THIS WEEK’S APPELLATE DEVELOPMENTS


 

In compliance with a direct judicial order I received yesterday, here is a summary of some of the more important developments this week in the appellate courts in the Commonwealth.

Court of Appeals

The court decided two cases by published opinion on Tuesday, May 31, including one Workers’ Compensation appeal where the full commission had held that an employee was not barred from recovering lifetime medical benefits even though she did not specifically request them on the claim form. The commission had held that a claim for medical benefits is implicit in any Workers’ Compensation application, and the failure to specifically request those benefits did not constitute a waiver.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, in Nelson County Schools and Compmanagement v. Woodson . Relying in part on the Rule of Practical Construction (which was in issue in the highly publicized Supreme Court decision in Davenport v. Little-Bowser last session), the court concluded that while the application is in effect a pleading, it does not require the degree of specificity called for in formal pleadings in judicial proceedings. Specifically, the court found that the employer had sufficient notice of the issues in the case, and that the minimal due process requirements for administrative applications were met.

The court also decided a very interesting equitable distribution case on Tuesday, in Robinson v. Robinson .

In response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement that the very rich “are different from you and me,” Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “Yes, they have more money.” But, in truth, people who receive large amounts of money do not suddenly have no problems; they simply have different problems.

Mr. and Mrs. Robinson enjoyed wedded bliss for less than three years. During that time, neither of them worked. They scratched out a living on the $3,700 received by Wife in child support from a previous husband, plus Husband’s $600,000 a year trust fund payments from his mother’s estate.

Predictably, the couple’s contribution to their joint financial picture was unequal. When they separated, Husband cleaned out the $244,000 in the joint savings account, plus all but $30,000 in the joint checking account. In the ensuing divorce proceeding, Wife obtained an equitable distribution award of half the value of the couple’s home (appraised at $470,000), plus half of the amount withdrawn from the savings account. She was also awarded $3,500 a month in spousal support for fifteen months, starting the month after the divorce was awarded.

Husband appealed the equitable distribution award, arguing that he had proved that all of the couple’s assets were traceable to his separate property. Wife contended that Husband had intended a gift to her, by the placement of the money in a joint account. She also argued that she had caused an increase in the value of the assets because she had repeatedly reined in Husband’s spendthrift ways; without her restraining effect, she contended, there would be no asset left to argue over.

The Court of Appeals sided with Husband, finding that the trial court had concluded that he had met his burden to prove that the couple’s property was amassed through his separate assets. The court rejected Wife’s contention of a gift, accepting Husband’s essentially unchallenged testimony that the assets were titled jointly for the convenience of Wife, who wrote all the couple’s checks and managed their finances. Finally, the court distinguished between preservation of assets and an increase in the value of an asset. As Wife merely (in her words) prevented Husband from squandering his inheritance, that wasn’t the same as enhancing that asset’s value. The court remanded the case to the trial court for revision of the equitable distribution award.

Fourth Circuit

On Friday, May 27, the Fourth Circuit dismissed a criminal appeal in United States v. Blick , where part of the defendant’s plea bargain included his waiving his right to appeal. Sounds fairly straightforward, right? But read on . . .

George Blick pleaded guilty in 2004 to one count of a seven-count indictment for wire fraud. Part of his agreement included a waiver of his right to appeal for excessiveness of his sentence, so long as the sentence imposed fell within the range prescribed by statute. In addition to required restitution, he was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, well below the statutory maximum of 20 years.

In a case of incredibly bad timing, the Supreme Court decided Blakely v.Washington less than a month after Blick’s plea. In Blakely, the Court turned criminal sentencing on its head (or at least tilted it decidedly to one side) by requiring that sentencing factors be determined by a jury, not the trial court. This new development led Blick to appeal anyway.

On Friday, the Fourth Circuit granted the government’s motion to dismiss the appeal, finding that the no-appeal agreement was valid and enforceable, and barred Blick’s challenge, even for an “after-acquired” defense. Judge Michael dissented, arguing that a criminal defendant “cannot prospectively waive the right to appeal constitutional violations at sentencing.”