James Castle

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Mr. Castle is an associate in the Los Angeles office. He practices in the litigation department where he handles a wide range of matters, including insurance coverage and bad faith proceedings.
Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Castle was a Deputy District Attorney for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, where he prosecuted criminal cases on behalf of the People of the State of California.
During law school, Mr. Castle was a judicial extern for the Honorable Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and a law clerk for the United States Senate Judiciary Committee.


Articles By This Author

Meaning of "Mass Actions" Under CAFA clarified by SCOTUS

By James Castle and Natalie Ferrall

In one of its first decisions of the year, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that a civil action filed solely by the State of Mississippi did not constitute a “mass action” under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”) (Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp.).

CAFA permits defendants in civil suits to remove “mass actions,” a statutorily defined term, from state to federal court. CAFA defines a “mass action” as “any civil action . . . in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that the plaintiffs’ claims involve common questions of law or fact.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i)

In Hood, the State of Mississippi sued a group of LCD manufacturers in Mississippi state court, alleging violations of state law. The suit sought restitution for injuries suffered by Mississippi citizens. The defendants, the LCD manufacturers, removed the case to U.S. District Court, asserting that federal jurisdiction was appropriate under CAFA’s mass action provision. 

The District Court agreed with the defendants and found that the suit qualified as a “mass action” under CAFA because it sought recovery of restitution on behalf of more than 100 Mississippi residents. However, the District Court still remanded to state court on the ground that it fell within CAFA’s “general public” exception. 

The Fifth Circuit reversed, agreeing with the district court that the suit was a mass action but finding that the “general public” exception did not apply. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling created a split with the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, all of which had previously held that similar lawsuits were not “mass actions.” 

On review, and in order to alleviate the split between the Circuits, the Supreme Court unanimously held that removal was improper. The Court stated that CAFA’s “100 or more persons” condition does not include unnamed individuals who are real parties in interest to claims brought by named plaintiffs. 

Rather, a mass action must involve monetary claims brought by 100 or more named plaintiffs. Here, because the State of Mississippi was the sole named plaintiff, the Supreme Court found the lawsuit did not constitute a mass action under CAFA, and therefore, was remanded to state court.

 

The California Supreme Court Reiterates Analysis for Determining Whether a Statutory Violation Confers a Private Cause of Action

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in Lu v. Hawaiian Gardens Casino, Inc., in which the high court found that a specific Labor Code provision could not be enforced by private litigants. This opinion is important in that it reiterates important cases and analyses that can be used to defeat a plaintiff’s attempt to set forth a private cause of action where no such right was intended by the legislature. Unfortunately, however, the Supreme Court declined to further address the question of whether a statute that cannot independently confer a private cause of action can still be utilized as a predicate for a cause of action under the “unlawful” prong of the Unfair Competition Laws (“UCL”).

Louie Lu (“Lu”) was a card dealer at the Hawaiian Islands Casino in Southern California. As a dealer, he was provided tips. However, not all of the tips were his to keep. Instead, he was required to provide 15% to 20% of his tips to a community fund that was then split among other employees who were offering services to the card players, but were not as routinely tipped as the dealers (i.e., floormen, poker tournament coordinators, concierges, etc.)

The tip pool policy specifically prohibited managers and supervisors from receiving any money from the pool. This exclusion of managerial persons from sharing in the tips is important, as Labor Code Section 351 prohibits an employer from taking, collecting or receiving employees’ tips. However, California courts have long-held that the pooling of tips to be split amongst like-situated employees, such as waiters and waitresses on the same shift, is not a violation of Section 351. Similarly, courts have held that the pooling of tips in the casino setting when those tips are spread among the non-managerial staff is perfectly acceptable and not a violation of Section 351. Lu contended that “agents” of the casino (presumably managerial employees) were improperly sharing in the pooled tips, and set forth causes of action for violation of Section 351 and Section 17200 of the UCL. 

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Ninth Circuit Applies California UCL Standards, Confirming Recent State Law Precedents

In a follow up to last week’s post regarding the Nelson v. Pearson opinion, the Ninth Circuit has now applied similar principles when applying California state law. In Rubio v. Capital One Company, the Ninth Circuit further confirmed that all that is required to establish a plaintiff’s standing under the California Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) is an allegation of some lost “money or property” fairly traceable to unlawful, unfair, and/or fraudulent conduct by the defendant.

Raquel Rubio (“Rubio) received a credit card solicitation from Capital One Bank (“Capital One”) offering a 6.99% fixed rate. The fixed rate was further explained in smaller text on the page as being fixed, so long as none of three conditions occurred: (1) a late payment; (2) charges are made over the credit limit; and (3) a payment is returned for any reason. Rubio did not allow any of those conditions to occur; however, three years later, Rubio received a letter noting that her APR of 6.99% would increase to 15.9%. Rubio could avoid the increase only by closing her credit card account and paying off the balance on the card by the end of the next month. Capital One defended the hike in interest rate by referring to additional language in eight-point type, found under the heading “Terms of Service,” that stated “[m]y Agreement terms (for example, rates and fees) are subject to change.”

Rubio brought suit alleging violations of the federal Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”), the UCL and breach of contract. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court by finding that there was no breach of contract because the solicitation was not a contract, and therefore, Capital One was not bound by its terms. The Ninth Circuit found however that it was error for the District Court to dismiss Rubio’s TILA claims because Capital One failed to show that its APR disclosure in the solicitation was “in a reasonably understandable form and readily noticeable to the consumer.” Therefore, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the TILA claim, sending it back for further proceedings.

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Court Offers Guidance as to Requirements for Alleging Harm to Establish UCL Standing

The California Court of Appeal, in Nelson v. Pearson Ford Co., issued a lengthy 50-page opinion on July 15 addressing numerous issues, including violations of the Automobile Sales Finance Act (“ASFA”), the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), class treatment and the right to recover fees in class actions.

Most poignant for insurers were the portions of the opinion addressing the UCL claim, and more specifically, the named plaintiff’s standing to pursue his UCL claim.

Reginald Nelson (“Plaintiff”) decided to purchase a used vehicle from Pearson Ford (“Pearson”) and executed a sales contract to that effect. Because, at the time of purchase, Plaintiff lacked auto insurance, an insurance broker was summoned to the dealership and sold Plaintiff an auto policy. A premium of $250 was added to the vehicle’s price. 

One week after the parties had completed the agreement, Pearson had additional paperwork for Plaintiff to sign. The new paperwork rescinded the original contract and entered the parties into a new agreement. The parties backdated the second contract to the date they signed the original contract. As a result of changing interest rates between the time the first and second contracts were entered, the backdating resulted in Plaintiff having to pay an additional $27 finance charge. The second contract disclosed the total finance charge, but the additional $27 was not separately itemized. Additionally, the second contract improperly added the $250 insurance premium to the cash price of the vehicle, which caused Plaintiff to pay $30 in additional sales tax and financing charges on the insurance premium.

Plaintiff later filed a class action complaint seeking to establish two distinct classes (both of which would ultimately be certified): (1) a class regarding the backdating of financing agreements (the “backdating class”); and (2) the improper inclusion of the price of insurance into the price of the vehicle (the “insurance class”). 

Following a bench trial, the court found Pearson had violated the UCL with regard to the backdating class, granting injunctive relief and setting restitution in the amount of $50 per class member. 

For the insurance class, the court found that Pearson violated the ASFA and the UCL by failing to disclose the cost of insurance and adding the insurance cost to the cash price of the car. It also enjoined Pearson from adding the price of insurance to the cash price of a vehicle in the future. Following the entry of judgment, Pearson appealed on numerous grounds. 

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Legislation to Cap Punitive Damages in California Defeated; Plaintiff's Lawyers Rejoice

Efforts in Sacramento to put a cap on the recovery of punitive damages were stomped out on May 4, 2010, as a party-line vote killed pending tort reform legislation in the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.

As reported previously, Assembly Bill 2740, authored by Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks) sought to limit punitive damages to three times the amount of compensatory damages. Because plaintiff’s attorneys routinely work on a contingency basis, this legislation was strongly opposed by plaintiff’s attorneys – arguing it was unnecessary. The bill would have also capped “pain and suffering” awards to $250,000.

Kim Stone, Vice President of the Civil Justice Association of California, testified that these “common-sense reforms would go a really long way towards making California more friendly to business while at the same time protecting the truly injured to make sure they receive their just compensation.”

Niello, a strong-backer of business interests in California, argued that tort reform is necessary to reinvigorate the state as a place for businesses to make their home.

“It's been stated by (the trial lawyers) that there’s no need, there isn’t a problem. There is a need, there is a problem. The problem is the reputation of California as a place to do business in is in the tank, and part of the reason for that is our civil justice system,” Niello told the committee.

Unfortunately, these justifications were not persuasive – or perhaps more pessimistically, not considered – as the bill was defeated on a party-line vote. Democrats unanimously voted against the reform, Republicans unanimously voted for reform. Given the toxicity and divisiveness of California state politics, perhaps little less should have been expected.

Legislation Seeks to Cap Punitive Damages in California; Defendants Hopeful, Plaintiff Lawyers Fearful?

Typically, tort reform efforts are premised on the belief that the court systems are overly filled with unworthy cases and the awards in those cases are unnecessarily excessive. Surely, many insurers and other defendants would agree with that presupposition. Many plaintiff attorneys would vehemently disagree. If you are the former, Assembly Bill 2740, authored by Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks), might be of great interest. Indeed, if it survives the gauntlet of the California legislature, AB 2740 would eliminate what many insurers and other defendants view as unpredictable jackpot awards that only drive up premiums for insureds and the cost of doing business for all companies operating in California.   

Most importantly for insurers, the bill would limit punitive damages to three times the amount of compensatory damages, and would be applicable to claims for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (colloquially known as “bad faith”). While Supreme Court decisions have recently sought to limit the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages, the decisions have not been evenly applied by trial and appellate courts; AB 2740 would effectively resolve and limit the ratio component.  

In addition, the bill also would limit non-economic damages, i.e., damages for pain and suffering, to $250,000 in all civil cases. (This $250,000 cap on non-economic damages has been the law in California for medical malpractice claims since the passage of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975.)

While it is currently unclear if AB 2740 will gain any momentum in the California legislature, insurers can hold hope for – or at least keep watchful eyes on – this promising legislation. We expect that Governor Schwarzenegger would sign the bill if it passed in the legislature.  We will keep you updated on its progress. The next hearing is in the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee on May 4, 2010.

The full text of the proposed legislation can be found here.

Court of Appeal Reaffirms Need for Insurers to Notify Insureds of Contractual Limitation Periods and to Re-Check the Insured's Application Statements

California Insurance Code of Regulations, specifically 10 CCR § 2695.4, requires that an insurer notify its insureds of any contractual time limitation after the insured or beneficiary submits his or her claim. In the California Court of Appeal’s January 21, 2010 decision in Superior Dispatch v. Insurance Corporation of New York, the court found the failure to provide the notice required by § 2695.4 results in the insurer’s inability to rely on the contractual limitation provision in precluding litigation. 

In legal parlance, the appellate court found that the insurer was “equitably estopped” from benefiting from the contractual limitation provision. Being “estopped” from doing something is the same as being barred or blocked from doing something. When someone or an entity is equitably estopped from doing something, they are being barred or blocked from doing something based upon traditional notions of fairness or justice. 

Based on prior precedents, the court held that enforcing compliance with § 2695.4 in a way to negate the contractual limitation provision (despite how conspicuous the term was in the policy) was needed to “remedy the trap for the unwary.” This is especially troubling for insurers who are not intending to “trap” anyone, but expect that the policy will be enforced as a contract between the insurer and the insured (i.e., an insurer who expects the terms of policies that were agreed to by both parties to be enforced). Thus a warning to insurers is necessary: Just because the insured agrees to a term by purchasing the policy and has the opportunity to read the entire policy, the insurer cannot expect that all the terms will be enforced by California courts. In this case, the insurer must go beyond what is required in the policy and provide specific notice of the provision in the policy, despite the insured’s ability to read it for himself. The court went further in holding that the insurer needs to still provide notice of the contractual limitation even when the insurer knows that the insured is represented by counsel. 

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Commissioner Poizner Diligent in Rejecting Any Requested Increase in the Workers' Compensation Claims Cost Benchmark

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner today once again rejected a rate application from the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB) to raise the Workers’ Compensation Claims Cost Benchmark. After rejecting a slightly larger increase request in July of this year, the Commissioner this time rejected a proposed hike of 22.8% in the cost benchmark.  This was yet another blow to the hopes of workers’ compensation insurers for an increased cost benchmark anytime soon.

The Commissioner explained:

One in eight Californians is unemployed. Countless others are also suffering and have either given up looking because they cannot find work or have taken part-time jobs while they seek full-time work. Any increase in costs for employers will only make our already dire economic situation worse.

Given these harsh economic realities, I refuse to rubber stamp double-digit increases to the Workers Compensation Claims Cost Benchmark, especially when I see clear evidence that the cost control reforms from 2003-2004 have yet to be fully implemented,”

These increases requested by the WCIRB give insurers an excuse to raise rates in concert without fully utilizing all of their cost containment tools or increasing efficiency. I will not consider an increase in the Claims Cost Benchmark until I see substantial efforts being made by insurers to use all available tools to constrain costs and improve efficiency.

With regard to the controlling of costs, in the Commissioner’s prior July denial of a request by the WCIRB to raise the Workers’ Compensation Claims Cost Benchmark, the Commissioner issued a 27 point outline of means in which costs can be trimmed by workers’ compensation insurers. Commissioner Poizner’s remarks seemed to indicate that he was disappointed by insurers’ efforts to curb costs. More specifically, the Commissioner stated, “I will not consider an increase in the Claims Cost Benchmark until I see substantial efforts being made by insurers to use all available tools to constrain costs and improve efficiency.”

This denial of the cost benchmark is the latest in a long string of decisions by the Commissioner that have been stringent in their treatment of the cost benchmark, despite the WCIRB’s repeated requests for significant increases. We expect Commissioner Poizner to continue to reject any attempt to raise the cost benchmark until there is significant improvement in California’s unemployment rate (as of last check unemployment in California is a stifling 12.2%, 4th highest among states in the country).

 

November 9, 2009 WC Benchmark Decision and Order

 

November 9, 2009 Department Press Release

California Court Confirms Application of Common Interest Doctrine: Joint Defense Agreements Do Not Waive Attorney-Client Privilege

In an opinion issued yesterday, Meza v. H. Muehlstein & Co., the Second District Court of Appeal confirmed that defense counsel who represent different defendants in a civil case can share information, strategy, and protected information with one another, without the risk of waiving attorney-client privilege, so long as they are all working toward a common interest.

The "Common Interest Doctrine" question came before the Second District due to an interesting, albeit unusual, factual/procedural situation.  A single plaintiff named 17 different defendants in one action for exposure to dangerous chemicals.  One of those defendants was Jack's Plastics, who was represented by an attorney named Brett Drouet.  The trial court in that action entered judgment in defendants' favor.  The plaintiff appealed.  While the case was on appeal, Mr. Drouet left his firm that was representing Jack's Plastics and joined the firm that was representing the plaintiff in the underlying action.  In other words, one of the defendant's attorneys was now employed by the plaintiff's attorney, while the appeal was still pending.  Nothing would have likely resulted if the Court of Appeal had upheld the judgment in favor of the defendants in the underlying case.   However, the Court of Appeal vacated the judgment in favor of the defendants and the case was back in front of the trial court.  Upon learning that one of the former defense attorneys was now working at the firm representing the plaintiff, one of the defendants filed a motion to disqualify the plaintiff's firm from the case (i.e., if granted, the plaintiff would need to get new counsel).  The motion was based upon the theory that the information disclosed to the former defense counsel needed to be protected from disclosure to plaintiff's counsel.

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Insurer Not Obligated to Pay Attorney's Fees for Defending Claims Against Insured that Were Not Subject to Coverage

In State Farm v. Mintarsih, (pdf) (Case No. B202888), the Second Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal found that an insurer is not liable under a policy’s supplementary payment provision for an attorney’s fee award resulting from claims that were not potentially covered under the policy.

This ruling was in sharp contrast to a previous ruling by the Court of Appeal in Pritchard v. Liberty Mutual, 84 Cal. App. 4th 890 (2000) that held that in a suit that the insurer defends, the supplementary payment provision covers attorney’s fees “despite the absence of even the possibility of coverage for the causes of action that generated the large cost award.” The Mintarsih ruling, drafted by the well-regarded Justice Walter Croskey, is a very favorable ruling for insurers.

State Farm’s insureds were found to have held their domestic servant a virtual slave, awarding the servant $87,000 in damages on four tort theories – negligence, negligence per se, false imprisonment and fraud. Additionally, $740,000 was awarded for Labor Code violations. State Farm had defended the insureds under a reservation of rights.

While it was uncontested that State Farm was not required to cover the $740,000 in Labor Code violations, there was a question as to whether State Farm was required to pay the attorney’s fees that the household servant was entitled to receive under the Labor Code, due to the inclusion of the supplementary payment provision of the insureds’ policy, in which State Farm agreed to pay “claim expenses” over and above the limits of liability, including “expenses we incur and costs taxed against an Insured in suits we defend.” 

The Court recognized that the suit initiated by the domestic servant against the insured was a “mixed claims” case – a case presenting claims where there was a potential for coverage (the tort claims) and claims where there was no potential for coverage (the Labor Code claims).

 

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