June 24, 2016

Weekly litigation report — June 24, 2015

By James S. Burling Vice President for Litigation
  • Equality under the law project — loss at the Supreme Court
  • San Francisco still trying to use landlords as ATMs
  • California Department of Forestry malfeasance
  • California Supreme Court allows questionable tort claim to move forward

Equality under the law project — loss at the Supreme Court

Our side lost in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. The Constitution guarantees “equal protection” under the laws, and the law requires any deviation from equal protection to be subjected to “strict scrutiny” by the courts. Nevertheless, writing for a four-member majority of the Court, Justice Kennedy in this opinion upheld the university’s race-based discrimination against non-minorities and Asians. While we are disappointed by the Court’s apparent strong deference to the University’s penchant for race-based discrimination, we will continue to push for a change in the law — a change that will recognize that discrimination is an anathema to a society that values equality. For more on the decision see our blog here and for more on the peculiar impact on Americans of Asian descent see this blog post. A link to our various amicus briefs filed over the years can be found here.

San Francisco still trying to use landlords as ATMs

We filed this amicus brief in support of the property owners in the case of Coyne v. City & County of San Francisco, a case where San Francisco is trying to revive a law that we convinced a federal court to strike down in 2014. In the earlier case, Levin v. City and County of San Francisco, PLF successfully asked a federal court to strike down a San Francisco ordinance that required landlords to pay their tenants the difference between the rent they charged (often low due to rent control policies) and the current market rent for two years if the landlord removed their property from the rental market. Now the City is back at it, this time with an ordinance that caps the extortion at $50,000 per unit. The City is apparently going after landlords not because they are responsible for the housing shortage in the City, but because it thinks “that’s where the money is.” But we’re not aware that Willie Sutton was less guilty when his haul from a bank was smaller than he had hoped, and we’re not aware of an exception to the constitution for smaller demands of dough. For more, see our blog post here.

California Department of Forestry malfeasance

The California Department of Forestry and the state Attorney General’s office have been relentless in their efforts to pin the blame (and costs) on Howell’s Forest Harvesting Company for the “Moonlight Fire” that raged in 2007 across 65,000 acres in Northern California. While doing work for Sierra Pacific, a bulldozer operated by a Howell employee allegedly caused a spark that caused the fire. So relentless was the state in going after Howell that the Department and A.G.;s office are accused of having ginned up evidence to support the allegations. So serious were the allegations against the state, that a trial judge in Department of Forestry and Fire Protection v. Howell awarded $32 million in fees to the private defendants, writing, “Cal Fire has, among other things, engaged in the pervasive and systematic abuse of California’s discovery rules in a misguided effort to prevail against these Defendants, all of which is an affront to this Court and the judicial process.” The court found, among other things, that Cal Fire engaged in conduct that was “purposeful and calculated to enhance its chance of success on the merits,” … “false testimony of its lead investigator,” … “obfuscation and bad faith denials,” … “spoliation of critical evidence [and] willful violations of the Court’s Orders.”  In the face these abuses, the judge said he could recall “no instance in experience over forty seven years as an advocate and as a judge, in which the conduct of the Attorney General so thoroughly departed from the high standard it represents.”

Rather than being chagrined by this stinging rebuke, however, Cal Fire has appealed. PLF filed this amicus brief in support of the timber operator. Read the brief the get the full flavor of what can happen when zealous bureaucrats lose sight of who they are supposed to be working for.

California Supreme Court allows questionable tort claim to move forward

The California Supreme Court unanimously decided Ramos v. Brenntag Specialties, Inc., affirming the appellate court’s holding that the component parts doctrine does not apply in this case. Here an employee worked with an industrial process that used metal, plaster, sand, limestone and marble. After contracting a lung disease, the employee sued the suppliers of these raw materials, arguing that the suppliers had a duty to an employee who eventually used the materials. Under the component parts doctrine, a supplier of otherwise safe components can’t be held liable for injuries sustained by the use of the materials. But because the injured employee said these components used here weren’t inherently safe, the court held the doctrine inapplicable. PLF filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that Ramos should have submitted his claim for workers’ compensation (as is typical in industrial fume cases) and that his tort claims were further barred by the bulk supplier doctrine and the fact that any warnings should have been directed to Ramos’ employer, who then had a duty to educate the employees. These issues presumably will be addressed on remand. For more, see our blog post here.

 

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