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Appellate Practice In Action:
County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Schonert)

On March 12, 1997, the California Supreme Court granted our petition for review in a case entitled County of Los Angeles v. Los Angeles County Superior Court (Schonert), No. S053930. On August 12, 1999, the Court issued its decision adopting our position.

To illustrate the appellate process in action, I have collected here various materials related to the case. The case documents are in .PDF format, which you may view and print with the Adobe Reader available for free from the Adobe Systems web site.

Factual Background

Patricia Cordova was employed as a deputy sheriff by the County of Los Angeles. She claimed that she had been subjected to sexual harassment on the job. Her complaint alleged, among others, a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. section 1983. She claimed to have suffered emotional distress damages.

Cordova died in a car accident while defendants’ summary judgment motion was pending. The Superior Court asked the parties to brief the issue of what claims for damages survived plaintiff’s death. It thereafter ruled that Cordova’s representative could seek recovery of emotional distress damages on the section 1983 claim at trial.

Code of Civil Procedure section 377.34 provides that the damages available in a survivor's action "do not include damages for pain, suffering, or disfigurement." The principal issue in the case is whether that provision is applicable to a claim under section 1983.

As our case entered the appellate stage, the issue had been the subject of two recent conflicting decisions. Compare Garcia v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. App. 4th 177 (1996) with Williams v. City of Oakland, 915 F. Supp. 1074 (N.D. Cal. 1996).

Proceedings in the Second District Court of Appeal

Because the the proceedings in the Superior Court had not resulted in a final judgment, we had to seek review through a petition for writ of mandate. For more about the distinction between appeals and writs, and the writ process see Step By Step Down the Road to a Writ of Mandate.

On March 7, 1996, the Court of Appeal issued an alternative writ, and set a hearing for May 28, 1996. On May 20, 1996, the court discharged its alternative writ, and denied the petition. We then filed our first petition for review with the California Supreme Court under California Rule of Court 28. On August 21, 1996, the Court granted the petition, and transferred the matter back to the Court of Appeal to issue another alternative writ and hold a hearing.

The Court of Appeal held a hearing on its new alternative writ on November 18, 1996, and then denied the petition in a published decision.

Proceedings on Review by the Supreme Court

On December 27, 1996, we filed our second petition for review with the Supreme Court. The Court granted review on March 12, 1997. We then filed a brief on the merits, and a reply brief.

On April 14, 1997, the United States Supreme Court started to weigh in on the subject, by granting certiorari in a case entitled City of Tarrant v. Jefferson, 682 So. 2d 29 (Ala. 1996). The Alabama Supreme Court applied the Alabama Wrongful Death Act to a claim under section 1983 that city firefighters caused the decedent's death by not attempting to rescue her from a burning house. The Alabama statute only allows recovery of punitive damages, which as a matter of section 1983 law are not available against a municipality. See City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247 (1981).

On December 9, 1997, the Supreme Court dismissed its writ without deciding the merits, on the ground that the Alabama decision was not sufficiently final. We informed the California Supreme Court about the dismissal of certiorari by letter. On May 5, 1999, we filed a letter brief with the California Supreme Court containing additional authorities that were not available in time to be included in our Brief on the Merits. See Cal. R. Ct. 29.3(a).

On August 12, 1999, the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision, reversing the Court of Appeal, and adopting our position.