NOTES ON APPELLATE DEVELOPMENTS
(Posted April 18, 2023) Here are a couple of notes as we await the next SCV opinion day on Thursday.
Actually, about that opinion day …
This week continues a nagging trend in which I’ve had to be away from my office on several Thursday mornings, and thus unable to compose analysis of new opinions from Ninth and Franklin. That being said, in recent months that court has released new rulings early in the morning, well before the previous norm of 9:00 releases. If that happens this week, I might be able to post a quick essay before I leave my hotel and head out for my scheduled meeting. If not, I’ll post something when I can.
A short affirmance
Last Thursday the justices decided one appeal from the March docket, affirming a conviction in DeLuca v. Commonwealth. The Court of Appeals had handed down a published decision in the case, and rather than replowing the same ground, the Supreme Court merely affirms on the CAV’s reasoning. The lower appellate decision is here if you’d like to see what happened.
I’ll confess that the timeline of this appeal looks wrong to me. The CAV issued its opinion on October 26, 2021, and DeLuca didn’t seek rehearing there. That means that his petition for appeal in the Supreme Court would be due 30 days later, in late November of that year.
But the SCV’s case-information page shows that DeLuca filed his petition five months later, on March 24, 2022. I don’t know how he got past that 30-day jurisdictional deadline. The Commonwealth waived a brief in opp, and a panel of the SCV granted a writ in September 2022. The case made it onto the less-than-crowded March session docket, and we get a ruling six weeks later (which is fairly quick). That all adds up to a span of 18 months in which the case proceeded through the Supreme Court, after its taking roughly a year in the pre-expansion Court of Appeals.
I plan to post an essay in the near future about the pace of the appellate system in this new era. Anecdotally, I’m learning that things have slowed down noticeably downstairs, as the Court of Appeals and its estimable clerk’s office have dealt with the effects of Senate Bill 1261 and a correspondingly larger caseload.
An interesting Fourth Circuit ruling
I read with interest the majority and dissenting opinions in Davidson v. United Auto Credit, released last Wednesday. My fellow word nerds will enjoy the vigorous debate over the meaning of the phrase, “for the express purpose.” The case arises in the context of the federal Military Lending Act, which protects servicemembers from certain consumer practices that Congress saw fit to regulate.
The plaintiff was active-duty military; he went to a dealership in Spotsylvania County to buy a car. He financed the transaction by borrowing money from United Auto Credit: about $14,700 for the purchase price, $250 for a processing fee, and about $400 in gap insurance. If you haven’t bought a car in a while, gap coverage protects the buyer in case his car is stolen or totaled before he pays the loan down to the point where it’s less than the value of the now-used car. If misfortune like that strikes, basic insurance covers the value of the car and gap insurance pays off the rest of the loan.
The Military Lending Act covers many consumer transactions involving servicemembers, but there’s an exception for car loans. Applying that exception, the Act wouldn’t cover this transaction. But there’s a trick to the exception: it only applies where the lender makes a loan “for the express purpose of financing the purchase and is secured by the car.” The question here is whether a hybrid transaction like this, where the loan covers the car purchase and one or more ancillary items, is within those parameters.
Judge Richardson, joined by Judge Thacker, rules that it is. The majority finds that express purpose as used here means a specific purpose, and there’s no doubt that the stated purpose of the loan was to buy the car. Judge Wilkinson files a spirited dissent in which he argues that in this context is means the sole purpose, so that hybrid transactions take the loan out of the statute’s exception.
For those who love language, especially debates over words, this decision is great fun, and I won’t spoil it for you by laying out too much detail. I’ll only add that I can easily see an en banc grant on this one; this is a matter upon which I believe reasonable people, including reasonable jurists, can disagree.