In A Multi-Phase Trial? Don’t Appeal At The Wrong Time

Adam Hofmann 
Adam Hofmann
April 2, 2015

When is a judgment not a judgment (for purposes of appeal)? When it fails to encompass complete relief between the parties.  If you didn’t find that joke funny, imagine if you were Alfonse Castaldi.  His appeal was dismissed sua sponte by California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction, despite the court’s fairly evident belief that the trial court had committed reversible error.

In Baker v. Castaldi, Case No. F067687, plaintiff Ken Baker sued Therese and Alfonse Castaldi for alleged conversion of personal property, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.  The trial court held a trial on liability commencing March 25, 2013.  The case then proceeded through a fairly tortured procedural history, including a series of injunctions and other interim orders, to a statement of decision and nominal “Judgment” on May 20, 2013, finding for Mr. Baker in the amount of $610,500.

In its May 20 Judgment, the court also found that the Castaldis had acted with malice and oppression, justifying an award of punitive damages.  The defendants filed notices of appeal from the May 20 Judgment on July 2.

The trial court then set a second phase of trial to calculate the punitive damages.  During the period between the May 20 Judgment and the second trial phase, however, the trial court also issued a series of ex parte orders enforcing its Judgment.

The second phase of trial commenced July 22, 2014, and resulted in a further award of $600,000 in punitive damages against the Castaldis.  The Castaldis filed further notices of appeal on January 14, 2015, but those notices were rejected by the court as untimely.  (Nearly all of these procedural details are contained in the unpublished portions of this Opinion.)

Left with only the notices of appeal from the May 20, 2013 Judgment, the court concluded that it had no jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal as a result.  The court explained its jurisdiction in civil matters was constrained by Code of Civil Procedure Section 904.1, and only final judgments are appealable under that statute.

The May 20 Judgment was interlocutory and not appealable because it left for further adjudication the amount of punitive damages to be awarded.  The court acknowledged in a footnote nearly two pages long that the trial court’s enforcement orders were probably improper, but that those potential errors could not confer jurisdiction over the May 20 Judgment.

As the appellate court explained, “The merits of an appeal cannot confer jurisdiction where it is lacking.”  In a telling conclusion, the court stated, “We understand the result in this case may seem harsh, as appellants are prevented from obtaining review of several unusual orders now and possibly ever.  However, [t]his court is without power to bestow jurisdiction on itself. . . .  Appellate jurisdiction is solely within the province of our Legislature, and we are not at liberty to modify the standards for appealability. . . .” (Footnotes and citations omitted.)

This case highlights the difficult and often unforgiving rules governing notices of appeal.  Here, the conclusion arose from a series of irregular rulings and procedures employed by the trial court.  Still, parties can find themselves in the same position even without trial court error.  For example, defendants can face real difficulties when a court rules against them in an initial trial ordering injunctive relief or issuing a writ of mandate, but leaving a damages claim for a second phase.  Circumstances must be evaluated carefully in light of the rules to determine whether and when a notice of appeal is ripe, when it is required, and when a party may be better served by a petition for writ of mandate to the appellate court.