G. Shatz is a certified appellate specialist in the Appellate Practice
Group of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 11
practice tips
BY BRIAN ZAYAS
RICHARD EWING
Gaining E-Discovery Access to Home Computers
PERSONAL HOME COMPUTERS are indispensable. By offering a connection to an endless variety of services, computers play a variety of
roles. They are a user’s confidant, career planner, and, most important, the ultimate communications tool. In performing these functions
and more, computers house enormous amounts of data. By doing so,
they are an invaluable source of e-discovery evidence. However,
since home computers, unlike office computers, invariably contain a
wealth of personal information, parties must navigate issues of privacy as they promulgate their discovery requests and responses.
Extracting electronically stored information (ESI) from computers for discovery purposes can be helpful in many circumstances.
Sometimes the data is so intertwined with a complaint’s allegations
that it would be malpractice to ignore it. Indeed, the subject matter
of an action is often a key consideration for a court when weighing
the merits of a motion to compel access to a home computer.
Actions that frequently contain e-discovery requests aimed at
home computers include those involving the misappropriation of
trade secrets or similar fact patterns.1 This trend seems to be based
on the nature of the action, which draws attention to the alleged
wrongdoer’s home computer. In these matters, courts tend to allow
e-discovery access to a home computer. For example, in 2006 in
Ameriwood Industries, Inc. v. Liberman, a federal district court in
Missouri shed light on its rationale for doing so and how its reasoning
may apply to other actions:
[I]n cases where a defendant allegedly used the computer itself
to commit the wrong that is the subject of the lawsuit, certain
items on the hard drive may be discoverable….[A]llegations that
a defendant downloaded trade secrets onto a computer provide a sufficient nexus between plaintiff’s claims and the need
to obtain a mirror image of the computer’s hard drive.2
Thus, as a general rule, if a complaint demonstrates a sufficient
link between the allegations and the defendant’s personal home computer, courts will be more likely to allow access to the computer.
In Frees, Inc. v. McMillian—a 2007 federal district court decision
in Louisiana that also involved the misappropriation of trade secrets—
the court emphasized the significance of this link and provided a sobering example on how it may be stretched.3 Following the plaintiff’s
request for an order to grant access to the defendant’s home computer,
the defendant objected on the basis that he had not purchased the computer until two years after the alleged misappropriation.4 However,
the court granted access and noted that even if the defendant’s claim
were true, “[i]t would certainly have been possible for McMillian to
transfer computer data acquired from Frees in 2003 to a computer
he did not obtain until two years later.”5 The mere fact that the defendant owned a home computer—no matter when he purchased it—
and the fact the litigation involved misappropriated data was a sufficient basis to require the defendant to provide access to his computer.
While the subject matter of an action is arguably the most determinative factor in a court’s decision to allow a home computer to be
searched, additional considerations include possible grounds for
12 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
objections and the scope of, and basis for, the request. For example,
a request to inspect the opposition’s hard drive will not likely be
granted merely because the asking party wants to search for additional
responsive documents.6 However, when a party has provided inconsistent discovery responses, courts are more likely to grant a request
for access to a home computer.7 Still, requests based on a mere suspicion that a party’s previous responses were incomplete have been
rejected.8
Also, courts generally will deny motions to compel production of
ESI when a request seeks unfettered access to computer equipment,
and lesser intrusive means for obtaining discovery are available.9 Thus,
courts carefully scrutinize requests for ESI from home computers as
they do other discovery requests that seek evidence potentially intermingled with private or confidential information.10
Data Review Protocol
When a court determines that the discovery request is sufficiently
related to the subject matter of the action or is otherwise appropriate, the next hurdle is to propose a data review protocol that minimizes the extent of the intrusion caused by gaining access to an
Brian Zayas, a lawyer, is a Los Angeles-based sales engineer for Océ Business
Services’ CaseData Division, a national e-discovery provider.
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opposing party’s hard drive. Frequently, an
agreed-upon protocol consists of the asking
party selecting an e-discovery vendor to create a “mirror image,” an exact copy of the
opposition’s hard drive. The responding party
employs search terms to produce the responsive ESI.
Although the process may appear relatively simple, parties frequently disagree on
several aspects, including who will select the
expert, who will identify and run the search
terms, and who will have direct access to the
data and when. Further, since home computers can contain private or confidential
information, including data belonging to
nonparty family members, a frequent concern
is the extent to which that privacy is compromised.11 A common subject of ESI discovery motions to search home computers is
the parameters of the data review protocol.
When parties fail to agree on a protocol,
courts frequently impose one.12 In Frees, the
court adopted features from a review protocol suggested by the plaintiff because it seemed
fair and reasonable.13 After determining that
the defendant’s personal home computer was
“among the most likely places McMillian
would have downloaded or stored the data
allegedly missing,” the court granted access
to the plaintiff’s computer forensics expert.14
The court noted that the review protocol
proposed by the plaintiff was designed to
offer protective measures against disclosure
of “irrelevant personal information or…confidential or privileged information.”15
Accordingly, the court ruled that the plaintiff’s forensics expert was permitted to access,
and make images of, the defendant’s hard
drives. The expert was required to provide the
imaged drives to the defense so that the
defense could “identify and seek protection
for any objectionable information (such as
privileged or work-product information).”
The plaintiff’s expert then was permitted to
perform keyword searches and provide both
sides with the resulting file names. After this
step, the defense was given an additional 10
days to object to the production of any of
those files. Following the 10-day period, the
defense was required to produce the remaining files.16 The court also indicated that it
would permit the expert to repeat and refine
the keyword searches if the expert determined that it was necessary to do so. Moreover, the court authorized the expert to determine if any data had been transferred to
other memory devices.17
Sometimes, courts require both parties,
and their respective forensics experts, to collaborate and agree upon a review protocol.
This occurred in Calyon v. Mizuho Securities
USA Inc., a 2007 New York federal district
court decision.18 Calyon, like Ameriwood
and Frees, involved personal home comput14 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
ers, allegations of misappropriation of trade
secrets, and objections based on privacy. The
discovery dispute in Calyon was based, in
part, on the plaintiff’s desire to allow its
expert to have direct access to the defendants’ home computers. In response, the
defendants argued that giving the plaintiff’s
expert “‘unfettered access’ to the Individual
Defendants’ home computers and computer
storage devices would impermissibly invade
the privacy rights of the Individual Defendants
and their non-party family members….”19
The defendants also indicated they would be
willing to make their expert available “to
work cooperatively with Calyon’s counsel
and expert on an on-going basis to develop
and refine search techniques to ensure that all
responsive information is identified.”20
Ultimately, the court proposed a collaborative solution similar to the defendants’ suggestion. It also added a safeguard that would
permit Calyon to renew its application for
direct access to the mirror images if it could
demonstrate “that relevant and responsive
information [had] been withheld or [was]
missing, or that the Individual Defendants’
expert [had] failed to consult fully, in good
faith.”21
Missing Data
The discovery of ESI from personal home
computers sometimes presents unique issues
involving spoliation of evidence. In most
business environments, IT professionals and
other technical personnel are expected to
manage and maintain the company’s network and individual office computers and
other equipment. Corporate officers develop
data policies and procedures and ensure that
all employees are aware of their responsibilities regarding proper data storage preservation. Daily backup tapes in business environments generally are securely stored but
easily retrievable.
In contrast, home computer users must
make their own decisions about how they
wish to manage their data. The average user
has not developed protocols on data storage
restrictions or system maintenance in the
manner of most businesses, which is precisely what makes the discovery of home
computer ESI so interesting. With home computer users, in the realm of data preservation,
anything can happen—and frequently does.
A computer’s hard drive contains significant clues that explain, in great detail, critical
aspects of data activity during a specific time
frame. These clues may provide additional
sources of discovery, including evidence of
other storage devices to which data may have
been transferred and other indicia of misconduct. Obviously, depending on the facts of
the case, these details may be significant.
In Roll-Kraft, Inc. v. Grimes, a 2001
Illinois federal district court bench trial,22
the court found that the defendant had taken
“steps to cover up his wrongful acts.”23
Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant had copied trade secrets to his personal
computer and used them to benefit himself
and his new employer during his new employment.24 When defense counsel refused to produce the defendant and others for deposition, the plaintiff sought court intervention.25
Subsequently, the court ordered the defendant
to produce his home computer to the plaintiff’s forensics expert for examination.26
The order was issued November 15, 2001,
and the defendant was to produce his personal
computer on November 23, 2001.27 During
the seven days following the issuance of the
order, the defendant defragmented his computer three times and then did so once more
on November 24, 2001.28 During the normal
course of using a computer, the manner in
which data is stored causes the data to become
fragmented and negatively affects a computer’s performance. Most experts recommend
that in order to restore lost efficiency, the
average user should perform a disk defragmentation approximately once a month.29
One of the side effects of defragmentation is
that remnants of deleted files are erased. The
court found that the defendant defragmented
his computer for the purpose of preventing the
discovery of any remnants of trade secrets.30
This finding of misconduct, among others,
contributed to the court’s decision to rule in
favor of the plaintiff.31
Even when data seems to have been lost
inadvertently, courts will not hesitate to issue
penalties. In Teague v. Target Corporation, a
2007 North Carolina federal court case
involving allegations of wrongful termination, not only was data missing but the plaintiff’s hard drive on her home computer had
been discarded.32 The defendant, Target,
sought to demonstrate that the plaintiff had
failed to mitigate her damages.33 During discovery, it was learned that the plaintiff, upon
her termination, had conducted her job search
online with a home computer she had owned
between 1995 and 2004. However, the plaintiff claimed that approximately a year following the time she obtained legal representation, her computer hard drive crashed.
Making matters worse, “the only documented
evidence of [the plaintiff]’s post-termination
job search was the work search records she
submitted to the North Carolina Employment
Security Commission (ESC) to substantiate
her claim for unemployment benefits.”
Further, there were contradictions between the
ESC records and some of the plaintiff’s discovery responses regarding her job search.34
The court found that the plaintiff “clearly
had an obligation to preserve her computer
because it contained electronic evidence relat-
ing to her claims against Target and her
efforts to mitigate her damages.” The court
further noted that because she had already
hired counsel and filed an EEOC claim at
the time of the alleged data destruction, there
was sufficient evidence she discarded the
computer with “a culpable state of mind.” As
a result of these findings, the court decided to
issue an adverse inference instruction to the
jury at trial.35
Foresight and Strategy
Crashed hard drives, deleted files, and privacy
concerns are daunting hurdles to gathering
ESI from home computers. Nevertheless, ESI,
whether found or missing, can have a powerful impact on a case. With all the challenges, parties must plan ahead whether they
are requesting the evidence or responding to
requests for it.
In a properly pleaded complaint, plaintiffs
must pay careful attention to those allegations
in which the plaintiffs need to demonstrate a
sufficient association to data claimed to be
housed on a home computer. The more specific the allegation regarding its nexus to the
computer data, the more likely a court will
grant access to the home computer. If amending the complaint is no longer an option,
and if the facts of the complaint bear little
relation to potential data on a computer, an
alternative approach would be to seek to discredit the opposition by uncovering inconsistencies in discovery responses. This is, of
course, a backdoor approach, but if it is
employed effectively, it may serve to highlight
the need to gain access to ESI. However, an
effort to seek ESI merely for impeachment evidence, without a specific basis, will not likely
succeed.36
Plaintiffs also should recognize and anticipate the privacy concerns that will be raised
by defendants seeking to protect the personal
data that is regularly maintained and stored
on home computers. Broad requests that seek
unfettered access to hard drives are disfavored. One Florida state court refused to
grant access under circumstances in which the
request was deemed overly broad, despite
an unmistakable link between the plaintiff’s
allegations and the ESI being sought. 37
Carefully crafted requests accompanied by a
proposed nonintrusive review protocol may
win more favor with judges.
Defendants must preserve all relevant data
at every stage of the litigation. This is particularly important given the recent passage
of the 2006 amendments to the Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure affecting e-discovery. The
amendments require businesses to maintain
all ESI in an organized manner so that data
can be quickly retrieved, reviewed, and produced at a moment’s notice. At the inception
of any litigation, counsel should consider all
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Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 15
instances in which ESI could be involved. As
illustrated in Teague, an important lesson is
that even a seemingly innocent act, such as
discarding an old computer, can have serious
repercussions.38 The perils of failing to preserve evidence in an organized manner are
illustrated by Coleman v. Morgan Stanley, a
2005 case that involved a devastating adverse
jury instruction and a $1.5 billion verdict.39
For both sides, seeking access to the opposition’s home computer may be merely an
act of due diligence. A typical traffic accident
provides an analogy. In that type of case,
most lawyers would not think twice about
seeking information from multiple sources,
such as city traffic signal records and settings, street maintenance schedules, GPS
devices, and even cell phone records to determine if one or both drivers may have been driving while distracted. Similarly, most business
litigation involves ESI to some degree—and
if ESI is involved, there is almost always a
chance that ESI relevant to the matter is
housed on someone’s personal home computer or portable storage device. Home computer ESI may not only be a fruitful source of
information—it might be the additional leverage that changes the outcome of the case. ■
1
See Calyon v. Mizuho Secs. USA Inc., 2007 WL
1468889 (S.D. N.Y. May 18, 2007); Frees, Inc. v.
McMillian, 2007 WL 184889 (W.D. La. Jan. 22,
2007); Ameriwood Indus., Inc. v. Liberman, No. 4:06
CV 524-DJS, 2006 WL 3825291 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 27,
2006).
2 Ameriwood, 2006 WL 3825291, at *9.
3 Frees, 2007 WL 184889.
4 Id. at *2.
5 Id.
6 Ameriwood, 2006 WL 3825291, at *8.
7 Id. at *9.
8 Id. See also Balfour Beatty Rail, Inc. v. Vaccarello,
No. 3:06-CV-551-J-20MCR, 2007 WL 169628 (M.D.
Fla. Jan. 18, 2007).
9 See Menke v. Broward County Sch. Bd., 916 So. 2d
8 (Fla. App. Ct. 2005).
10 See Calyon v. Mizuho Secs. USA Inc., 2007 WL
1468889 (S.D. N.Y. May 18, 2007); Ameriwood,
2006 WL 3825291; Cenveo Corp. v. Slater, No. 06CV-2632, 2007 WL 442387 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 31, 2007).
11 See Calyon, 2007 WL 1468889.
12 See Frees v. McMillian, 2007 WL 184889 (W.D. La.
Jan. 22, 2007). See also Ameriwood, 2006 WL
3825291 and Williams v. Taser Int’l, 2007 WL
1630875 (N.D. Ga. 2007).
13 Frees, 2007 WL 184889, at *3.
14 Id. at *2-*3.
15 Id. at *3.
16 Id.
17 Id. at *4.
18 Calyon v. Mizuho Secs. USA Inc., 2007 WL
1468889 (S.D. N.Y. May 18, 2007).
19 Id. at *2. Also, the plaintiff’s proposed protocol
required the plaintiff’s expert to return all data to the
defendants so that they would have the opportunity
to review it prior to production to designate documents
that were irrelevant, private, or privileged.
20 Id.
at *5.
at *6. See also Williams v. Taser Int’l, 2007 WL
1630875 (N.D. Ga. 2007). In Williams, the court
ordered the parties to collaborate on a review protocol. After they failed to do so, the court issued detailed
review protocol instructions, including suggested
search terms.
22 RKI, Inc., d/b/a Roll-Kraft v. Grimes, 177 F. Supp.
2d 859 (N.D. Ill. 2001).
23 Id. at 868.
24 Id. at 862.
25 Id. at 869.
26 Id.
27 Id. at 870.
28 Id.
29 For example, the default setting on Windows Vista
is to automatically initiate defragmentation once
weekly.
30 Roll-Kraft, 177 F. Supp. 2d at 870.
31 Id. at 916.
32 Teague v. Target Corp. d/b/a Target Stores, Inc.,
2007 WL 1041191 (W.D. N.C. 2007).
33 Id. at *1.
34 Id.
35 Id. at *2.
36 See Hedenburg v. Aramark Am. Food Servs., 2007
WL 162716 (W.D. Wash. 2007).
37 Menke v. Broward County Sch. Bd., 916 So. 2d 8
(Fla. App. Ct. 2005).
38 Teague v. Target Corp. d/b/a Target Stores, Inc.,
2007 WL 1041191 (W.D. N.C. 2007).
39 Coleman (Parent) Holdings, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley
& Co., Inc., 2005 WL 679071 (Fla. Cir. Ct. 2005),
Coleman v. Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc., 2005 WL
674885 (Fla. Cir. Ct. 2005) (verdict was later reversed
on unrelated grounds).
21 Id.
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BY JEFFREY D. MASTERS AND JOHN R. MUSITANO JR.
Managing Liability Risks in Green Construction
GREEN BUILDING IS more than a trend; it is a fact. According to the
U.S. Green Building Council, the value of green building products and
services was more than $7 billion in 2005 and is expected to increase
to $12 billion in 2007. Two billion square feet of commercial building space have been registered or certified under a rating system
known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).1
In residential construction, the growth of green building has been
equally dramatic. A recent survey of local home builders associations
indicates that more than 97,000 homes have been certified under voluntary building industry green programs nationally since the mid1990s.2 One industry estimate states that by 2010 as much as 10 percent of residential construction activity in the United States, with a
value of $38 billion, will be green, up from 2 percent and $7.4 billion.3
These green building efforts are almost exclusively voluntary.
Green products and technologies have not yet been widely incorporated into local building codes for private developments. For example, California Green Builder is a voluntary, standards-driven program
under which California production home builders may obtain green
certification.4 Meanwhile, the U.S. Green Building Council is extending its LEED certification program to homes, with pilot standards
expected in late 2007.5 The National Association of Home Builders
currently is seeking comments on its National Green Building Standard
for new residential construction and renovation.6 The standard is
expected to be released in final form in early 2008.
Driven by increasing consumer and end user demand for environmentally conscious structures, as well as by emerging state and local
climate change regulations, green building represents a major opportunity for builders to do well while doing good. But green building
carries with it liability risks and litigation potential. For green
builders, attention to risk management strategies can minimize those
risks.
The increased liability exposure derives from two fundamental
issues. First, there is as yet no universally accepted standard for
what qualifies as green or sustainable building. Second, there is the
risk of heightened expectations on the part of the end user. For
example, buyers of new green residences may believe that “green”
means “defect-free.” Likewise, they may expect that residences marketed as sustainable will require less maintenance and enjoy a longer
useful life than conventionally constructed residences. Both residential and commercial end users will have expectations about energy savings, subjective comfort issues, and enhanced indoor air quality.
Buyers disappointed with their green structures will assert numerous familiar legal theories in their efforts to recover damages or
other relief. The claims may include both tort and contract theories.
Fraud
High buyer expectations, aggressive marketing of green building, and
a lack of uniform green building standards create a significant danger that builders may face allegations of fraud. In an increasingly com-
petitive housing market, more builders are seeking an advantage
over competitors, including by tapping into the growing interest in
green products. Some builders believe this will distinguish their
homes and may justify higher prices.
Builders should consider the possible consequences of representations to buyers regarding the quality or expected performance of
green building techniques or materials. Builders should also understand the developing and likely inaccurate understanding of the public regarding what “green” and “sustainable” mean with respect to
construction. Consumers paying more for a green home may expect
a higher standard of construction and comfort, products with longer
lives and lower required maintenance, and savings on energy costs.
They may therefore place higher reliance on such representations by
the builder. When performance fails to meet expectations or match
the builder’s representations, the buyer likely will seek recourse.
As with any other seller of real property, a builder may be liable
for fraud if it misrepresents the character or condition of the property, or it conceals or fails to disclose defects of which it knew or should
have known and which would have affected the buyer’s decision to
purchase.7 Buyers may allege claims for negligent misrepresentation
or intentional misrepresentation, including claims for deceit or fraud
in the inducement.8 Allegations of fraud can also form the basis for
unfair competition claims under state law.
Intentional or negligent misrepresentation with respect to marketing
claims about the green character of a home may include:
• Advertising that the home is green or sustainable, or certified as such,
when it is not.
• Inaccurately claiming that building components or materials are
green.
• Falsely claiming that the home is “healthier.”
• Falsely claiming that the home has a smaller carbon footprint.
The lack of uniform green definitions and standards may mean that
the builder is complying with some standards and not others. Builders
often use terms like “green” in marketing without intending any correlation to particular green standards. On the other hand, other
builders may specifically market their product before or during construction as certified under one of the various green building standards,
with the danger that the certification is not eventually earned. Builders
also may claim that certain elements of the home were built with green
building components but be incorrect as a result of a misunderstanding of green standards.
Builders may also make inaccurate promises or forecasts regarding the expected performance of the home, such as more durable materials, energy savings, or enhanced indoor air quality. This can be dangerous, especially when the failure of the home to meet the promises
is quantifiable. For example, buyers may expect, and builders may
Jeffrey D. Masters and John R. Musitano Jr. are litigators with Cox, Castle &
Nicholson LLP in Los Angeles. They are members of the firm’s Development
Risk Management Practice Group.
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 17
claim, that the home will have lower utility
bills due to the manner of construction.
Should the home turn out to have no quantifiable energy savings, liability for misrepresentation could be the result. If the builder
made these claims in marketing materials,
they could also spur class action litigation.
Should the builder have knowledge of and fail
to disclose that its green materials or techniques have actually caused the home to be
defective—such as in terms of durability—the
builder may be liable to the initial buyer as
well as to subsequent purchasers.9
Buyers must meet a relatively high burden
to succeed on their fraud claims. The plaintiff
must prove misrepresentation (false representation, concealment, or nondisclosure) regarding the property, the builder’s knowledge of the
falsity and intent to defraud, the plaintiff’s
justifiable reliance, and resulting damage.10
The misrepresentation must involve the suggestion, assertion, or suppression of a fact
that is material.11 With respect to a builder’s
duty to disclose, a matter is material when it
has a significant and measurable effect on the
value or desirability of the property.12
Courts have found materiality relating to
fraud with respect to various facts about a
home, its construction, its history, and its
expected performance. For example, liability
for fraud has been found when sellers made
false statements regarding the performance
and quality of the building and its construction.13 Courts have also found that material
facts may relate to the physical condition of
the property, such as known defects, building
code violations, and insufficient water.14
Failing to disclose that a property was not
built in compliance with applicable building
codes may also constitute fraud.15 Similarly,
buyers will likely argue that representations
regarding the green status of their home were
material facts securing their assent to the
purchase contract. It should also be expected
that buyers will view undisclosed added costs,
such as potential increased maintenance costs,
as material facts that should have been disclosed at the time of purchase.
General representations regarding the
home and its performance may be defensible
as harmless “puffing.” Under California law,
generally fraud will not be found if a defendant’s statement was one of mere opinion.16
Nevertheless, claims that the home is “more
livable,” “energy efficient,” “environmentally friendly,” or “weatherproof” will be
argued by the buyer to be statements of fact,
not opinion.
Generally, a buyer defrauded by a seller of
real estate may recover the difference between
the purchase price and the actual value of the
property at the time of sale had the truth
been known or the defects disclosed (the “out
of pocket” measure of damages).17 The actual
18 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
value of the property purchased is commonly
understood to be the market value of that
property at the time of the transaction, given
the material defects.
Buyers also may seek loss of use damages and lost profits.18 Apart from damages,
fraud claimants may also seek remedies such
as rescission and restitution, as well as punitive damages.19
Negligence
Green builders can expect future construction
defect suits to include a negligence cause of
action. Due to the duty of care owed to the
homeowner by parties who were involved
in design or construction, homeowners can
bring direct negligence claims relating to the
green elements of the house against the
builder, the architect, and all contractors
involved.20 Negligence claims can relate to
design, workmanship, and materials defects.
Green building design, materials, and construction techniques may be the subject of
such actions, if their failure results in damage
to the property.
Liability as to an actionable construction
defect and resulting damage caused by negligence is usually established through expert
testimony on the industry standard of care.21
One issue relating to negligence claims is that
because the use of green building materials
and designs is relatively new to residential
construction, the applicable standard of care
may be elusive. Builders unfamiliar with the
new construction methods and products will
be forced to rely on the knowledge of their
design professionals and contractors, who
themselves may be new to the field. The standard of care for green building may be difficult for builders to gauge until there is more
data on the performance of the designs, methods, and products.
Builders may also face negligence per se
claims, with plaintiffs arguing that the construction violates particular standards or
statutes regarding green building. Under negligence per se, breach is presumed if the
builder violates a statute, ordinance, or regulation; if the violation injured a plaintiff
who is among a class of persons the statute
was meant to protect; and if the injury
resulted from an occurrence that the statute,
ordinance, or regulation was designed to prevent.22 Expert testimony in a defect case may
not be necessary if the claim is for negligence
per se, as the violation of the statute or code
is used to establish the defect as actionable.23
No uniformity currently exists between
various green building standards, statutes,
and local building codes. Even if a builder
believes it is meeting certain green criteria, failure to comply with locally mandated green
standards creates a risk of claims of negligence
per se.
The general measure of damages for defective construction is the cost of repair, or
diminution in value (i.e., the difference
between the fair market value of the property
with and without the defects), whichever is
less. Diminution in market value may be
recoverable under certain circumstances even
if it exceeds the cost of repair.24
Breach of Contract
Buyers may also allege breach of one or more
contractual provisions. These could include
failure of the builder to deliver promised
LEED certification or a similar designation.
They could also include failure to meet specified energy efficiency standards. There is
also the risk that even absent contractual
performance obligations, the buyer could
turn the marketing materials against the
builder and allege vaguely that the structure
fails to qualify as green, sustainable, or energy
efficient.
The buyer’s remedy for breach of contract is damages, typically measured as the
cost to repair the defects.25 In addition, the
buyer may recover attorneys’ fees if the contract provides for them.
Buyers also may assert claims for breach
of express or implied warranties. If the builder
expressly warrants in a general fashion that
the structure is green, sustainable, or energy
efficient, breach of those warranties may be
compensable by damages. The measure of
damages generally is the same as for breach
of contract. As under a breach of contract theory, the buyer may recover attorneys’ fees if
the warranty provides for them.
Under an implied warranty theory, the
builder is deemed to have impliedly warranted that the structure was constructed in
a good and workmanlike manner and that it
is fit for its intended purpose.26 Implied warranty claims are available only in the new residential construction context.27 Even in that
context, it is an open question whether a
court would extend the “good and workmanlike” and “fitness” standards to an otherwise functional green residence.
It is not yet clear how California’s right to
repair law, commonly known as SB 800, will
apply to green building claims. SB 800
includes more than 40 functionality standards for new residences and for common
areas in common interest subdivisions. None
of the functionality standards specifically
refers to green building components.28 Yet by
its terms, SB 800 applies to every component of the home or common area.29
The likely result is that green building
claims will be asserted in conjunction with
more conventional claims for breach of the
functionality standards. For example, if energy
efficient windows leak, the buyer will assert
a breach of the functionality standard pro-
viding that windows shall not allow water to
pass beyond, around, or through the window
or the window system.30 Similarly, the green
building claim could implicate SB 800 if the
claim involves a condition that causes damage (as opposed to a mere “paper defect”).31
To avoid the constraints of SB 800,
claimants may allege bodily injury or fraud
or pursue a class action, all of which are outside the scope of SB 800.32 To the extent SB
800 applies, traditional construction defect
theories will be replaced by a claim of breach
of the functionality standards.
Unfair Competition Laws
A builder’s marketing and advertising regarding green building may also subject it to
claims by buyers of violations of unfair competition acts, such as Business and Professions
Code Section 17200 (which prohibits unfair
business practices) and Business and
Professions Code Section 17500 (which prohibits false advertising). In 2004, Proposition
64 changed the rules applicable to these sections, requiring that a plaintiff show he or she
suffered actual injury and lost money or
property as a result of the alleged unfair competition or false advertising. Nevertheless,
assuming that such standards are met, a
builder can face claims under these statutes.
Business and Professions Code Section
17200 defines unfair competition as “any
unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or
practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising.” The Unfair Business
Practices Act (Section 17200 and its subsequent sections) is considered a strict liability
statute; no intent by defendants to deceive or
cause damage must be proven. The “unlawful practices” the act prohibits are any forbidden by law, whether civil or criminal, federal, state, or municipal, statutory, or court
made.33 Common law fraud, or running afoul
of emerging statutes and regulations regarding green building, could lead to allegations
of unlawful practices.
The terms “unfair” and “fraudulent” are
generally defined broadly. To determine if an
act is unfair, California courts utilize a balancing test regarding whether the harm of the
practice outweighs its benefits.34 “Fraudulent”
practices under the law are broader than
common law fraud. The test for what is considered fraudulent is simply that “members of
the public are likely to be deceived.”35
While it is generally settled that damages
are unavailable under the act, plaintiffs may
seek injunctive relief preventing further unlawful conduct and restitution.36 The act gives
courts broad authority to fashion remedies
“as may be necessary…to prevent the use or
employment by any person of any practice
which constitutes unfair competition.”37
Restitution is available if the plaintiff can
prove that through the unfair business practice, the defendant obtained money from the
plaintiff.38
When such allegations relate to green
building, buyers will argue that a portion of
the builder’s profits bear a relationship to
the alleged wrong. If the buyer can prove
that he or she paid more for the home due to
its green label, the buyer may seek to recoup
those amounts from the builder. If brought as
a class action, the potential damages could be
significant.
Risk Mitigation
Builders can manage end users’ expectations
and decrease their liability exposures by
employing a wide range of operational and
legal risk mitigation techniques. These include
use of clear definitions and performance standards in contracts, enhanced disclosures,
minimization of actionable representations,
and extra diligence in the builder’s design
and construction contracting procedures.
In order to maximize the probability of
success for their risk management programs,
builders must implement a plan that is comprehensive and integrated. The green risk
management plan should be comprehensive
in that it encompasses each stage in the development, beginning with design and construction contracting, and extending through
the use of specialized consulting expertise,
construction quality assurance observations,
protective provisions in contracts, disclosures, and effective customer service for the
end user. The plan must be integrated so that
each of its elements supports the others. For
example, information the builder learns during the design and specification process likely
will translate into material facts that should
be disclosed to the buyer.
Builders intending to market a structure
as green must clearly define what that term
means in the context of the transaction. The
builder will be best served by referring to an
objective standard or by promising only that
the structure will be constructed according to
then-applicable specific guidelines of a thirdparty organization, such as the U.S. Green
Building Council for the LEED program, or
the California Green Builder or NAHB green
building programs. In all cases, the as-built
condition of the structure must be compliant
with the standards or guidelines.
Another approach is to avoid characterizing the structure as green and instead provide an inventory of the green components
and products used in its construction, together
with performance information from the manufacturers (as opposed to the builder). The
more subjective and undefined the characterization of the structure, the more risks for
the builder.
Disclosures can be a powerful risk miti-
gation tool. For example, the builder can
and should disclose that “green” does not
equate to defect-free construction, that “sustainable” does not mean that less maintenance is required, and that no specific level of
comfort or energy efficiency has been
promised or will necessarily be achieved.
Actionable representations should be minimized or preferably eliminated. For example,
the builder should avoid puffing and should
scrub subjectivity from its marketing materials. The builder should scrutinize its collateral materials, advertising, Web site, model
units, and sales office for risky performance
claims and possible misrepresentations. In
its disclosures and marketing materials, the
builder should be factual and objective.
In commercial construction, contractual
maintenance obligations and formal written
operations and maintenance manuals have
long been standard. In the residential setting, construction defect litigation experience teaches that lack of maintenance by
homeowners and by homeowners’ associations (HOAs) can surface later as alleged
construction defects. As a result, some residential builders have adopted a model similar to that used by commercial contractors.
Most residential builders now include
mandatory inspection and maintenance obligations in their consumer sales agreements
and in the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) of common interest subdivisions such as condominium projects.
Professionally prepared homeowner and
homeowners’ association maintenance manuals are becoming a best practice in the residential construction industry. These contractual inspection and maintenance
requirements, as well as maintenance manuals, must be tailored to take account of green
building components and features.
Additional or special maintenance requirements (and possible additional costs) should
be disclosed and should be addressed in the
manuals. Builders should consider having a
qualified green building consultant review
these contract provisions and manuals for
accuracy and adequacy.
HOA governance presents at least two
special issues. First, builders must be certain
that the HOA operating budgets and assessments will be adequate to take account of
green building inspection and maintenance
costs. Second, the CC&Rs for the project
should contemplate future green modifications
to individual units and to common areas in
order to avoid unreasonable disapprovals by
the HOA or by the architectural review committee.
When undertaking a green project, the
builder must candidly self-assess its ability to
address the building issues as well as the
capabilities of its design professionals and
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 19
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subcontractors. Unless the builder has green
expertise, the builder will be relying on its
design professionals and subcontractors
regarding green design, products, technologies, and assemblies. As a result, prequalification of these parties takes on added importance for green projects.
From a design quality perspective, many
builders already engage in peer review of
their plans and specifications. This process
involves a third-party design professional
who reviews the plans and specifications with
the objectives of assuring code compliance,
enhancing constructability, and identifying
and deleting defects. Peer review is even more
critical on green projects because of the varying levels of green experience and expertise
among design professionals. This is particularly true regarding selection and specification
of green products and components.
The tension between builders and design
professionals regarding contractual risk transfer remains constant. Builders typically seek
enhanced performance standards, broad
indemnification, and adequate professional
liability insurance, maintained during design
and construction as well as after completion
of the project. In contrast, especially on residential projects, design professionals resist
meaningful contractual risk transfer.
This tension will be heightened in connection with green projects. Design professionals can be expected to seek to exculpate
themselves from green design liability by narrowly defining their scope of services and
performance standards, diluting indemnification provisions, limiting their professional
liability insurance obligations, and attempting to include a broad limitation of liability.
In contrast, builders will expect design
professionals to take responsibility for their
green design elements. This responsibility
may be reflected in the scope of services, in
the performance standards, and even in the
indemnification provisions. If the builder is
seeking LEED certification, for example, it is
typical for the architect to assume responsibility for assembling the documentation, performing the inspections, and handling the
processing necessary to obtain the certification. Alternatively, a qualified LEED-accredited consultant may assume this role.
Green building presents contractual risk
transfer and risk management issues with
respect to subcontractors as well. It is critically important that builders evaluate their
subcontractors’ green building experience.
When appropriate, builders should invest in
training for subcontractors who do not yet
have demonstrated expertise.
Risk transfer modifications to the subcontract likely will be necessary. For example,
the subcontract should confirm that the performance standards and compliance with
laws provisions are broad enough to extend
to applicable green building laws, codes, and
standards. The subcontract warranty and
guaranty provisions likewise should extend to
green building components and products.
New or unfamiliar components or assemblies should be the subject of special training
for the subcontractors. Borrowing again from
the commercial construction model, residential builders should consider having mockups of the assemblies constructed under the
observation of the manufacturer or a qualified green building consultant before undertaking actual construction.
As with any other construction, a builder
should also ensure that it has adequate coverage under its commercial general liability
policy. While no reported decisions have yet
addressed green building liability insurance
coverage issues, there is no reason to believe
that the available coverage should be any
different from a conventional construction
defect claim or suit.
While green building offers unprecedented
opportunities for builders, it has a potential
dark side of increased liability exposures.
But by studying and identifying these exposures, then implementing comprehensive risk
mitigation strategies, builders will be positioned to succeed in the new green building
environment.
■
1 See
About USGBC at http://www.usgbc.org.
See Press Release, National Association of Home
Builders, Nearly 100,000 Green Homes Certified
through Market-Driven Green Building Nationwide,
available at http://www.nahb.org/greenbuilding (June
6, 2007).
3 N ATION ’ S B UILDING N EWS O NLINE , available at
http://www.nbnnews.com/NBN/issues/2007-04-30/
(Apr. 30, 2007).
4 See http://www.cagreenbuilder.org.
5 See About LEED, at http://www.usgbc.org.
6 See NAHB to Launch Certification Program, NATION’S
B UILDING N EWS O NLINE , available at http://www
.nbnnews.com/NBN/issues/2007-06-18 (June 18, 2007);
NAHB’S MODEL GREEN HOME BUILDING GUIDELINES
(2005), available at http://www.nahb.org.
7 11 MILLER & STARR, CALIFORNIA REAL ESTATE 3D,
DEFECTIVE CONSTRUCTION, §29:29, at 157; Snelson v.
Ondulando Highlands Corp., 5 Cal. App. 3d 243,
251 (1970).
8 CIV. CODE §§1572, 1709, 1710.
9 Greernaert v. Mitchell, 31 Cal. App. 4th 601 (1995).
10 Engalla v. Permanente Med. Group, Inc., 15 Cal. 4th
951, 974 (1997).
11 CIV. CODE §§1572, 1710.
12 Shapiro v. Sutherland, 64 Cal. App. 4th 1534, 1545
(1998).
13 Grange Co. v. Simmons, 203 Cal. App. 2d 567,
575 (1962); Unger v. Campau, 142 Cal. App. 2d 722,
725 (1956) (The seller’s representations that a building had been completely remodeled were false.).
14 See Herzog v. Capital Co., 27 Cal. 2d. 349, 352
(1945); Pearson v. Norton, 230 Cal. App. 2d 1, 8-11
(1964); Green Trees Enters., Inc. v. Palm Springs
Alpine Estates, Inc., 66 Cal. 2d 782, 785-6 (1967).
15 See Doran v. Milland Dev. Co., 159 Cal. App. 2d
322, 325 (1958).
16 See Hauter v. Zogarts, 14 Cal. 3d 104 (1975) (If a
2
defendant’s assertion is merely a statement of opinion
or mere puffing, the defendant will not be held liable
for its falsity.); see also Haskell v. Time, Inc., 857 F.
Supp. 1392, 1399 (E.D. Cal. 1994) (“Advertising that
amounts to mere ‘puffery,’” which are “vague, highly
subjective claims,” is not actionable in false advertising and unfair business practices claim because “no reasonable consumer relies on puffery.”).
17 CIV. CODE §3343(a); Saunders v. Taylor, 42 Cal. App.
4th 1538, 1542-43 (1996); Graf v. Sumpter, 207 Cal.
App. 2d 391 (1962) (misrepresentation regarding
the existence of fill on land which caused the home to
settle).
18 CIV. CODE §3343(a)(2)-(4).
19 CIV. CODE §§3294, 3343(b)(2).
20 Sumitomo Bank v. Taurus Developers, Inc., 185
Cal. App. 3d 211, 223 (1986) (builder must use reasonable care toward purchasers); Stewart v. Cox, 55
Cal. 2d 857 (1961) (subcontractor liable to homeowner for defective work); Cooper v. Jevne, 56 Cal.
App. 3d 860 (1976) (architect liable to purchasers of
allegedly defectively designed condominiums).
21 Miller v. L.A. County Flood Control Dist., 8 Cal. 3d
689, 703 (1973).
22 EVID. CODE §669(a); Lua v. Southern Pac. Transp.
Co., 6 Cal. App. 4th 1897 (1992).
23 Huang v. Garner, 157 Cal. App. 3d 404, 415 (1984),
disapproved on other grounds, 24 Cal. 4th at 649
(Uniform Building Code establishes standard of care).
24 Erlich v. Menezes, 21 Cal. 4th 543, 561 (1999).
See also Glendale Fed. Savs. & Loan Ass’n v. Marina
View Heights Dev. Co., 66 Cal. App. 3d 101 (1977)
(cost of repair is proper measure of damages when project was built on plaintiffs’ property); Orndorff v.
Christiana Cmty. Builders, 217 Cal. App. 3d 683,
687-88, 690-91 (1990).
25 See Shaffer v. Debbas, 17 Cal. App. 4th 33, 46-47
(1993).
26 See Pollard v. Saxe & Yolles Dev. Co., 12 Cal. 3d
374 (1974); Aced v. Hobbs-Sesack Plumbing Co., 55
Cal. 2d 573 (1961).
27 See East Hilton Drive Homeowners Ass’n v. Western
Real Estate Exch., 136 Cal. App. 3d 630, 633 (1982).
28 CIV. CODE §896.
29 CIV. CODE §897.
30 CIV. CODE §896(a)(2).
31 CIV. CODE §897.
32 CIV. CODE §931.
33 See Podolsky v. First Healthcare Corp., 50 Cal.
App. 4th 632, 647 (1996).
34 See Saunders v. Superior Court, 27 Cal. App. 4th 832,
839 (1994).
35 Committee on Children’s Television, Inc. v. General
Foods Corp., 35 Cal. 3d 197, 211 (1983); see also State
Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Superior Court, 45 Cal. App.
4th 1093, 1105 (1996).
36 Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 29 Cal.
4th 1134, 1144 (2003) (“While the scope of conduct
covered by the UCL is broad, its remedies are limited.…A UCL action is equitable in nature; damages
cannot be recovered.”); Bank of the West v. Superior
Court, 2 Cal. 4th 1254, 1266 (1992) (“damages are not
available under section 17203”); see also Vikco Ins.
Servs., Inc. v. Ohio Indem. Co., 70 Cal. App. 4th 55,
67 (1999) (The “Unfair Business Practices Act simply
does not provide a means for recovery of…damages.”).
37 BUS. & PROF. CODE §17203.
38 Day v. AT&T Corp., 63 Cal. App. 4th 325, 338-40
(1998) (Section “17203 operates only to return to a person those measurable amounts which are wrongfully
taken by means of an unfair business practice.”) (italics original); Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin
Corp., 29 Cal. 4th 1134, 1149 (2003) (restitution limited to either “money or property that defendants took
directly from plaintiff” or “money or property in
which [plaintiff] has a vested interest”).
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Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 21
by ERIC C. PETERSON
GETTING
PER
SONAL
BANKRUPTCY
can promise significant relief and even
new opportunities for many companies beset by financial hardship.
Through the bankruptcy process, firms can achieve greater efficiencies, spin off nonproductive divisions, streamline operations, and
eliminate debt. Bankruptcy also can enable a firm to liquidate its assets
in an orderly fashion, yielding the highest and best possible return
for creditors. Though not normally a first choice for any company,
the bankruptcy process can and frequently does enable companies
to maximize the value of those aspects of their business they do best,
rid themselves of those components that are either unnecessary or
nonproductive, and emerge with a stronger balance sheet and a
new lease on life.
With news of tightening credit markets, soft employment numbers,
and decreases in capital expenditures, forecasters have been predicting that an increase in commercial bankruptcy filings may be on the
horizon. If they are correct, there is also an unmistakable and related
trend that will arise in the coming months and years—and one for
which directors and officers can and should prepare. Although sometimes overlooked in the heated period that commonly precedes a company’s filing for bankruptcy protection, or the commencement of an
involuntary bankruptcy case, it must be recognized that an increase
22 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
in commercial bankruptcy filings will almost certainly be accompanied by an increase in litigation targeting the directors and officers
of debtor firms personally. Corporate directors and officers are wise
to understand the personal risks they face.
When a bankruptcy is filed and litigation starts, some of the primary protections against personal director and officer liability—incorporation, good faith, and insurance—can all be called into question,
if not seriously undermined. Indeed, directors and officers may
encounter particularly unhappy surprises after a bankruptcy begins.
If a trustee or other replacement management is put into place, discussions that the directors and officers believed were privileged
attorney-client communications can be made available to their
adversaries for use in pursuing personal claims against them and other
directors and officers of the debtor. Equally disturbing is that in some
cases directors and officers may learn that before the bankruptcy case
was filed, they owed fiduciary or quasi-fiduciary duties to creditors—
and that new and uncontemplated liabilities were created by their
prebankruptcy actions. Rounding out the potentially bad news is the
Eric C. Peterson is a partner practicing in the Bankruptcy Litigation Group of
Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Incorporated.
GORDON MORRIS
Directors and officers need to be aware
of the potential for increased personal
liability as a company nears bankruptcy
fact that when directors and officers face claims brought against them
by a bankruptcy estate (through a trustee, for example), the debtor’s
director and officer insurance carrier may deny them coverage,
meaning neither the defense of claims nor resulting liabilities will
be covered.
Before directors and officers find themselves on the receiving end
of these or other unanticipated outcomes, they must look seriously
at the facts leading to the need for bankruptcy protection, assess the
likelihood that they will be personally subjected to litigation, and
achieve clarity on the nature and extent of any insurance they need
to have in place in the event the worst case scenario materializes.
The Attorney Client Privilege
As most commercial bankruptcy practitioners will confirm, there is
no guarantee that once a chapter 11 reorganization is filed, the existing management will stay in control of the company or the company
will be able to avoid liquidation. Bankruptcy is expensive, and creditors frequently opt at some point to discontinue their cooperation
in the process. The longer a company remains under bankruptcy court
supervision, the more likely it becomes that the company may be forced
to liquidate or that creditors will demand a change in management—
whether through the appointment of a trustee or some other officer
responsible for turning around the ailing firm. No matter which
course the change in control takes, the effect can be troubling.
Outside of bankruptcy, the power to control and to waive the attorney-client privilege rests with company management. Management
must exercise the privilege in a manner consistent with its fiduciary
duties to the company.1 When a solvent company merges with
another firm, and new management takes control, the attorney-client
privilege and the power to control it passes to the new management.
Former managers lose the ability to assert or waive the privilege.2
Similarly, the filing of a bankruptcy petition creates an entity
that in many respects differs from the prebankruptcy debtor.3 The
entity, a bankruptcy estate, becomes the legal owner of all “property”
that once belonged to the prepetition debtor.4
“Property” is a broad concept. As applied in bankruptcy, it consists of virtually all claims and rights of the prebankruptcy debtor—
including, among other things, the right to assert or waive the attorney-client privilege.5 Just as prepetition debtors can demand that all
files, e-mail, correspondence, memos, and other documents in the possession of their counsel be turned over to them, so too can a bankruptcy trustee.6 Because the trustee controls the privilege, he or she
can and will assert or waive the privilege if doing so may result in additional funds coming into the bankruptcy estate for the benefit of creditors.7 This includes the potential waiver of the privilege if it would
bolster claims that former directors and officers breached duties
they owed to the company or its creditors.8
Therefore, e-mail, memos, and other items that may have been generated in the normal course of seeking legal counsel before the commencement of a bankruptcy case—including those containing strategy discussions regarding how to thwart or mollify one creditor or
another, or detailed information concerning various decisions that were
made prepetition—might be made available for examination by a
trustee and possibly others desirous of identifying new assets to be
liquidated for the benefit of creditors. Included among the potential
assets are claims against former management for breach of duty
and, by extension, the personal assets of directors and officers.9
Fiduciary Duties Owed to Creditors
Compounding the loss of control of the attorney-client privilege,
directors and officers should be cognizant of the possibility that new
classes of claims may be created as a firm heads into insolvency and,
later, bankruptcy. There are no signposts along the way. The “zone
of insolvency” is defined only amorphously in case law.10 Still, entry
24 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
into the zone has the legal effect of altering the nature of the duties
corporate directors and officers owe and affecting the class of persons for whose benefit the duties are to be exercised, thereby adding
to the liabilities that may be imposed on corporate directors and officers.11 No longer are the company and its owners the exclusive beneficiaries of the fiduciary duties owed by directors and officers.12 When
a company is in the zone of insolvency, creditors also may be owed
duties in some form. Certainly once a company becomes insolvent,
directors and officers owe additional duties to creditors.13 This
means that new claims may be created in favor of the creditor class
if management is regarded as having failed to properly exercise its business judgment.
To understand the change, it is important to recognize that directors and officers owe duties of loyalty and care to the company they
serve.14 They generally must make informed decisions, refrain from
engaging in self-dealing, and place the interests of the company
above their own.
In a case that has been cited as the beginning of a trend in the law,
the Court of Chancery of Delaware in Credit Lyonnais Bank of
Nederland, N.V. v. Pathe Communications Corporation15 appeared
to expand the class of persons to whom fiduciary duties were owed.
The court observed that “[a]t least where a corporation is operating
in the vicinity of insolvency, a board of directors is not merely the agent
of the residue risk bearers, but owes its duty to the corporate enterprise.”16 The corporate enterprise was described in a footnote as a
“community of interests” that includes stockholders—who may prefer riskier, higher return investments—and creditors—who may prefer safer practices that are more certain to yield funds necessary to
pay their claims.17
Courts are unclear as to when the zone of insolvency begins. As
a general concept, once insolvency is “reasonably foreseeable,” a company is operating in the zone of insolvency.18 Decisional law is in flux
regarding the nature and scope of the duties that might be owed to
creditors while a company is in the vicinity of insolvency, and recent
decisions indicate that claims for breach brought by creditors are derivative rather than direct.19 The risks and issues that might arise must
nonetheless be recognized by directors and officers of troubled companies. To fail to account for these personal risks is to invite the possibility of personal calamity.
What is clear, however, is that once a company actually becomes
insolvent, the duties owed by the directors and officers are for the benefit of the company’s creditors. Directors and officers of an insolvent
company must therefore maintain acute awareness of, and sensitivity to, creditor needs. Prudent managers will assess from the creditor perspective whether decisions they make, and options they reject,
serve the general interest creditors share—especially that their claims
will be paid. Riskier strategies promising the potential of higher payouts may appear to serve the interests of ownership hoping for a return
on investment beyond the payment of creditors. Such strategies,
however, also may fail, and then creditors may complain, predictably,
that had a safer path been chosen, they would have been made
whole, or more nearly so. One can also predict that a trustee may try
to rectify any resulting shortfall by seeking necessary recoveries from
directors and officers or the insurance policies that cover them.
Denial of Insurance Coverage
The challenges for directors and officers involving the assertion or
waiver of the attorney-client privilege as well as fiduciary duties are
daunting. Compounding these concerns is the prospect of having to
defend against claims for breach of fiduciary duty brought on behalf
of creditors or others without any insurance covering either the costs
of defense or the amount of the potential liabilities.
Director and officer insurance carriers may, and often do, take the
position that D&O insurance policies exclude coverage in the con-
text of litigation brought on behalf of the bankruptcy estate. If they
provide a defense, they almost always do so under a reservation of
rights, pursuant to which they may determine at a later date that coverage should not have been made available. When this happens, carriers ultimately may add to the troubles of director and officer defendants by seeking to recoup from them amounts spent on their behalf
during litigation.
A basis frequently cited for the denial of coverage is the “insured
versus insured” coverage exclusion, which most all D&O liability policies contain. The language describing the exclusion will vary from policy to policy, but the general thrust of the exclusion is largely the same.
The insured versus insured exclusion provides, in one form or another,
that an insurer is not required to provide coverage when one insured
sues another. The reason for the exclusion is a valid one. It protects
carriers against being forced to cover collusive suits brought by company insiders. The rationale for denying coverage in the bankruptcy
context is based on a variation on this theme.
Specifically, in bankruptcy, there is a generally well-known concept that the bankruptcy estate “steps into the shoes” of the prepetition entity. A bankruptcy estate is said to have no greater rights than
those held by the prepetition entity. Consequently, carriers contend
that the bankruptcy estate is subject to the same coverage limitations
and defenses to coverage that were applicable to the prepetition
entity. Carriers therefore have been known to argue that because the
insured versus insured coverage exclusion would have applied outside of bankruptcy—say, in the context of a claim brought by the company against its directors and officers—then it should apply in bankruptcy as well, including when the bankruptcy trustee or estate
representative is seeking recoveries from directors and officers personally.
The rationale forwarded by carriers has some support in case law.
For instance, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with insurance carriers in Reliance Insurance Company of Illinois v. Weis. The
Eighth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that there is “no significant legal distinction between [the prepetition debtor] and its bankruptcy estate” for purposes of determining whether an insured versus insured coverage exclusion applies.20 The Eleventh Circuit in
National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pa. v.
Olympia Holding Corporation appears to be in accord.21
However, court decisions issued after Weis and National Union
create a split of authority on the issue of whether director and officer claims asserted by a third party, such as a bankruptcy trustee, activate the insured versus insured coverage exclusion.22 Notwithstanding
Weis and National Union, a number of courts from a variety of
jurisdictions have in more recent years reached the opposite conclusion, ruling, for example, that “[a] bankruptcy trustee is a legal
entity separate and distinct from the debtor” for purposes of determining the applicability of the insured versus insured exclusion.23
While this seems like a good trend for directors and officers, a sigh
of relief may be somewhat premature. Courts ruling on the insured
versus insured coverage exclusion often disagree at times on several
rather fundamental issues.
For instance, the court in Terry v. Federal Insurance Company (In
re R.J. Reynolds—Patrick County Memorial Hospital, Inc.) reasoned that a “pre-petition debtor is the same entity as a debtor-inpossession, but a debtor-in-possession is not the same entity as a chapter 11 trustee.”24 The Terry court addressed the question of whether
a claim brought against directors and officers by a litigation trust established under a debtor’s confirmed chapter 11 plan triggered the
insured versus insured exclusion. The confirmed plan provided for the
creation of a trust, overseen by a trustee appointed under the plan.
The trust property included claims against directors and officers. Eight
months after plan confirmation, the trustee commenced an adversary
proceeding against certain directors and officers, and the carrier was
alerted to the claims. The carrier denied coverage based on the
insured versus insured exclusion, arguing that the claims were
“brought by or on behalf of an insured.” The court agreed, reasoning that the claims against directors and officers were acquired by the
trust by a mere voluntary assignment from a debtor-in-possession
rather than an assignment from a chapter 11 trustee. Therefore, the
exclusion was held to be operative, and coverage was unavailable to
the directors and officers.25
On the other hand, the court in Federal Insurance Company v.
Aniello26 ruled that “the debtor-in-possession is clearly not the same
entity as the pre-petition [debtor]….Given the [c]ourt’s determination
that the debtor-in-possession is a separate and distinct entity from a
pre-petition [debtor], the debtor-in-possession does not fall within the
definition of the term ‘Insured.’ Accordingly, it is apparent that coverage…is not precluded [by an insured versus insured exclusion].”27
Other cases are in accord.28
Courts also seem to differ regarding what degree of legal significance should be carried by the anticollusion purpose of the insured
versus insured exclusion. Some courts seem to regard the anticollusion rationale for the insured versus insured exclusion as irrelevant.29 Others regard it as fundamental to any decision.30 Without
opening policies up to the need for parol evidence to ascertain the intention of the contracting parties, the importance of the anticollusion
rationale underlying the insured versus insured exclusion is a topic
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 25
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that may continue to be a subject of debate.
There are other aspects of case law, certain state law issues, and variation in the
language of given policies that also could
affect the availability of coverage in the event
bankruptcy litigation against directors and
officers begins.31 Prudence dictates that prior
to any bankruptcy filing, directors and officers should ask their counsel to review the
applicable policies and governing case law
interpreting language similar to what appears
in their policies. This step is necessary to
ascertain whether coverage is likely to be
available in the event claims brought by or on
behalf of a bankruptcy estate may preclude
coverage.
In Pari Delicto
Taken together, the possible loss of control of
the attorney-client privilege along with the creation of new claims for which insurance coverage may be denied sound a clear call for
directors and officers to operate a troubled
company with all necessary care. Nevertheless, these items do not define the totality
of the risk that can accompany the continued
operation of an insolvent firm. In some cases,
defenses to claims against directors and officers also can be lost.
Coping with the financial strain of insolvency, directors and officers can—and often
do—face the need to make extraordinary
decisions concerning the future of the enterprise. Directors and officers often must decide
whether to:
• Take new risks or wind down operations.
• Pursue claims in litigation or settle them at
a discount to avoid increased legal costs.
• Challenge or accede to decisions made by
governmental bodies vested with power to
issue licenses, grant permits, approve applications, or make other determinations important to the success of the firm.
• Take on new or replacement debt, or make
other new commitments.
• Buy or sell assets.
Also, during this difficult period, directors
and officers may be tempted to keep creditors,
vendors, contracting parties, and others from
learning of the full scope of a firm’s financial
problems.
In the event that the decisions of directors
and officers are later challenged by, for example, a bankruptcy trustee, the first reaction of
directors and officers is to assert that the
decisions were made for the purpose of preserving the value of the company or perhaps
to turn it around. When they do so, directors
and officers are effectively asserting a defense
known as in pari delicto.
The in pari delicto defense generally
reflects the assertion that someone participating in a wrong cannot recover from others on the basis of the wrong that was done.32
In other words, a wrongdoer cannot be liable
to his or her wrongdoing confederates for the
bad acts they committed together. If the bankruptcy estate steps into the shoes of the debtor
firm, the defense is essentially that the company engaged in the wrongs that the directors
or officers carried out as the company’s
agents, and thus the estate is in pari delicto
with the directors and officers. Therefore,
the argument goes, there can be no claim.
It is true that under the in pari delicto
doctrine, an individual asserting a claim may
not recover when he or she was a party to the
alleged misdeeds. It is also true that there is
case law indicating that this defense can be
used against a bankruptcy trustee.33 However,
directors and officers facing claims brought
by a trustee may still find that the in pari
delicto defense is affected by the appointment of a trustee, which happens rather
immediately in the case of a chapter 7 liquidation, and can occur at a later time when a
chapter 11 trustee is appointed to replace
management. A trustee, receiver, or similar
innocent entity that steps into the shoes of the
malfeasant debtor does not do so voluntarily. Because the trustee and the estate were not
parties to the original bad acts, some courts
have indicated that trustee claims may not be
precluded by the in pari delicto doctrine.34
The trustee and the estate may be regarded as
innocent and therefore bring the claims, even
though the debtor could not have brought the
same claims as a party to the challenged acts.
Case law on the issue appears to be equivocal, and an important factor in the analysis
may be whether the debtor-in-possession—an
entity created voluntarily—or a trustee is acting as the plaintiff.35
Bankruptcy promises significant relief by
maximizing the return creditors realize on
their claims as well as providing a variety of
opportunities for troubled companies. Still,
directors and officers are wise to engage separate counsel and seek advice regarding decisions they make under the increased pressures that accompany the approach of
insolvency and any eventual bankruptcy filing, whether voluntary or involuntary.
Company counsel should not be the primary
source for directors and officers seeking guidance on enhancing the value of their personal interests or diminishing their exposure
to liabilities. Directors and officers should
remain mindful of creditor interests and
potential creditor claims that may arise
against them as they attempt to navigate a
troubled enterprise through choppy financial waters. At a minimum, before directors
and officers are surprised by claims or the
unintended consequences of decisions made
at the most troubled period of their company’s life, they should clarify the nature and
extent of any claims that may accrue against
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Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 27
them and take care to maximize their immunity for personal claims.
■
1 Commodity
Futures Trading Comm’n v. Weintraub,
471 U.S. 343, 348-49, 105 S. Ct. 1986 (1985).
2 Id.
3 11 U.S.C. §541(a).
4 11 U.S.C. §541(a)(1).
5 Id.
6 Official Comm. of Unsecured Creditors of Hechinger
Inv. Co. of Delaware v. Fleet Retail Fin. Group (In re
Hechinger Inv. Co. of Delaware), 285 B.R. 601, 61011 (D. Del. 2002).
7 Id.
8 Commodity Futures Trading Comm’n v. Weintraub,
471 U.S. 343, 105 S. Ct. 1986 (1985).
9 In re Ontos, Inc., 478 F. 3d 427, 431-32 (1st Cir.
2007) (Ownership of breach claims rests with company
under Delaware law and therefore passes to the bankruptcy estate upon case commencement.).
10 In re Teleglobe Communications Corp., 493 F. 3d
345, 356 (3d Cir. 2007).
11 Carrieri v. Jobs.com, Inc., 393 F. 3d 508, 534 n.24
(5th Cir. 2004).
12 Id.
13 See, e.g., Smith v. Arthur Andersen LLP, 421 F. 3d
989, 1005 (9th Cir. 2005).
14 National Auto. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Payne, 261 Cal.
App. 2d 403, 67 Cal. Rptr. 784 (1968).
15 Credit Lyonnais Bank of Nederland, N.V. v. Pathe
Communications Corp., 17 Del. J. Corp. L. 1099,
1991 WL 277613 (Del. Ch. 1991).
16 Id.
17 Id. at n.55.
18 In re Healthco Int’l, Inc., 208 B.R. 288, 301-02
(Bankr. D. Mass. 1997).
19 North Am. Catholic Educ. Programming Found., Inc.
v. Ghewalla, 2006 WL 2588971 (Del. Ch. 2006).
20 Reliance Ins. Co. of Ill. v. Weis, 148 B.R. 575, 583
(E.D. Mo. 1992), aff’d, 5 F. 3d 532 (8th Cir. 1993).
21 National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa. v.
Olympia Holding Corp., Case no. 1:94-cv-2081-GET
(9/18/95), affirmed without opinion, 148 F. 3d 1070
(tbl.) (11th Cir. 1998).
22 In re Telegroup, Inc., 99-31527 (DHS) (Bankr. D.
N.J.), Genesis Ins. Co. v. Bond, Adv. Proc. No. 03-01534
(May 4, 2005) (recognizing split of authority).
23 See, e.g., Cohen v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. (In
re County Seat Stores, Inc.), 280 B.R. 319, 324 (Bankr.
S.D. N.Y. 2002).
24 Terry v. Federal Ins. Co. (In re R.J. Reynolds—
Patrick County Mem’l Hosp., Inc.), 315 B.R. 674,
679 (W.D. Va. 2003).
25 Id. at 678.
26 Federal Ins. Co. v. Aniello, 2006 WL 3386625
(W.D. Pa. 2006).
27 Id. at *13.
28 Federal Ins. Co. v. Continental Cas. Co., 2006 WL
3386625, at *15 (W.D. Pa. 2006) (“[D]ebtor-in-possession is a different entity than pre-petition debtor.”);
In re HA 2003, Inc., 310 B.R. 710, 717-18 (Bankr. N.D.
Ill. 2004); Gray v. Executive Risk Indem., Inc. (In re
Molten Metal Tech., Inc.), 271 B.R. 711, 726 (Bankr.
D. Mass. 2002), affirmed, 2002 WL 923936 (D. Mass.
2002) (filing of bankruptcy petition creates a new
entity).
29 Gray, 271 B.R. at 728 (Court “places no reliance on
the purpose of the exclusion.”).
30 See, e.g., Alstrin v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 179 F.
Supp. 2d 376, 403-04 (D. Del. 2002); In re Buckeye
Countrymark, Inc., 251 B.R. 835, 840-41 (Bankr.
S.D. Ohio 2000).
31 See, e.g., In re HA 2003, Inc., 310 B.R. at 717-18
(policy providing coverage against claims brought in
bankruptcy court by a “person…authorized under
applicable law to act on behalf of a debtor” was interpreted to provide coverage even for claims brought by
a debtor-in-possession).
32 In re Senior Cottages of Am., LLC, 482 F. 3d 997
(8th Cir. 2007).
33 Id. at 1005; Nisselson v. Lernout, 469 F. 3d 143, 153
(1st Cir. 2006).
34 See Camerer v. California Sav. & Commercial Bank,
4 Cal. 2d 159, 48 P. 2d 39 (1935) (receiver’s claims not
barred by in pari delicto defense); FDIC v. O’Melveny
& Myers, 61 F. 3d 17 (9th Cir. 1995) (finding there is
little reason to deny a trustee a right or defense on
account of the misdeeds of predecessor management).
See also Javitch v. Transamerica Occidental Life Ins.
Co., 408 F. Supp. 2d 531, 537 (N.D. Ohio, 2006), but
see Peregrine Funding Inc. v. Sheppard Mullin Richter
& Hampton, 2005 WL 2660278 (Cal. App. 2005); In
re Crown Vantage, Inc., 2003 WL 25257821, at *6
(N.D. Cal. 2003) (distinguishing between cases involving receivers and those involving bankruptcy trustees),
affirmed without opinion sub nom. Crown Paper
Liquidating Trust v. Pricewaterhousecoopers LLP, 198
Fed. Appx. 597 (9th Cir. 2006).
35 Compare FDIC v. O’Melveny & Myers, 61 F. 3d 17,
19 (9th Cir. 1995) (“While a party may itself be denied
a right or defense on account of its misdeeds, there is
little reason to impose the same punishment on a
trustee, receiver or similar innocent entity that steps into
the party’s shoes pursuant to court order or operation
of law.”) and In re Senior Cottages of Am., 482 F. 3d
at 1005 (“This Circuit has held that the defense of in
pari delicto can bar a claim by a bankruptcy trustee
against a third party for pre-petition harm to a debtor
when the debtor’s agents colluded in the wrongful
conduct alleged.”)
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MCLE ARTICLE AND SELF-ASSESSMENT TEST
By reading this article and answering the accompanying test questions, you can earn one MCLE credit.
To apply for credit, please follow the instructions on the test answer sheet on page 31.
by Earl L. Hagström
The tension between health-based standards
and nondegradation policies creates uncertainty
for parties in groundwater litigation
C
alifornia has enacted two regulatory schemes to manage and protect its waters.1 State legislators
gave the Department of Health
Services (DHS) the task of ensuring that the
water delivered to the public is safe to consume.2 They also require the State Water
Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to manage and maintain the beneficial uses of the
state’s waters.3 The DHS accomplishes its
task by setting numerical standards such as
maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), which
involve a balancing of public health concerns
with technological feasibility and cost. The
SWRCB, by contrast, applies a qualitative
standard focused on achieving the “maximum benefit to the people of the State.” The
MCLs are health-based standards. The
SWRCB qualitative standards are based upon
a policy of nondegradation.
The intersection of these two regulatory
schemes has led to court actions and admin-
istrative proceedings, often with divergent
results and conflicting rationales. The coexistence of health-based MCL standards and
nondegradation policies, which are remediation-based standards, inherently creates tension and conflict over which standard will be
applied in a litigation or administrative context. When different standards of responsibility or liability are applied by courts as well
as various public agencies with jurisdiction
over water issues, the results are problematic
and costly.
Some courts have adopted MCLs as the
basis for determining liability, while others
have adopted the nondegradation standard
Earl L. Hagström is a partner in the San Francisco
office of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold LLP,
where he is a member of the Environmental Practice
Group and specializes in environmental litigation,
eminent domain, hazardous waste, and water
quality matters.
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 29
without specifically stating so. The MCL/nondegradation dichotomy is further exacerbated when administrative and legal actions
proceed on parallel tracks—a common occurrence in matters involving water.
The ability of defendants to rely upon
compliance with health-based environmental
laws and regulations to forestall or insulate
themselves from liability has been, until
recently, a reasonable risk management strategy. Though compliance was never an inviolate safe harbor, its effectiveness was well
established through a long line of decisions.
That is no longer so.
Over the last few years, courts have begun
to chip away the ability of defendants to rely
upon regulatory standards to define the scope
of liability—and a series of decisions in 2006
and 2007 have all but eviscerated that defense.
Though never a sure bet, the ability to rely
upon compliance with regulatory standards
as a touchstone for meeting one’s obligations
has increasingly been eroded by legal and
administrative decisions involving the presence of anthropogenic constituents in water.
While this trend is relatively recent, the underlying legislation, statutes, and implementing
regulations relied upon in these decisions
have been on the books for decades.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, especially in the area
of groundwater litigation, have found new
and innovative ways of leveraging conflicting
legislative policies and regulations into substantial damage awards. Reliance upon
health-based regulatory standards as a shield
against potential liability no longer appears
to be prudent.
Courts have been grappling with applying
legal definitions to scientific concepts of
human health and environmental safety in
both property damage and toxic tort cases for
decades. If human health and environmental
conditions are safe, then in theory, there
should be no injury, and without injury there
can be no liability. With regard to drinking
water, governmental regulatory agencies—
using their vast array of experienced toxicologists, scientists, and policy makers—have
marshaled the best available science to determine, on a chemical-by-chemical basis, what
is safe. For drinking water, “safe” is defined
by the MCL.
MCLs are designed, in part, to establish
uniform standards that are protective of
human health and to prevent ad hoc standards
from being established through litigation or
administrative actions.4 These standards,
along with those established at the federal
level, are, in theory, the benchmarks against
which acceptable levels of a constituent in
drinking water are judged. MCLs, again in
theory, should bar layperson juries, courts, or
other agencies from substituting their judgment and personal bias for the reasoned and
30 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
scientifically based judgment of the agencies
charged with protecting public health and
welfare.5 These agencies are better equipped
to make a safety determination than juries or
courts, neither of which have the technical and
scientific background to do so. Qualitative,
nonobjective standards, when applied in legal
proceedings, create situations that can result
in ad hoc determinations of liability or responsibility.
When parallel administrative and legal
proceedings occur, the application of a qualitative standard by the administrative agency
and the application of a quantitative standard
by a court increases the potential for conflicting decisions. The uncertainty created in
situations in which administrative and legal
proceedings address the same contamination
in the same aquifer and reach different determinations fosters further tension as the parties must determine which decision controls.
This in turn results in additional delays and
increased costs for plaintiffs and defendants.
the drinking water standard is considered
the “least stringent” of water quality objectives.13 Therefore, if nondegradation is possible, even at great expense to the discharger,
the SWRCB mandates the highest level of
pollutant treatment to match existing high
water quality.14
The remediation levels established by the
agencies charged with enforcing these nondegradation policies are significant factors
in determining when and if remediation is necessary and in proving if an injury has in fact
occurred. Indeed, state and federal court decisions in 2006 and 2007, along with administrative decisions, have undermined the MCL
as the standard for civil liability and remediation requirements and created situations
in which remediation of a contaminant to a
non-detect level in an aquifer has been
required even though the contaminant level
is below the MCL—the level at which drinking water could be safely provided to the
public.
Establishing the Standards
Parallel Proceedings
The DHS establishes primary drinking water
standards that specify the maximum contaminant level at which a particular constituent
may be present in drinking water and still be
safely consumed by the public.6 The DHS
also often establishes secondary drinking
water standards, which specify the MCL that,
in its judgment, is necessary to protect public welfare. Public water suppliers may deliver
water to their customers that contains these
contaminants, so long as they are below the
MCL.
The SWRCB establishes cleanup or remediation standards based upon a nondegradation policy7 that states that “[w]henever the
existing quality of water is better than the
quality established in policies…such existing high quality will be maintained.”8 There
is a more ambiguous aspect of the SWRCB
nondegradation policy, however. High quality waters must be maintained until “the
[s]tate finds that change in water quality will
be consistent with maximum benefit to the
people of the [s]tate, will not unreasonably
affect present and anticipated beneficial use
of such water and will not result in water
quality less than that prescribed in policies.”9
Thus, cost considerations alone are not
enough to justify allowing degradation; the
discharges must match background water
quality.10 If the discharger can treat water pollutants to below detectable levels, the SWRCB
regulation trumps lesser federal water quality standards and requires the discharger to
use “the best practical treatment.”11
In California, the SWRCB addressed the
conflict between lesser drinking water standards and the high quality water nondegradation policy12 by adopting the position that
Private party litigation and agency enforcement actions often go hand in hand. In cases
involving a chemical that was released into the
environment and made its way into the
“waters of the state,” claims for nuisance,
trespass, negligence, and product liability, as
well as other health-based claims, are typically
brought against defendants in court by private
parties, quasi-governmental agencies such as
water companies, and municipalities seeking a wide range of damages. As is often the
case when drinking water supplies are
involved, the defendants frequently are subject to agency orders requiring them to not
only remove the offending chemical but also
provide an alternate source of drinking water
until the cleanup has been completed. These
dual-tracked actions raise an interesting issue:
The agency charged with “protecting groundwater quality” can require the defendants to
remediate the drinking water source to a
non-detect level—and, at the same time, under
the standards set by the agency charged with
“protecting human health,” the defendants
could provide alternate water supplies that
contained the offending constituent at concentration levels greater than non-detect but
less than the MCL. Taken to its logical
extreme, the alternate water supply could
conceivably be drawn from the very aquifer
at issue in both actions if the levels were less
than the MCL.
Water providers, regulatory agencies,
industry, and consumers—that is, the stakeholders—are confronted with this conflict
when the concentration level of an anthropogenic constituent is present in groundwater at levels below the MCL or the secondary
MCL, if one has been established. In those
MCLE Test No. 165
The Los Angeles County Bar Association certifies that this activity has been approved for Minimum
Continuing Legal Education credit by the State Bar of California in the amount of 1 hour.
1. Under California law, who owns the water in the
state?
A. The state of California.
B. Private parties.
C. The state and private parties jointly.
D. None of the above.
2. Maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) are:
A. Numerical standards set by the Department of
Health Services (DHS).
B. Goals set by the State Water Resources
Control Board (SWRCB).
C. Standards set by the courts.
D. None of the above.
3. The SWRCB’s water policies are health-based.
True.
False.
4. Private parties have a usufructuary right to water.
True.
False.
5. A party cannot be found liable for damages if the concentration level of a constituent in drinking water is less
than the MCL.
True.
False.
6. Which agency or agencies did the legislature authorize to determine what constitutes the MCL for a constituent?
A. SWRCB.
B. DHS.
C. SWRCB and DHS.
D. None of the above.
7. The In re Groundwater Cases decision adopted the
“pure and wholesome” standard for regulated water
utilities.
True.
False.
8. In water contamination cases, product liability
claims may only be brought by the consumer.
True.
False.
9. Public water suppliers may deliver water to the consumer if constituents in the water exceed the MCL.
True.
False.
10. Nondegradation policy requires existing water
quality to be maintained at a level:
A. Equal to the maximum benefit to the people.
B. Equal to the secondary MCL.
C. Equal to the primary MCL.
D. Equal to municipal standards.
11. Federal water quality standards preempt SWRCB regulations.
True.
False.
MCLE Answer Sheet #165
MUDDY WATERS
Name
Law Firm/Organization
Address
City
State/Zip
E-mail
12. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin held that the MCL was a
bright-line rule defining what constitutes a legal injury.
True.
False.
13. In re Groundwater Cases applied numerical standards in groundwater contamination cases involving
entities regulated by the Public Utilities Commission as
well as municipal water providers.
True.
False.
14. Under the SWRCB nondegradation policy, excessive
cleanup costs alone justify allowing degradation of
water quality.
True.
False.
15. In Massachusetts, the MCL is the level at which
water is:
A. Useable for irrigation.
B. Useable for livestock.
C. Useable for human drinking.
D. All of the above.
16. The acceptable or safe level of a constituent in
drinking water is determined by whether it is below the
MCL.
True.
False.
Phone
State Bar #
INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBTAINING MCLE CREDITS
1. Study the MCLE article in this issue.
2. Answer the test questions opposite by marking
the appropriate boxes below. Each question
has only one answer. Photocopies of this
answer sheet may be submitted; however, this
form should not be enlarged or reduced.
3. Mail the answer sheet and the $15 testing fee
($20 for non-LACBA members) to:
Los Angeles Lawyer
MCLE Test
P.O. Box 55020
Los Angeles, CA 90055
Make checks payable to Los Angeles Lawyer.
4. Within six weeks, Los Angeles Lawyer will
return your test with the correct answers, a
rationale for the correct answers, and a
certificate verifying the MCLE credit you earned
through this self-assessment activity.
5. For future reference, please retain the MCLE
test materials returned to you.
ANSWERS
Mark your answers to the test by checking the
appropriate boxes below. Each question has only
one answer.
1.
■A
■B
■C
■D
17. The SWRCB has determined that drinking water
standards are the most stringent water quality objectives.
True.
False.
2.
■A
■B
■C
■D
3.
■ True
■ False
4.
■ True
■ False
5.
■ True
6.
■A
18. Courts have adopted uniform standards for determining liability in groundwater contamination cases.
True.
False.
7.
■ True
■ False
8.
■ True
■ False
9.
■ True
10.
■A
19. A regulated water provider’s legal duty is defined
by the “pure and wholesome” language of the Safe
Drinking Water Act.
True.
False.
11.
■ True
■ False
12.
■ True
■ False
13.
■ True
■ False
14.
■ True
15.
■A
20. The DHS MCLs are health-based standards.
True.
False.
16.
■ True
■ False
17.
■ True
■ False
18.
■ True
■ False
19.
■ True
■ False
20.
■ True
■ False
■B
■B
■B
■ False
■C
■D
■ False
■C
■D
■ False
■C
■D
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 31
cases, stakeholders are faced with the issue of
whether the presence of an anthropogenic
constituent, at concentrations below the MCL
or secondary MCL, provides a legal basis to
support a claim for damages, and whether that
presence under nondegradation policies
requires remediation when the health-based
MCLs established by state and federal agencies charged with protecting public health
and welfare have not been exceeded. The
conundrum is which standard—the healthbased MCLs or remediation-based nondegradation—should be applied in evaluating
whether a compensable injury has in fact
occurred and whether remediation is warranted. The courts have been less than uniform
in their decisions, and regulatory agencies
have adopted differing positions on when and
how to enforce the nondegradation policies.
Plaintiffs, municipalities, and water companies often contend that the presence of an
anthropogenic constituent “constitutes a public nuisance” that “threatens their water.” A
finding of nuisance requires an unreasonable
and substantial interference with the plaintiff’s
use and enjoyment of property.
Municipalities and other water purveyors
will often shut down their water wells not
because the MCLs have been exceeded but
because of self-imposed policies—such as not
serving water with any amount of a contaminant, no matter how harmless. These selfimposed prohibitions begin the accrual, from
a plaintiff’s point of view, of damages. The
risk faced by defendants in these situations is
that despite the black letter law that no claim
can be maintained absent injury and that
an injury must be more than a mere possibility,15 defendants are put in the position of
watching potential damages mount while
they defend themselves and run the risk that
a judge or jury will apply the nondegradation
standard when determining liability and
damages.
Cognizable Injury
Courts either incorporate regulatory standards into their analysis of common law
injury or in their analysis of standing. At
either stage of a proceeding the issues are
essentially the same: Does meeting or not
meeting the standard determine if the plaintiffs have a claim, and which standard will be
applied?
Decisions of courts outside of California—
both state and federal—on these issues are
illustrative. For example, in Texas, the state
appellate court in Taco Cabana, Inc. v. Exxon
Corporation affirmed a verdict in favor of the
former landowner by relying upon the State
Water Code and implementing administrative
regulations that established the appropriate
cleanup standards. Because those standards
dictated when corrective action was necessary,
32 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
the court reasoned that they also defined
when unreasonable levels of contamination
were present. The levels on the plaintiffs’
property did not exceed those standards, so
the plaintiffs’ trespass claim was dismissed.16
In Washington, the district court in City
of Moses Lake v. United States dismissed the
plaintiffs’ claims, finding that to the extent the
city was merely concerned about possible
health risks or that one of its wells at some
point in the future might be contaminated, it
did not establish that the defendant had a duty
to address the potential liability. The court
counting health-based standards and instead
focusing on property rights, product liability
theories, and the nondegradation standards
to support claims based upon the presence of
contaminants at any detectable level.
Beginning in 2000 and culminating in 2006,
the nondegradation standard moved to the
forefront and trumped the health-based MCL
standards.20 In 2000, an appellate court in
Ohio held that even though “contamination
levels in the water never exceeded levels considered to be safe [that] merely showed compliance with regulatory standards and did
Municipalities and other water purveyors will
often shut down their water wells not because
the MCLs have been exceeded but because of
self-imposed policies—such as not serving
water with any amount of a contaminant, no
matter how harmless.
used the MCL to define the beginning and the
end of the defendant’s duties to the plaintiffs.17
In North Carolina, residents of a town
filed individual claims arising from alleged
Methyl tertiary Butyl Ether (MtBE) contamination of private well drinking water supplies.18 With minor exceptions, the plaintiffs
could only demonstrate that MtBE concentrations exceeded the MCL standard on three
occasions. The plaintiffs urged the court to
adopt a different standard based on taste
and odor rather than the health-based MCL.
The court declined, finding that the regulatory
standards “form a bright line, objective, and
easily determinable test.” Thus the court
deferred to the standard adopted by state
authorities responsible for protecting the
state’s water resources, stating that they are
“in a better position than courts to set and
reset standards based upon new scientific
information and changing standards of
health.”
In Massachusetts, the superior court in
Gleason v. Town of Bolton emphasized that
federal and state MCLs for drinking water
supplies establish stringent safety standards.
According to the court, when drinking water
contaminants are below the MCL, the water
supplies are “considered safe for all purposes, including drinking.” The court found
that the plaintiff did not suffer a compensable
injury and the negligence, trespass, nuisance,
and strict liability claims were without merit.19
However, more recent decisions are dis-
not show [defendants] met the standard of
care required under common law.”21 In 2006,
the U.S. District Court for the Southern
District of New York and the Third District
Court of Appeal in California followed suit.22
These decisions make it clear that MCLs are
not determinative of whether a public water
supplier can maintain a claim that it was
injured by the mere presence of a chemical in
a drinking water source at a level below the
MCL. Based upon the rationale of these decisions, and the nondegradation policies of the
agencies tasked with setting remediation levels, stakeholders cannot rely upon the MCLs
as either determinative of an injury or the level
to which remedial measures are required.
The MCLs—long the benchmark by which
health risks have been gauged—no longer
appear to be the standards that stakeholders
can look to when evaluating liability, designing remediation facilities, or projecting remediation costs and damages.
The 2006 Southern District of New York
case involved a series of rulings allowing
water suppliers’ claims of injury and damage
to “go to the jury,” even when the level of
contamination was below the MCL. Judge
Shira A. Scheindlin, in In re Methyl Tertiary
Butyl Ether Products Liability Litigation,
rejected the defendants’ arguments that four
suits by water suppliers in New York and
California should be dismissed because the
levels of MtBE alleged to be present were
below the MCL.23 Judge Scheindlin reasoned
that, while the MCL may serve as “a convenient guidepost in determining that a particular level of contamination has likely caused
an injury, the MCL does not define whether
an injury has occurred.”24
Judge Scheindlin noted that “nothing in
[the decisions cited by the defendants] compels a holding that the applicable MCL establishes a bright-line rule defining the scope of
plaintiffs’ protected interests or what legally
constitutes an injury.”25 Of particular note,
the judge found that the “plaintiffs’ protected interests may be interfered with whenever contamination affects the quality of the
water from which they supply the public, or
in the case of OCWD, the ground water it is
statutorily tasked with protecting.”26 Thus
Judge Scheindlin effectively discarded the
MCL and adopted nondegradation as the
standard against which harm or injury is
judged.27
In reaching her decision, the judge distinguished two cases28 cited by the defendant oil companies. These cases held that
contamination levels below the MCL cannot constitute a legally cognizable injury. The
judge commented that the plaintiffs in these
cases were private well owners, not public
water suppliers, and therefore had no statutory duty to protect or remediate groundwater.29
In 2006, the Third District California Court
of Appeal in D.J. Nelson Trust v. Superior
Court (Exxon-Mobil) reversed a lower court’s
rejection of a water utility’s products liability claim. The utility, Fruitridge Water
Company, sought damages for contamination
of groundwater from MtBE.30 The court
refused to restrict a products liability claim to
the end user or consumer of the water, finding that the utility had a sufficient possessory
interest in the water to maintain its claim
and that Exxon-Mobil should have reasonably foreseen that MtBE would leak from
its gasoline delivery systems into the plaintiff’s
“groundwater” system. The court commented
that California law does not limit potential
product liability exposure only to consumers
that have a direct buy/sell relationship with
the manufacturer, finding that “state law
does not restrict liability to cases arising after
a retail sale or equivalent transaction, which
might imply a more limited class of potential,
expected uses.”
These decisions, combined with nondegradation policies, undermine the premise
of health-based MCLs. Taken to their logical
conclusion, these decisions can be interpreted
to support remediation of an anthropogenic
constituent in groundwater to a non-detect
level—even when the constituent level is
below the health-based MCL—while at the
same time permitting the end user or consumer to be provided with replacement drinkLos Angeles Lawyer December 2007 33
ing water containing the same constituent at
a concentration level that is equal to or less
than the MCL.
As 2007 comes to a close, however, this
trend may be changing. On August 24, 2007,
the First District California Court of Appeal
in the In re Groundwater Cases decision gave
strong support to adopting MCLs as the standard for determining liability.31 The case
involved water purveyors regulated by the
Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The appellate court found that the MCLs developed by
the DHS were the standards by which acceptable levels of a constituent in drinking water
would be judged. The court was clear in its
finding that the qualitative language in the
Health and Safety Code, such as “pure” or
“wholesome”—which is akin to the “highest
quality” and “maximum benefit” language in
the SWRCB’s nondegradation policies—was
not an enforceable, objective standard but
instead was only a goal that was never meant
to be a substitute for actual numeric standards. The court of appeal also found that
municipal water providers were only liable for
violations of mandatory duties,32 and the
only standards at issue in matters involving
municipal water providers, like the PUC-regulated entities, were numerical standards
such as MCLs.
Moreover, the court emphatically rejected
the plaintiffs’ claims that an isolated instance
of water containing constituents in excess of
the MCLs could trigger potential liability.
The court found the plaintiffs’ position to be
“inconsistent with the purpose for which
MCLs were established.” The In re Groundwater Cases decision, while focused on the
“regulated water provider,” makes it clear that
in California MCLs are the standards by
which liability is to be adjudicated. General
policy statements such as those contained in
SWRCB nondegradation resolutions and the
“pure” and “wholesome” language of California’s Safe Drinking Water Act33 are only
goals, not the benchmarks by which legal
duty is determined.
The protection of public health by establishing MCLs and ensuring that those criteria are met is actually a matter of minimizing
health risks rather than eliminating risk
entirely, because practical, technical, and
financial constraints make it impossible to do
so. The development and adoption of MCLs
takes these factors into consideration.
Nevertheless, plaintiffs have been demanding,
and the courts—with the exception of the
court that decided In re Groundwater Cases,
which is thus far applicable only to the regulated community—seem to be agreeing that
water sources, drinking or otherwise, must be
pure. This means the water must have no
detectable level of contaminants.
The tension between the MCL and nondegradation standards will continue nationwide. The uncertainty arising from this
dichotomy will likely result in extended legal
and administrative battles and the expenditure of significant resources, some of which
will be unnecessary and wasteful. Having
two separate and at times conflicting standards raises critical and often overlooked
legal, financial, and public policy issues
regarding who can recover damages, whether
more than one class of plaintiff can recover
for the same harm under different theories,
and who decides what is safe. The In re
Groundwater Cases court based its decision
on a human health-based standard, not vague
subjective policy statements. The rational
approach adopted in this decision eliminates
or at least reduces the risk of ad hoc standards
being applied in litigation and administrative
actions.
The In re Groundwater Cases approach
should be extended and applied to all cases
involving groundwater contamination, not
just those involving regulated utilities. Doing
so will bring much needed certainty to the
determination of liability and damages in the
groundwater arena.
■
1 The
state owns the water; all others have usufructuary rights. CAL. CONST. art. 10, §2.; WATER CODE
§102.
2 HEALTH & SAFETY CODE §§116270 et seq.
3 WATER CODE §§13001 et seq.
34 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
4 78 Ops. Atty. Gen. 31, n.3 (1995), slip. op. No. 94902 (citing 26 Ops. Atty. Gen. 7, 11 (1955) (purity of
drinking water is a matter of statewide, not municipal,
concern)). See Water Quality Ass’n v. County of Santa
Barbara, 44 Cal. App. 4th 732 (1996) (city’s attempt
to impose more stringent water quality standards than
those already established by the state was preempted);
see also Western Oil & Gas Ass’n v. Monterey Bay
Unified Air Pollution Control Dist., 49 Cal. 3d 408, 423
(1989) and Water Quality Ass’n v. City of Escondido,
53 Cal. App. 4th 755 (1997) (reaching similar conclusions); State of New Hampshire v. City of Dover,
2006 WL 119314 (N.H. 2006) (state’s parens patriae
authority superseded city’s interest in protecting water
quality).
5 Courts are to defer to agency interpretations supported
by “regulations, rulings, or administrative practice.”
Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hosp., 488 U.S. 204,
212 (1988); Chevron USA v. National Res. Def.
Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
6 HEALTH & SAFETY CODE §§116270 et seq.
7 State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB)
Resolution Nos. 68-16, 88-63, 92-49.
8 SWRCB Resolution No. 68-16.
9 SWRCB Q’s and A’s Resolution No. 68-16 (Feb. 16,
1995).
10 SWRCB Resolution No. 68-16, Decisional Chart;
SWRCB Order No. QW 86-17, at 22 n.10.
11 SWRCB Resolution No. 68-16; SWRCB Order No.
WQ 91-10. See also In re Matter of: Mather Air Force
Base, California, In the Matter of: George Air Force
Base, California, EPA Administrator Decision (Apr. 22,
1993).
12 SWRCB Q’s and A’s Resolution No. 68-16, at 9-10
(Feb. 16, 1995).
13 Id. at 10.
14 Id.
15 Jones v. Ortho Pharm. Corp., 163 Cal. App. 3d
396 (1985) (mere possibility or threat does not constitute damage or injury); San Diego Gas & Elec. Co.
v. Superior Court, 13 Cal. App. 4th 893 (1996) (nuisance requires unreasonable and substantial interference); Beck Dev. Co., Inc. v. Southern Pac. Transp., 44
Cal. App. 4th 1160 (1996) (required showing involves
reasonable degree of certainty that a contaminant in
excess of the MCLs would cause damage); Potter v.
Firestone, 6 Cal. 4th 986 (1993) (actual likelihood of
the feared cancer required).
16 Taco Cabana, Inc. v. Exxon Corp., 5 S.W. 3d 773
(Tex. App. 1999); see also Hartwell Corp. v. Superior
Court of Ventura County, 27 Cal. 4th 256, 276 (2002)
(private damage claims preempted based on drinking
water that met state water quality benchmarks).
17 City of Moses Lake v. United States, 430 F. Supp.
2d 1164 (E.D. Wash. 2006).
18 Adams v. A. J. Ballard Jr. Tire & Oil Co., 2006 WL
1875965 (2006).
19 Gleason v. Town of Bolton, 14 Mass. L. Rep. 678
(Mass. Super. Ct. 2002).
20 In re Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether Prods. Liab. Litig.,
2006 WL 2884392, 2006 WL 2884398 (S.D. N.Y.
2006), No. 00-1898, MDL 1358 (Oct. 10, 2006) [hereinafter In re MtBE Prods. Liab. Litig.]; D.J. Nelson Trust
v. Superior Court (Exxon-Mobil Corp.), 144 Cal. App.
4th 689 (2006).
21 Leukev v. Union Oil Co., 2000 Ohio App. LEXIS
4845 (Oct. 20, 2000).
22 In re MtBE Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 2884392,
2006 WL 2884398; D.J. Nelson Trust, 144 Cal. App.
4th 689.
23 United Water N.Y., Inc. v. Amerada Hess Corp., No.
04-2389 (2004); Suffolk County Water Auth. v.
Amerada Hess Corp., No. 04-5424 (2004); City of N.Y.
v. Amerada Hess Corp., No. 04-3417 (2004); Orange
County Water District v. Unocal Corp., No. 04-4968
(2004). On May 24, 2007, the Second Circuit Court
of Appeals remanded these cases back to their respective state courts.
24 In re MtBE Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 2884398,
at *4.
25 Id. at *3.
26 Id. See also Plainview Water Dist. v Exxon Mobil
Corp., No. 009975-01, 2006 LEXIS 3730 (N.Y. Sup.
Ct., Nov. 27, 2006) (rejecting defendants’ argument that
the plaintiff must demonstrate that MtBE levels will
exceed the MCL to establish actual and compensable
injury).
27 The underlying rationale of Judge Scheindlin’s decision and those of other courts that have rejected adopting MCLs as the bright-line standards for determining
liability has its basis in tort law. In those decisions the
focus has been on the invasion of a legally protected
interest—the loss of some property right—as opposed
to health risks. This approach, while legally supportable in some instances, increases the risk of ad hoc standards being applied.
28 Adams v. A.J. Ballard Jr. Tire & Oil Co., No. 011271, 2006 WL 1875965 (2006); Brooks v. E.I. Du
Pont De Nemours & Co., 944 F. Supp 448 (E.D. N.C.
1996).
29 In re MtBE Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 2884398,
at *3.
30 D.J. Nelson Trust v. Superior Court (Exxon-Mobil),
144 Cal. App. 4th 689 (2006).
31 In re Groundwater Cases, 2007 WL 2405687, No.
A112964 (Cal. App., 1st Dist., Aug. 24, 2007), on
remand from Hartwell Corp. v. Superior Court, 27 Cal.
4th 256 (2002).
32 GOV’T CODE §815.6.
33 Safe Drinking Water Act, HEALTH & SAFETY CODE
§116270.
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 35
computer counselor
BY JOSEPH C. SCOTT
Minimize Risk with Better Calendar Management
YEARS AGO, lawyers would not even consider filing a malpractice case
against their brethren. However, those days are long gone for attorneys in Los Angeles, across the state, and around the country. Today,
attorneys will not hesitate to take each other to court on charges of
malpractice. And there are few things more disconcerting for an
attorney than being the defendant in litigation, particularly filed by
a former client. Malpractice claims are filed for a variety of reasons,
but the leading cause is missed court deadlines.
Missing a deadline is, as the Ninth Circuit called it in one ruling,
a “lawyer’s nightmare.” That malpractice case, Pincay v. Andrews,1
was a nightmare for a litigation firm of more than 200 attorneys. A
filing clerk miscalculated a court filing date, thinking the firm had 60
days to file an appeal when in reality it had only 30. The firm missed
the deadline, and the client sued for malpractice. Fortunately for the
firm, an en banc panel ruled that the mistake was “excusable neglect,”
despite a blistering dissent from several judges on the panel. These
days, many courts are not nearly as forgiving.
Despite the danger of missing or miscalculating a court deadline,
it happens. In fact, what may be surprising is that it does not happen more often. Many law firms rely on paper calendars or manual
court date calculations. Others lack a centralized court calendaring
system and allow each attorney to use his or her own methods. All
of these leave law firms vulnerable to missing court dates. Without
an automated, rules-based, centralized system, court calendaring
can be tedious, time-consuming, and painfully prone to errors.
The chore of tracking court dates has become somewhat easier with
the advent of the Internet. Sites such as the California Rules of Court
Web page (www.courtinfo.ca.gov/rules) can be helpful for those
looking for additional information about various court requirements. Nonetheless, calendaring a single court matter can still require
hours of work. For a small firm that only focuses on one practice area
and tries cases in one or two specific courthouses, staying abreast of
relevant court rules may not be difficult. However, for litigators who
have clients with business throughout a state or region, it is much more
complicated.
Someone at the firm—whether a paralegal, administrator, or
lawyer—must first find the initial filing date. Then, all relevant deadlines must be precisely calculated and recorded in the firm’s calendar.
If attorneys have their own individual calendar, rather than a firmwide
system, each calendar must be updated promptly. But court rules can
change often and quickly, and those changes are not always easy to
determine. Rules also vary from one jurisdiction to another. So after
each date has been figured and communicated, all deadlines must be
manually checked and rechecked.
Savvy firms, no matter technology budgets, do not have to be overwhelmed by manual calendaring. New technology can help to transform the manual calendars that each attorney is responsible for into
one centralized, automated process. An automated calendaring system based on court rules can not only help lessen liability concerns
but also save time and free staff to focus on cases and clients.
36 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
A court rules-based automated calendaring program generally features a comprehensive database of court rules, taking into account
holidays and deadlines for a particular practice area, court, and
jurisdiction. Sophisticated programs will also include the filing deadlines and requirements for federal and state regulatory agencies.
Many of today’s docketing programs based on court rules tend to work
in similar ways. An administrator or attorney enters basic information about a specific court case and then the rules and deadlines are
automatically calculated. However, only high-level calendaring programs consistently check, recheck, and update court rules.
As California law firms are aware, there are many local, state, and
federal rules to consider, including civil litigation rules for counties,
the state of California, and appellate courts; criminal court rules for
local, state, and federal courts; and federal district courts, bankruptcy courts, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Depending on
the areas of practice, there can be a number of other court and regulatory rules in California that firms must calendar, such as rules
regarding asbestos litigation, the California Board of Equalization,
the California Environmental Quality Act, eminent domain, family
law, Government Code for claims and actions against public entities
and employees, the Office of Administrative Hearings, probate court,
the Public Utilities Commission, statutes of limitation, unlawful
detainers, and workers’ compensation.
A thorough rules-based system will have all the relevant court rules
for jurisdictions in the appropriate practice areas and make calculations automatically. Changes to court rules can be communicated
immediately, and each firm calendar can be updated seamlessly.
Fortunately, court rules-based calendaring is no longer limited to large
firms with huge software budgets and IT staff. Now, firms can find
pay-per-use systems online that require a minimum of training and
financial commitment.
Online, court rules-based deadline calculation technology gives legal
professionals up-to-the-minute calendaring information, greatly
reducing chances of missing a date. The user enters the area of law,
court location, and the date of an event such as a trial. The online service then returns a list of deadlines and corresponding authorities.
Advanced online calendaring programs will notify the user by email that there has been a rule change in a searched jurisdiction. Then
the dates can simply be rechecked.
If concern over malpractice is not motivation enough, attorneys
should talk to their malpractice insurance carriers. Many offer a
discount on insurance rates for firms that use these systems and
encourage or require law firms to implement automated court rules
calendaring systems.
■
1 Pincay
v. Andrews, 367 F. 3d 1087 (9th Cir. 2004).
Joseph C. Scott is an attorney and vice president/general manager of
CompuLaw, LLC, and Deadlines On Demand, LLC. He can be reached at
[email protected]
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The 2007 Los Angeles Lawyer
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Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 39
Letters to the editor
(Continued from page 10)
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Procedure Section 425.16 in disposing of
lawsuits challenging alleged settlement misconduct. Perhaps this was because of the
case he cited discussing the public policy considerations of Section 47: Flatley v. Mauro, 39
Cal. 4th 299 (2006). Flatley rejected application of the anti-SLAPP statute under the
unique facts of that case, which involved
admitted extortion, and differentiated
(although not truly convincingly) between
the statutory privilege in Section 47 and First
Amendment “protected activity”—the target of Section 425.16.
In an earlier California Supreme Court
case, Navellier v. Sletten, 29 Cal. 4th 82
(2002), the court had held that settlement
negotiations leading to subsequent litigation
was protected activity under Section 425.16.
That case has been followed expressly in
Navarro v. IHOP Properties, Inc., 134 Cal.
App. 4th 834 (2005), and sub silentio in
Dowling v. Zimmerman, 85 Cal. App. 4th
1400 (2001). So, a brief mention of Section
425.16, in my view, would have been in
order.
In fact, there is one more weapon often
available in the armamentarium of the settling
attorney whose conduct is challenged in subsequent litigation—Civil Code Section
1714.10, which requires a plaintiff to obtain
a prefiling order before the plaintiff can sue
an attorney and his or her client for conspiracy.
Having drifted away from the main subject of Mr. Steinberg's excellent article, I suppose that I am now suggesting that there is
another article lurking somewhere when the
bluffing negotiator gets sued.
Scott J. Tepper
Articles Solicited
To Our Readers:
Los Angeles Lawyer encourages the submission of well-written, well-researched legal
articles on substantive law issues that educate
and inform other lawyers about the law.
Feature articles are approximately 3,000 to
5,000 words; departments are approximately
2,500 to 3,500 words. We will gladly provide
samples to prospective authors.
Manuscripts and query letters should be
sent to: Los Angeles Lawyer, P. O. Box 55020,
Los Angeles, CA 90055. The magazine’s Style
Guide is online at www.lacba.org/lalawyer.
The Los Angeles Lawyer Editorial Board
carefully considers all submissions.
Samuel Lipsman
Publisher and Editor
40 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
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Arbitration and Mediation Group, p. 27
Guaranteed Subpoena, Inside Back Cover
Peachtree Pre-Settlement Funding, p. 16
Tel. 818-790-1851 www.mediationla.com
Tel. 800-PROCESS (776-2377) e-mail: [email protected]
Tel. 866-476-2029 www.presettlementfunds.com
Lee Jay Berman, p. 15
Hargis & Associates, Inc., p. 33
Premier Business Centers, p. 20
Tel. 213-383-0438 www.leejayberman.com
Tel. 800-554-2744 www.hargis.com
Tel. 1-877-MYSUITE (1-877-697-8483) www.pbcenters.com
Coldwell Banker p. 6
The Holmes Law Firm, p. 4
Steven R. Sauer APC, p. 21
Tel. 310-442-1398 www.mickeykessler.com
Tel. 626-432-7222 www.theholmeslawfirm.com
Tel. 323-933-6833 e-mail: [email protected]
Commerce Escrow Company, p. 34
Jack Trimarco & Associates Polygraph, Inc., p. 6
Stephen Sears, CPA-Attorney at Law, p. 26
Tel. 213-484-0855 www.comescrow.com
Tel. 310-247-2637 www.jacktrimarco.com
www.searsatty.com
Cook Construction, p. 20
Jacqueline Ingle, Voice Enhancement, p. 10
Anita Rae Shapiro, p. 21
Tel. 818-438-4535 e-mail: [email protected]
Tel. 310-289-1157
Tel. 714-529-0415 www.adr-shapiro.com
Deadlines On Demand, p. 37
Jeffrey Kichaven, p. 10
Steven Peck’s Premier Legal, p. 21
Tel. 888-363-5522 www.deadlines.com
Tel. 213-996-8465 www.jeffkichaven.com
Tel. 866-999-9085 www.premierlegal.org
Dixon Q. Dern, P.C., p. 27
Lawrence W. Crispo, p. 5
Tenrec, Inc., p. 26
Tel. 310-557-2244 e-mail: [email protected]
Tel. 213-926-6665 e-mail: [email protected]
Tel. 415-543-6600 x101 e-mail: [email protected]
E. L. Evans & Associates, p. 15
Lawyers’ Mutual Insurance Co., Inside Front Cover
UCLA Extension Conferences, p. 35
Tel. 310-559-4005
Tel. 800-252-2045 www.lawyersmutual.com
Tel. 310 206-1409 www.uclaextension.edu
First Indemnity Insurance Services, Inc., p. 28
Lexis Publishing, p. 1, 2
UngerLaw, P.C., p. 27
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West Group, Back Cover
Tel. 800-762-5272 www.westgroup.com
Witkin & Eisinger, LLC, p. 39
Tel. 310-670-1500
Wolfsdorf Immigration Law Group, p. 27
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Ethics 2007
ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 15, the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the Professional
Responsibility and Ethics Committee will host a program on ethics for the criminal lawyer.
Those who attend will hear speakers John W. Amberg, Charles Gessler, Evan A. Jenness,
retired judge Michael D. Marcus, Joel A. Osman, Ellen A. Pansky, Jon L. Rewinski, and Toby J.
Rothschild address ethical issues unique to criminal law, including conflicts of interest,
civility, and a summary of new ethics opinions and case law. The program will take place at
the LACBA Conference Center, 281 South Figueroa Street, Downtown. Figueroa Courtyard
reduced parking with LACBA validation costs $10. On-site registration and the meal begin at
8:30 A.M., with the program continuing from 9 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. The registration code number
is 009806. The prices below include the meal.
$85—CLE+PLUS members
$110—LACBA members
$150—all others
4 CLE hours with ethics credit
Bankruptcy Issues for
Real Estate Professionals
ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 13, the Real
Property Section and the Commercial
Development and Leasing Subsection
will present a quick refresher course
on bankruptcy basics with an analysis
of recent developments (including the
2005 Bankruptcy Code revisions) that
most directly affect real estate
practitioners. Speaker Bernard D.
Bollinger will address transactions
that real estate professionals have
Client Asset Protection
ON TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11, the Los Angeles County Bar Association will host a comprehensive
program covering everything attorneys need to know about protecting client assets from
plaintiffs and creditors. The seminar, led by speaker Jacob Stein, will cover the law but will
largely focus on practical aspects of asset protection planning—i.e., what works and what does
not, based on practical experience. Most of the time will be devoted to discussing specific
planning strategies and solutions, including community property, business entities, and
domestic and foreign trusts. The seminar will cover how to protect specific assets: houses,
bank and brokerage accounts, rental real estate, businesses, professional practices, and
retirement plans. Course materials will serve as a treatise on asset protection and will
constitute an exhaustive reference source.
Topics will include: practical aspects of planning contrasted with legal theories; high-risk
planning; houses, rentals, bank accounts, and retirement plans; types of plaintiffs, creditors,
and claims; married couples, including transmutation agreements; business entities,
including domestic and foreign corporations, LLCs, and limited partnerships; and entities and
jurisdictions, including Delaware and Nevada LLCs. The program will take place at the LACBA
Conference Center, 281 South Figueroa Street, Downtown. Figueroa Courtyard reduced parking
with LACBA validation costs $10. On-site registration and the meal will begin at 5 P.M., with the
program continuing from 5:30 to 9:15. The registration code number is 009778. The prices
below include the meal.
$120—CLE+PLUS members
$190—LACBA members
$250—all others
3.5 CLE hours
been involved with for the past 10
years and the impact of a bankruptcy
filing on these transactions. The
program will take place at the LACBA
Conference Center, 281 South Figueroa
Street, Downtown. Parking at the
Figueroa Courtyard garage costs $10
with LACBA validation. On-site
registration will begin at 11:45 A.M.
and lunch at noon, with the program
continuing from 12:30 to 1:30 P.M. The
prices below include the meal. The
registration code number is 009891.
$15—CLE+Plus members
$45—Real Property Section members
$55—other LACBA members
$65—all others
1 CLE hour
The Los Angeles County Bar Association is a State Bar of California MCLE approved provider. To register for the programs listed
on this page, please call the Member Service Department at (213) 896-6560 or visit the Association Web site at
http://calendar.lacba.org/. For a full listing of this month’s Association programs, please consult the County Bar Update.
Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007 43
closing argument
BY ELIOT G. DISNER
Putting Some Common Sense Back into Patent Enforcement
The patent before the Court in KSR covered a particular accelerator
WHEN I ARRIVED IN LOS ANGELES years ago, I joined an intellectual
property law firm. It struck me then that there were actually few true pedal—nothing more than the art of fixing an electronic sensor in the
inventions, that what most of our clients invented were “combina- midst of a moving throttle control. After examining the product in
tions,” as my partners put it, of existing patented inventions. I sim- detail, an unimpressed Supreme Court held, “A court must ask
ply could not understand why an elaborate system existed to protect whether the improvement is more than the predictable use of priorstuff that seemed of so little significance. After a while, however, I art elements according to their established functions.” It went on to
learned that what is obvious when viewed retrospectively is fre- observe that “as progress beginning from higher levels of achievement
quently not so obvious viewed prospectively. Thus, in those days, true is expected in the ordinary course, results of ordinary innovation are
inventors mostly worked on the uncharted edges of their worlds, where not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws.”
With these few words, the Supreme Court has now ordered the
innovation was still possible. Patentable innovations seldom include
any technological breakthrough, so in that
environment, a practitioner developed something of a jeweler’s eye, a heightened sensitivToo much commerce in this country is being tied up by patents
ity about what truly is, or was, an invention.
Still, within me, there was always a lurking feeling that this was much ado about nothing.
revealing limited, if any, innovation.
Then, I came across a patent, yet another
combination—a urinal with a bull’s-eye stenciled in it. Is this what the Patent Office wastes
its time on? The bubble of my suspended disbelief then burst. I Patent Office to impose a more rigorous test on patentability than mere
thought to myself: Now is the time to rid the patent system of this “innovation,” the historic predicate for approving patent applications.
marginally inventive junk that litters their files. By then I had seen hold- Mere innovation, i.e., that capturable by those with ordinary skill,
ers of such patent junk use their phalanx of government-granted rights is no longer sufficient to justify a registration. Presumably, inventions
to steamroll their competition—some of whom were my clients.
of similarly modest proportions, already patented, are now subject
Indeed, numerous industries have been characterized by the to attack as well, as nothing in the Court’s opinion suggests its new
aggressive, even intimidating, enforcement by its dominant players rules are only to be applied prospectively.
of dozens, if not hundreds, of patents protecting their various “invenTo further empower accused infringers, the Supreme Court and
tions.” Down to their last detail, the patent collection of these com- the Federal Court in two recent cases2 loosened the “where to sue”
panies often protects shapes, sizes, patterns, and other simple and pre- issue that has previously plagued many smaller companies. Until
dictable configurations. Through the strategic use of International now, a purported patent infringer could not initiate its own suit in
Trade Commission proceedings and patent lawsuits, dominant com- its own nearby court to declare a patent invalid unless the patentee
panies in some industries have intimidated, even terrorized, competitors threatened the alleged infringer with an infringement claim. Now, howfrom competing against them. Indeed, in those ITC proceedings, the ever, it is sufficient for a patentee merely to assert rights against a purvalidity of the U.S. company’s patent is not even put into issue.
ported infringer of a patent, which the target believes it has the right
In federal courts around the country, patent holders have selec- to exploit without cost, to enable the target to initiate litigation in its
tively sued putative infringers and obtained orders stopping them in own district to remedy the problem.
their tracks. They have legally gotten away with this for so long because
Taking these recent court decisions together, those victimized by
many judges respected the patent system, and the sole federal appeals the too aggressive enforcement of patents now, at last, have both a
court for patent cases, the Federal Circuit, seemed to routinely rub- substantive and a procedural edge. The time has come for those
ber stamp patents found to be valid by lower courts, taking quite seri- companies that have strutted around like the cock of the walk in the
ously the rule that a patent registration creates a presumption of valid- barnyards of intellectual property and commerce to recognize that these
■
ity. Successful validity challenges have been rare over the past 25 days are about to end.
years—since the Federal Circuit was given this special jurisdiction.
However, in the last several months the patent terrain has changed. 1 KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 1727 (2007).
It turns out that the U.S. Supreme Court came to the same conclu- 2 Medimmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 764 (2007); SanDisk Corp. v.
sion I ultimately did: that too much commerce in this country is being STMicroelectronics, Inc., 480 F. 3d 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2007).
tied up by patents revealing limited, if any, innovation. According to
its unanimous decision in KSR International Co. v. Teleflex, Inc.,1 those Eliot G. Disner is the principal of the Los Angeles-based Disner Law Corporation.
types of “inventions” are no longer entitled to a 20-year monopoly, He is a trial lawyer specializing in antitrust, patent law, other intellectual property, and complex litigation.
courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
44 Los Angeles Lawyer December 2007
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