ANALYSIS OF APRIL 14, 2016 SUPREME COURT DECISIONS
[Posted April 14, 2016] The Supreme Court today resumes its rolling releases of decisions. Today we get two published opinions.
For the second time this year, the court releases an opinion in a case involving low-dollar sanctions against attorneys. This one is Ragland v. Soggin, in which two lawyers were sanctioned the princely sum of $200 each.
This appeal arose out of a wrongful-death trial. Soggin filed suit as personal representative of the estate of her deceased son, who died as a result of injuries sustained in a fall from a horse. The defendant, the boy’s riding instructor, cited Virginia’s equine-liability statutes, which generally afford a form of immunity for activities arising out of the dangers one normally expects from riding a horse.
The instructor’s lawyers contended that in order to establish liability, the estate had to prove that any negligence by the instructor was the sole proximate cause of the death. This contrasts with ordinary tort law, in which a defendant can be liable if her actions are a proximate cause.
During the trial, the judge disagreed with this theory, ruling that the plaintiff could recover without proving that the instructor’s negligence was the sole proximate cause. This necessitated a hurried revision to the defense’s issues and finding instructions, each of which had used the phrase “sole cause.”
As sometimes happens when you try to do something quickly in a stressful situation, the lawyers modified the issues instruction, but neglected to change the finding instruction. Accordingly, the jury orally received instructions on two different standards of liability.
Fortunately, someone noticed the error just before the jury received its copy of the instructions back in the jury room. The finding instruction was quickly corrected and sent back to the jury.
The jury eventually returned a defense verdict. The administrator moved to set it aside, and pointed to possible confusion because of the erroneous finding instruction. The defense lawyers told the judge that it was an inadvertent error that was speedily corrected. They added, “If anything, if you believe this was actionable conduct on counsels’ part, then it would be a question of sanctions, not a motion for a new trial.”
The trial judge denied the plaintiff’s post-verdict motion, and she accepted the defense lawyers’ explanation that the error was inadvertent. But she sanctioned them anyway, finding that the inadvertence “does rise to the level of a sanctionable act.” The lawyers got a writ to review this $400 award.
Let’s take a small side trip, a short excursion into the land of appellate arcana. Four hundred bucks is a very small amount in controversy. You may be wondering how often the justices take up tiny awards like this. Well, it’s not very often, but it isn’t zero; the smallest one I can recall was $540, in Martin v. Duncan, 277 Va. 204 (2009). In that case, the justices held that a trial court lacked the authority to make the plaintiff pay the cost of the jury when he nonsuits. I’ve repeatedly used that case as an illustration of the principle that you still have a chance of getting a writ even in a small-dollar case.
Is there any lower limit to what cases the justices can take? Theoretically there is: Code §8.01-672 sets a $500 minimum limit on the amount in controversy. In a 1933 case, and another one in 1936, the Supreme Court referred to this limit (actually, the $300 limit that was in place at that time) as jurisdictional.
How can the justices accept and decide an appeal that falls below a discrete and unambiguous threshold like that? Good question. One possibility is the closing language of the statute: “… or some other matter not merely pecuniary.” Is the power of a trial court to award sanctions “not merely pecuniary”? Theoretically, but I doubt it; viewed in context, that language refers to truly nonmonetary matters such as appeal of a zoning variance. The mere question of the power of a court to enter a given monetary order like this one isn’t enough (that was decided in the 1936 case).
So no, I don’t have a good explanation why the justices decided to take this case despite the jurisdictional bar. And because this is a court of last resort, we aren’t likely ever to get a full explanation.
Back to our story. Today, the Supreme Court notes that the trial court didn’t explain the basis for its sanctions, so the appellate court has to sift through the possible grounds for it. (I expect that’s a frustrating situation for the Robes.) The court discards the inherent-power basis because that doesn’t authorize monetary sanctions. It finds that no rule of court applies here, and concludes that this isn’t a case of summary contempt, either, because that’s a specific-intent offense. Remember, the judge expressly accepted the lawyers’ assurance that the error was unintentional.
That leaves the sanctions statute, Code §8.01-271.1. The appellants argued that the statute doesn’t apply because it only governs pleadings, motions, and other papers that a lawyer signs. (“The signature of an attorney or party constitutes a certificate by him that …”) No one signed the jury instruction, so that situation doesn’t control here.
On this point, to my great surprise, the justices disagree. They cite the sanction statute’s application to oral motions made to the court; those can be the basis for sanctions, too. This prompts the inevitable rejoinder that the lawyer merely handed up a paper; he didn’t say anything and he didn’t make a motion. But the justices cast that plausible objection aside in what looks for all the world to me like they’re rewriting the statute:
Submitting a jury instruction to a trial court and asking that a particular instruction be given to a jury is the equivalent of making an oral motion to the court. Accordingly, this statute may serve as the basis for sanctions related to the submission of jury instructions by an attorney or party.
I will confess that I read this language three times, to ensure that I was reading it correctly. Handing up a jury instruction is the equivalent of making an oral motion? But there it is: the sanctions statute, as of today, applies to papers that a lawyer hands up to a judge even if no one has signed it, and even if no one says a word.
In the end, the lawyers avoid the sanction because – and this is the heart of today’s ruling – the justices conclude that the statute doesn’t authorize sanctions for inadvertent mistakes. They therefore reverse the sanction and enter final judgment.
We all know that a suit must be filed in the name of the real party in interest. So who is that party when a court appoints a guardian for an incompetent person? That’s the dispositive issue in Lopez-Rosario v. Habib, a medical negligence case filed by the ward in her own name.
The plaintiff is an adult with the mental capacity of a six-year-old. Her parents petitioned the local circuit court to appoint them as co-guardians under the statutes relating to incapacitated persons. The order gave them the authority “to make decisions regarding the support care, health, safety, habilitation, therapeutic treatment and residence of” the daughter.
The daughter later had surgery that allegedly caused an injury to her. She filed a lawsuit against the surgeon, Dr. Habib, and never mentioned the guardianship.
The doctor moved to dismiss, claiming that with the advent of the guardianship, the patient could no longer file suit. The trial court agreed and dismissed the action; today the justices agree and affirm. Because previous caselaw indicates that a general order of guardianship does indeed extinguish the ward’s power to file suit, the only real issue in today’s appeal is whether the guardianship order was limited to medical decisions, or if it included the power to make legal decisions, too. The justices note that the order “did not specify any limitations on the parents’ guardianship, effectively granting them all of the authority that a court may vest in a guardian. Thus, the parents are Lopez-Rosario’s full guardians, not limited ones.” That means that only they could file a lawsuit asserting medical negligence.