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The Best and The Worst Opinions

By Kari Santos | Sep. 2, 2014

Law Office Management

Sep. 2, 2014

The Best and The Worst Opinions

The award for the best majority opinion of the year goes to Justice Carol A. Corrigan, for her thoughtful guidance through the thicket of statistical sampling in Duran v. U.S. National Bank Association (59 Cal. 4th 1 (2014)). Without slamming the door to wage-and-hour recoveries based upon statistical sampling, she offers trial courts step-by-step guidelines to avoid the "profoundly flawed" approach that led to a $15 million verdict for a class composed of hundreds of loan officers who were seeking unpaid overtime on the claim they had been misclassified under the outside salesperson exemption. (See Cal. Lab. Code § 1171.) The carefully crafted opinion won the full support of the court, with a concurring opinion by Justice Goodwin Liu that appears to add nothing more than some consolation for the trial judge.

Our pick for the worst majority opinion of the year also goes to Justice Corrigan, however. In People v. Elmore (59 Cal. 4th 121 (2014)), a defendant convicted of murder claimed the trial court erred by not instructing the jury that even if his belief in the need to defend himself was unreasonable, his offense could be reduced to voluntary manslaughter by applying the doctrine of "imperfect self-defense." The instruction was refused because the defendant's belief was "entirely delusional." Seizing on a slippery distinction between an insane delusion and a "mistake of fact," Corrigan, joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Baxter and Chin, concluded that an insanity claim cannot be litigated in the guilt phase of a criminal trial; it requires a separate sanity phase.

In a "concurring and dissenting" opinion joined by Justices Kathryn M. Werdegar and Liu, Kennard relied upon the plain statutory language that evidence of mental disease, mental defect, or mental disorder is admissible "solely on the issue of whether or not the accused actually formed a required specific intent, premeditated, deliberated, or harbored malice aforethought ..." (Cal. Penal Code § 28). Kennard correctly concluded that an insane delusion that defeats the showing of malice aforethought for a murder conviction is a guilt-phase issue.

However, Kennard agreed with the majority that the imperfect self-defense argument was properly rejected at trial since the defendant offered no evidence that his delusion posed an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury from the victim.

Although Kennard technically wasn't dissenting from the judgment, her resolution of the case would have kept the majority from nullifying the unambiguous statutory language.

Our selection for the best dissenting opinion of the year is the solo dissent by Justice Chin in Long Beach Police Officers Assoc. v. City of Long Beach (59 Cal. 4th 59 (2014)). The six-justice majority, led by Kennard, concluded that the names of police officers involved in on-duty shooting incidents are subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (Cal. Gov. Code §§ 6250-6270.). But Chin - seizing upon the exemption in Government Code section 6255(c), which provides that the records statute does not require disclosure of files where to do so constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy - made a persuasive argument that the risk of reprisals against the personal safety of officers and their families fully justifies withholding the names of officers in shooting cases. He took the majority to task for insisting that the risk to officers be established by evidence of a "specific danger," observing that this standard was not applied in Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court (53 Cal. 3d 1325 (1991), which upheld the governor of California's refusal to disclose his daily, weekly, and monthly appointment calendars and schedules because of safety concerns. Noting the majority's failure to even mention that case, he pointedly asks why police officers and their family members are entitled to less protection than the governor.

A close runner-up for best dissent is Justice Liu's solo dissenting opinion in People v. Jackson, SO86269 (March 3, 2014), taking the majority to task for "dubious reasoning" in applying the harmless error doctrine in death penalty cases.

However, Liu also wins the prize for worst dissent of the year, in the case of the tempest in a coffee pot. In Loeffler v. Target Corporation (58 Cal. 4th 1081 (2014)), the plaintiff customers contended that the retailer violated the California Unfair Competition Law by collecting sales tax on purchases of hot coffee "to go," claiming such sales are exempt under the tax code. Noting that a tax code exemption for such sales is far from clear, the majority opinion by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye concluded that in any event, disputes over the taxability of a retail sale must be resolved under the tax code. Justice Liu contended that because the plaintiffs' lawsuit was not a "tax case," the tax laws could not foreclose a remedy under consumer protection laws. He defined the harm the plaintiffs sought to remedy as Target's misrepresentation to consumers that all sales of a particular item are subject to sales tax, noting that in fact, Board of Equalization regulations stipulate that only some sales of hot coffee are likely subject to sales tax. "Target could have avoided this lawsuit simply by advertising hot coffee to go at a higher (post-tax) price with a sign that says 'all prices include applicable sales tax,' " Liu wrote. "Such an approach would not misinform customers; it would tell them that the price they are paying includes any applicable sales tax, with no representation as to whether sales tax was applicable to a particular transaction." Look for that sign next time you're in Starbucks. - G.U. and K.G.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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