Cal. Litig. 2015, Volume 28, Number 1

The Disentitlement Doctrine: A Trap for Unwary Judgment Debtors in Civil Appeals

By Scott M. Reddie

Scott M. Reddie

To obtain redress at the Court of Appeal, one must timely file a notice of appeal, adhere to the applicable rules of court, and assert claims showing prejudicial error in the court below. In addition, an appellant challenging a money judgment must also show respect to the trial court by complying with any judgment-enforcement orders not affected by a posted bond or undertaking or stay of enforcement in effect during the appellate process. Absent that respect, what happened to the appellants in two recently published cases may happen to your clients — the reviewing court may dismiss the appeal under the disentitlement doctrine before ever reaching the merits.

Under the "disentitlement doctrine," appellate courts have the inherent power to dismiss appeals by parties who refuse to comply with trial court orders. (Gwartz v. Weilert (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 750, 757-758, citing Stoltenberg v. Ampton Investments, Inc. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1225, 1229.) The disentitlement doctrine "is not jurisdictional, but is a discretionary tool that may be used to dismiss an appeal when the balance of the equitable concerns makes dismissal an appropriate sanction." (Ibid.) Underlying the doctrine is the notion that a party "cannot seek the aid and assistance of an appellate court while standing in an attitude of contempt to the legal orders and processes of the courts of this state." (Ibid.) A formal finding of contempt is not required; instead, the appellate court simply may dismiss an appeal where the appellant has willfully disobeyed the trial court’s orders or engaged in obstructive tactics. (Ibid.)

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