ANALYSIS OF SEPTEMBER 12, 2014 SUPREME COURT OPINIONS[Posted September 12, 2014] Okay, summer’s over, at least for the appellate crowd. Today is the Supreme Court’s opinion day, and the court hands down eight published opinions in cases that were argued in June. The coffee’s on and it’s raining outside, so let’s dig into today’s batch.
Kohn v. Marquis has made plenty of news down here in Tidewater. It’s a wrongful-death action brought by the widow of a police recruit who was literally beaten to death during his training to become a police officer. The widow sued the police chief and several others, including the trainers and the administrator who designed the training program.
The defendants asserted the bar of the Workers’ Comp Act, since the recruit was a City employee at the time of his death and the injury unquestionably arose out of and in the course of his employment. The sole disputed issue on the plea was whether the death was due to an “injury by accident.”
The widow had pleaded that the death was the result of a series of head traumas over a period of several weeks; she pointed to caselaw holding that repetitive-trauma injuries are not within the act. A medical examiner’s report noted that the decedent suffered several blows to the head on the day he collapsed in training, and that those blows “may have played a significant role in Mr. Kohn’s terminal event but other blows to the head prior to this event cannot be excluded as contributing to his terminal head injury.” The widow cited this language in arguing that summary judgment was inappropriate, since the question whether death was due to those blows, or due to earlier traumas, had to be presented to a jury.
The defendants responded that the decedent had suffered at least some injury on the date of his collapse, and that fact meant this was indeed an injury by accident. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and the Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
If you follow Supreme Court jurisprudence, you know that summary judgment is a disfavored procedure – unlike in federal court, where courts prefer to use SJ whenever they can. It may therefore come as some surprise to you that the justices today affirm the trial court’s decision to end the litigation in this way. The court finds that these facts
significantly [differ] from the gradually incurred injury and repetitive trauma cases referenced by Kohn in that John suffered an obvious mechanical or structural change in his body while engaged in a work activity which exposed him to an employment-related hazard that injured him and contributed to his death.
In explaining its ruling, the court describes the injury that the recruit sustained on his final day of training as “a proximate cause of his death.” Note that proximate causation was the precise disputed issue in the litigation, and the defendants bore the burden of proof on it (Hilton v. Martin from 2008 decided that issue). The Supreme Court has made this causation decision even though a medical examiner could not. (Go back and read that short excerpt from the autopsy report and you’ll see what I mean.) I’ve never seen the justices do that before, and I don’t know whether this portends a shift in the court’s view of summary judgment, toward the federal model.
I’ve noted before the erosion of the demurrer in recent Supreme Court caselaw –Assurance Data v. Malyevac comes immediately to mind – but a more open receptiveness to summary judgment is a significantly bigger departure from the court’s previous approach. Keep that in mind as you approach your next summary-judgment hearing.
Sometimes a new appellate opinion breaks new ground, and sometimes it just polished the edges of a previous decision. Swords Creek Land Partnership v. Belcher is of the latter variety. The fundamental issue is one that the justices tackled ten years ago: a severance deed that conveys the right to mine coal doesn’t include the right to extract coal-bed methane gas.
The justices don’t retreat from that holding today, but they take up two of the coal-owner’s attempts to distinguish the 2004 decision. First, the court rejects the contention that the granting clause is ambiguous. It finds that it is not; even though it occasionally contains potentially vague language such as “other things” and “rights and privileges,” those are always specifically related back to the grant of the right to coal only.
Second, the court rejects the coal owner’s attempt to secure a constructive trust, claiming that it conferred a benefit on the land owner. After all, if not for the mining activity, the gas never would have been released. But the court today rules that “the CBM was at all times the property of the Surface Owners, and the Coal Owner conferred no benefit upon the Surface Owners.”
We get a ruling today in a rare area for appellate decisions – a name-change petition involving a juvenile. McMahon v. Wirick paradoxically involves a child who is named neither McMahon or Wirick. Here’s how that shakes out.
Father (McMahon) and mother (Wirick) were never married, but they produced a daughter. Mother’s name was White; she subsequently married a Mr. Wirick and took his name. But at the time of birth, Mother still bore her maiden name, so the little girl’s surname is White.
Today’s opinion doesn’t go into this detail, but I wonder about the family dynamic at the time of birth. I also wonder about what Father said when he found out that the birth certificate read “White.” I have some idle speculation about both topics, but I should probably keep those to myself and stick to today’s holdings.
The parents shared physical and legal custody for a time, but when the little girl reached school age, they decided to give Father primary legal custody during the school year, because of the school division where he lived. This started to generate problems when he was misidentified at school as “Mr. White” or received medical bills naming the girl as Wirick. Father accordingly filed a petition to change the little girl’s surname to match his.
The trial court consulted Spero v. Heath, 267 Va. 477 (2004) for guidance. That case held that a name-change petition like this can be granted only upon a showing that the change is in the child’s best interest. The Spero decision listed four factors that could justify such a finding. I’ll lay them out here:
1) The parent sharing his or her surname with the minor has “abandoned the natural ties ordinarily existing between parent and child,”
2)The parent sharing his or her surname with the minor “has engaged in misconduct sufficient to embarrass the [minor] in the continued use” of the parent’s name,
3) The minor “otherwise will suffer substantial detriment” by bearing the surname he or she currently bears, or
4) The minor “is of sufficient age and discretion to make an intelligent choice and . . . desires that [his or her] name be changed.”
Now, if you read those carefully, you’ll have observed that the first two don’t match up with these facts, because there is no “parent sharing his or her surname with the minor.” All three people here have different surnames. Despite this, the trial court evaluated the petition under the four-factor analysis of Spero and ruled against the father.
In a slightly split decision, the justices today affirm that ruling. The majority notes – correctly, I think – that these four are examples, not a four-part test. The real issue, as always, is the best-interest test. Because of uncertainty about what to do where the surnames are all different, the trial court had made alternative findings; it rules that none of the four factors are met, and, separately, that the father had shown only “minor inconvenience or embarrassment,” which definitely is not enough to justify a change. Six of the justices agree with the trial court’s Spero analysis, and today’s decision establishes that the Spero analysis applies even where there is no “parent sharing his or her surname with the minor.”
Justice McClanahan files a concurring opinion that focuses on the problem I mentioned above. She would not apply the Spero factors to a case like this, because of that very problem. That being said, she agrees with the alternative finding, and all seven justices agree that the father hasn’t met the best-interest test.
Incidentally, I think Justice McClanahan is right. I don’t think it makes sense to apply theSpero factors where they clearly don’t apply to the facts of the case. In the end, it doesn’t matter for these litigants. It might matter for you, though, if you have a comparable name-change proceeding in the future.
Let’s start the discussion of Temple v. Mary Washington Hospital with a philosophical question. Do you regard discovery, as laid out in Part 4 of the Rules of Court, to comprise only questions and answers? Or is it a process that includes objections and motions and hearings and orders? The justices give us an answer to that question in the context of a wrongful-death case involving allegations of medical malpractice.
Temple is the widow of a patient who died at Mary Washington Hospital. She sued the hospital and other health-care providers in 2010. As the case progressed, several discovery disputes arose over whether the widow was entitled to certain classes of information. After considering the matters, the trial judge agreed with the hospital and refused to order production of the requested information. It entered two orders carrying out those rulings.
The widow later nonsuited the case and refiled it timely in 2012. Because the parties figured it would save time, they prepared a consent order that incorporated “[a]ll discovery conducted and taken in the previous action.” The case then proceeded to trial, and a jury found for the defendants.
The widow got a writ to review the trial court’s decision to limit her discovery. Her cause was probably bolstered by the fact that some of the information that she had sought in discovery was actually adduced from defense witnesses during the trial; she claimed that this was essentially trial by ambush.
On appeal, the defendants argued that the Supreme Court could not reach the discovery rulings, because they had come in the prior, nonsuited action, which obviously had not been appealed. The widow responded that the discovery order took care of that problem. The defendants shot back that the order didn’t incorporate the prior case’s rulings; only the information that had been exchanged.
And that brings us back to our philosophical question. In order to determine whether this issue is currently appealable, the justices must first decide whether discovery is a process, in which case the prior ruling has been incorporated and can be appealed; or if it’s just the questions and answers, in which case the widow is stuck without an appealable issue.
The court unanimously finds today that discovery refers only to the information that is exchanged, and not to the proceedings that lead up to and include rulings:
Although parties may file motions to compel and raise objections while they are engaged in the discovery process, the motions, objections, and trial court orders do not constitute discovery.
Accordingly, here’s a waiver trap that you must address now if you want to preserve issues for appellate review in a refiled action. In order to achieve that, your incorporation order must not only refer to the discovery, but also the parties’ legal arguments, the court’s rulings and orders resolving those arguments, and probably the transcripts of those hearings as well. Perhaps you think this is a belt-and-suspenders approach; whether it is or not, this is the procedure that you must follow from now on.
There’s one more angle to this case that’s worth a brief discussion here. In response to the argument that the incorporation order didn’t carry forward the rulings from the previous case, the widow cited numerous transcript citations from the second suit. In those passages, the defense lawyers and the trial court clearly indicated that they regarded the rulings from the previous case to have binding effect in the refiled action. The widow argued that the court and the litigants clearly understood that the incorporation order related to the rulings as well as the questions and answers.
The justices deflect this argument by noting that courts of record speak only through their orders, “and that such orders are presumed to reflect accurately what transpired.” Accordingly, the judge’s oral statements in colloquy are of no help to the widow’s cause.
Criminal law and procedure
Virginia courts are empowered by statute to issue protective orders to protect persons from violence or threats of violence at the hands of others. The grounds for issuance of such orders include instances of stalking. That procedure is at the heart of today’s unanimous decision in Stephens v. Rose.
Stephens and Rose had dated for four years and were engaged to be married when, in 2007, they broke off the engagement. Rose had become concerned about Stephens because of his moodiness and problems with anger. They continued to communicate infrequently into 2008, but eventually Rose asked him not to contact her anymore.
Over the next three years, Stephens didn’t give up hope. He continued to try to contact Rose in several different ways, offering apologies and asking to rekindle the relationship. She ignored the messages.
So far, what we have is a common but unremarkable story of unrequited love. But early in 2013, Stephens’s approach changed. He showed up at Rose’s father’s home in Ohio at 6:20 am and asked the father where Rose was. The father told him to forget her and not to contact her anymore.
Undeterred, Stephens began an incessant string of efforts to contact his former love. He called her home 40 times in one week. He called her at work and even sent her flowers there. (She sent the flowers back.) He called several times in the wee hours of one evening (trust me, a string of unwanted phone calls at 2:30 am is not the path to a girl’s heart) and showed up at her home at 7:00 am that day with more flowers.
All of this understandably upset and worried Rose, who knew not what to expect from the persistent suitor. Her boyfriend stayed at her home at her request; he even spoke with Stephens once and represented himself as Rose’s husband. On that morning, the boyfriend called police, who arrested Stephens in a nearby parking lot. Rose later moved her residence.
At a subsequent hearing, Rose acknowledged that she had never directly told Stephens not to contact her, and that Stephens had never abused her or threatened to do so.
The question in this appeal is whether all of this can support the issuance of a protective order that essentially tells Stephens to stay the hell away from Rose. The justices today agree that it does, despite the absence of an express threat or act of violence.
In a decision of first impression in the Supreme Court, the court – adopting the analysis used by the Court of Appeals in the 1997 case of Parker v. Commonwealth, 24 Va.App. 681 – identifies three elements that must exist:
(1) the defendant directed his or her conduct toward the victim on at least two occasions; (2) the defendant intended to cause fear or knew or should have known that his or her conduct would cause fear; and (3) the defendant’s conduct caused the victim “to experience reasonable fear of death, criminal sexual assault, or bodily injury.”
The justices note that this list doesn’t require actual harm or even an actual threat. Nor is it a specific-intent statute; the existence of that “should have known” language means that the time-honored “pure heart, empty head” defense will be unavailing.
With that in mind, the court walks through the three factors and finds each of them to be met under the deferential plainly-wrong standard of review. First, beyond question, Stephens directed far more than two acts toward Rose. Second, the justices agree that the evidence, in a light most favorable to Rose, establishes that Stephens should have known that his incessant attempts would cause fear in Rose. They specifically point to repeated requests from Rose not to call, and to the father’s and boyfriend’s directives to the same end.
Third, under the same evidentiary standard, the trial court wasn’t plainly wrong in finding that, on an objective basis, Rose would have experienced reasonable fear of criminal sexual assault or bodily injury. The trial court accordingly was warranted in issuing the protective order.
The next case, Murry v. Commonwealth, caught my eye a few days ago. Before opinion days, I usually go back to the list of cases argued in the previous session, and then check the Supreme Court’s website to review the assignments of error in those cases. This gives me an idea of which significant issues are likely to be decided when the opinions come down.
In this appeal, I saw that the justices had granted Murry an appeal limited to two issues. He evidently tried several angles of attack, because these two granted assignments were numbered 9 and 10. But #9 brought my casual perusal to a slamming halt. After convicting him of sexual assault and rape of a minor, the trial court had imposed a probation condition that required Murry to submit to any and all law-enforcement searches at any time. In effect, the Fourth Amendment did not exist anymore for this defendant upon his release from confinement.
Because I don’t handle many criminal cases, I don’t see many probation conditions and I didn’t know whether this condition was unusual or not. But it was eye-catching, so I looked forward to getting the justices’ decision and analysis.
Murry was convicted of the offenses listed above; the victim was his step-daughter. Starting when she was five years old, Murry began to acclimate her to sexual contact; by the time she was 13, he had sexual intercourse with her. He contended at trial that the act was consensual on her part, but the trial judge, hearing the case without a jury, found that explanation to be incredible. He sentenced Murry to 156 years in prison, but suspended 140 years. The court imposed the search-consent condition as one of the terms of probation for three express reasons: because of Murry’s concealed and predatory behavior, because of his lack of acceptance of responsibility, and to protect the community.
Murry challenged this condition in the Court of Appeals, asserting that throwing out the Fourth Amendment was improper. The CAV limited its review to the reasonableness of the condition, and didn’t reach the constitutional angle of attack. That court felt that Murry’s argument in the trial court had not extended to a Fourth Amendment challenge. The justices disagree, finding the issue to have been adequately preserved in the trial court.
Today the justices find the probation term to be unreasonable, so they remand the case for a new sentencing hearing. The court cites numerous cases from other state and federal courts, each of which holds that while a probationer’s privacy rights are limited, they aren’t nonexistent. The trial court’s order would legitimize a search based on a whim or on a desire to harass, wholly unrelated to any law-enforcement or rehabilitative purpose. The cited decisions indicate that if a police or probation officer has a reasonable suspicion, then that might be a legitimate ground for a search of Murry’s person.
Justice McClanahan files a short dissent that incorporates the reasoning of the Court of Appeals’ opinion. Justice Mims files a concurring opinion that agrees that the probation condition is too broad. He suggests that the several conditions of probation be considered together, rather than in isolation. He notes, for example, the unappealed condition of no unsupervised contact with minors. He argues that on occasion, probation officers must be free to make unannounced visits, particularly where, as with Murry, a probationer has succeeded in concealing his crimes for many years.
And then we come to what I perceive – perhaps correctly; perhaps wrongly – is the real thrust of the concurrence:
Finally, I emphasize that a criminal defendant has no right to suspension of any part of the sentence imposed by the trial court. . . .[W]hile a defendant may appeal a probation condition on the grounds that it is unreasonable, . . . nothing prevents a trial court from declining to suspend any part of a valid sentence in the first place (thereby requiring the defendant to serve the entire term in confinement) if it determines that no reasonable conditions would make suspension “compatible with the public interest.”
Considering that the case is remanded for a new sentencing hearing, not merely for removal of the offending probation condition, I believe the message here is as follows: “Dear trial judge – Since you’re starting from Square One in sentencing, you are within your rights to sentence this guy to serve the full 156 years. That’ll achieve your stated desire to keep society safe. Best wishes; Justice Mims.”
Back in the 1990s, when I worked in a municipal law office, I got to deal with a lot of police officers. In my view, they are one of the segments of our society that are underpaid; anybody who goes into harm’s way to keep my family safe has my respect. In order to supplement their salaries, many officers work overtime, which as we all know, has to be paid at least at 1½ times the base pay rate.
Recently, Loudoun County started to feel a budgetary pinch, and cast about to find ways to save money. It directed the sheriff of that county to adjust his overtime-pay structure in order to cut back significantly on the amount of overtime pay for deputies working at a detention center or walking a beat. The sheriff implemented those changes, and some of the deputies rebelled.
In this litigation, styled Bailey v. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, the deputies argued that the sheriff’s arrangement violated Virginia’s Gap Pay Act, which addresses an area that isn’t covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. I could go into a detailed explanation of the statutory scheme and its interplay with federal law; but since I love you and don’t wish to inflict agony upon you, I’ll just jump to the Supreme Court’s holdings in the case. If you practice in this field, you probably already know about this setup. If you don’t, and you’re still reading this part of the analysis, it’s probably just because you don’t want to miss the jokes that I customarily throw in.
The justices rule that two of the three adjustments made by the sheriff were improper under the Gap Pay Act. First, when an employee worked overtime but took sick leave during a given work period, the sheriff would account for the time off as being attributable to the normal work shift. In other words, the employee’s sick-leave balance wouldn’t go down, even though the deputy had taken it. This procedure meant that the gap pay wasn’t being paid at the mandated time-and-a-half rate.
Similarly, the court overturns the practice of offering what the sheriff called “exchange hours” – I would call it “comp time,” where the employee gets extra annual leave instead of extra pay – because the Loudoun setup allowed that comp time to accrue on a 1-for-1 basis. It’s perfectly legal under the act to award comp time instead of money, but you still have to do so at a 1.5-to-1 rate, and the sheriff hadn’t done that.
The third challenged practice, however, survives judicial scrutiny today. The folks up in Loudoun call it “force flexing.” Here’s how it works:
Sergeant: Hey, L-T; I’ve been looking at the pay records, and I saw something you might wanna know about.
Lieutenant: What is it this time?
Sergeant: I just saw that Deputy Pastafalooza is only two hours away from maxing out his hours before he starts accruing overtime. You know how insistent the sheriff is.
Lieutenant: No problem, Sarge; just make his next shift no more than two hours.
Sergeant: But his next shift starts in fifteen minutes; he’s probably already in the parking lot right now.
Lieutenant: Not my problem. When he comes in, tell him he’s only working two hours today, and then he goes straight home.
Sergeant: Oh, great, I always have to be the one to bear the bad tidings . . .
Lieutenant: Wait’ll you’re a lieutenant; then you can dump on your sergeant.
If this sounds farfetched – the idea of sending a guy home after two hours’ notice, please know that I didn’t make up anything other than the dialogue. This scenario is set out on page 23 of today’s slip opinion; it actually happened to one of the Loudoun deputies.
The court rules that an employer can take steps to minimize employee overtime in this way without violating the act. Nor does it violate the terms of the deputies’ employment, as specified in the Human Resources Handbook. That manual states that “Flexible scheduling of work hours is arranged between an employee and supervisor with the Department Head’s approval.”
The court holds that this procedure was followed, albeit only in the most technical sense. The deputy probably didn’t think that it was much of an “arrangement,” since he got no say in the matter. But the court finds that the literal language of the manual was satisfied:
Although such scheduling was mandatory, whereby a Patrol Deputy could not opt out of the altered work hours, the flexed schedule was nonetheless “arranged” between the Patrol Deputy and his supervisor and done with the “approval” of the Sheriff.
I will confess that I cringed just a tad when I read this razor-thin justification for the court’s holding. I would conceive of “arranging” a schedule to be more of a two-way street. But I don’t recall being given a vote on this . . .
The court remands the case to the trial court for further proceedings, including a determination of whether the employees are entitled to an award of damages and attorney’s fees. The opinion also includes a specific directive that the trial court may decide for itself whether it needs additional evidence to make those judgment calls.
Before 2013, state law created an incentive for a utility like Dominion Virginia Power to build power-generation plants. The issue in OAG, Division of Consumer Counsel v. SCCis how much of an incentive that law created.
This case centers on VEPCO’s plan to build a new generation facility in Brunswick County, presumably to serve customers in Southside Virginia. The entire project will cost $1.27 billion. Almost $90 million of that is for the construction of transmission infrastructure – things like new power lines and substations. The incentive is tied in with the utility’s guaranteed return on its investment in capital projects. The normal rate of return for the relevant time frame was 10.4%. But the incentive clause would allow up to an additional 1% (for a total rate of return of 11.4%) if the SCC approved VEPCO’s request for that.
Here’s the issue: does the extra 1% apply to the cost of the generation facility only, or does it also apply to the transmission infrastructure? Out of this nearly $1.3 billion project, the parties are arguing over a measly 1% of $90 million – just $900,000 a year for ten years.
Well, okay; maybe it isn’t so measly after all. One of the sexiest features of these rate cases is the number of zeroes that they generate.
The SCC had ruled, after a public hearing, that VEPCO was entitled to the extra 1% on the transmission facilities, too. The justices affirm that holding today. Poor Justice McClanahan is given the awful task of going through some fairly dry statutes and applying some fairly straightforward statutory analysis; and I have to say, she does a good job of explaining things without sending the reader straight into a coma. The court evaluates the relevant statute and finds it to be unambiguous. Here’s the key provision:
A utility that constructs [one or more other generation facilities] shall have the right to recover the costs of the facility . . .through its rates, including projected construction work in progress, and any associated allowance for funds used during construction, planning, development and construction costs, life-cycle costs . . . and costs of infrastructure associated therewith.[Emphasis added by Justice McClanahan] Under this language, and filleting out the extraneous words, the utility can “recover the costs of the facility, including costs of infrastructure associated therewith.” That includes transmission lines, the court rules today, so VEPCO gets its ten-year rate adjustment.
Justice Mims files a short dissent in which he agrees with the reasoning of a State Corporation Commissioner who had dissented below. He adds that if the General Assembly believes that the court’s ruling is an incorrect interpretation, it can remedy the problem during the legislative session.