The end of the year is often a time of self-reflection to determine if one has ended up on the "Nice" or "Naughty" List. In appellate practice, ending up on the "Naughty List" can result in serious consequences, including the dismissal of a pending appeal and a forfeiture of substantive legal rights, regardless of the merits of the underlying appeal.
The Disentitlement Doctrine
The Disentitlement Doctrine is a somewhat unknown, but powerful procedural tool that gives a reviewing court the power to dismiss the appeal of a litigant who has refused to comply with court orders. Appellate disentitlement is not a jurisdictional doctrine, but rather a discretionary tool reviewing courts can apply when balancing the equities at issue. As the Supreme Court explained, the rationale underlying the doctrine is that when an appellant is seeking the Court of Appeal's aid, "it is manifestly just and proper that in invoking that aid she should submit herself to all legitimate orders and processes. She cannot, with right or reason, ask the aid or assistance of this court in hearing her demands, while she stands in an attitude of contempt to the legal orders and processes of the courts of this state[.]" (Knoob v. Knoob (1923) 192 Cal. 95, 96-97; see also Weeks v. Superior Court (1921) 187 Cal. 620, 622 ("No rule of law seems more widely prevalent or better established than that a court whose authority has been put to naught will extend no favors or privileges to the party in contempt"). Simply put, if you don't play by the rules, you may not be able to play at all.
Importantly, the Disentitlement Doctrine applies even if there is no formal adjudication of contempt and without any evaluation of the merits of the underlying appeal. It applies solely on the basis that the appellant has been "naughty" and disobeyed valid and enforceable court orders. And to be clear, the violated court orders need not be issued by the trial court in the pending action or even by a California court to have the disentitlement doctrine apply. See e.g., Stoltenberg v. Ampton Investments, Inc. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1225, 1227 (dismissing appeal where defendant failed to comply with a subpoena and order of a New York court).
Application In Civil Cases
Although the Disentitlement Doctrine has its roots in criminal law, the doctrine has been applied to a number of diverse, civil cases:
- Stone v. Bach (1978) 80 Cal.App.3d 442 – appeal dismissed because appellant failed to appear for his judgment debtor examination; "Our duty in these circumstances is clear. [The appellant's] conduct is intolerable. It demonstrates a deliberate effort to achieve a stay of execution of the money judgment against him without complying with legal procedures."
- TMS, Inc. v. Aihara (1999) 71 Cal.App.4th 377– appeal dismissed due to appellants' willful failure "to comply with the trial court's order that they respond to the post-judgment interrogatories."
- Alioto Fish Co. v. Alioto (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 1669 – appeal dismissed because of "Appellants' continuing defiance of the receiver order."
- Gwartz v. Weilert (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 750 – appeal dismissed where judgment debtors violated the court's post-judgment orders enjoining them from selling, transferring or dissipating their assets.
- Blumberg v. Minthorne (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1384 – appeal dismissed where appellant, a removed trustee, conveyed property to her daughter instead of the named successor trustee, as the appellate court found the appellant's conduct "despicable" and designed to "frustrate the attempts of the court to legitimately effect its own orders."
As demonstrated by the above cases, the Disentitlement Doctrine can be a powerful weapon to arm oneself with when litigating against a party who refuses to accept an unfavorable ruling. Thus, the Disentitlement Doctrine serves as a cautionary tale that trial court orders must be obeyed unless and until a stay is obtained. Absent strict adherence to valid court orders, an appellant risks ending up on the "Naughty List" and losing the right to appeal, regardless of the errors made in the lower court.
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