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Case Update - Supreme Court Edition

Slight change of schedule.  The Columbus Seven came down with several notable opinions, so we'll discuss those today.  The 8th had a slow week, so instead of doing a post on those decisions tomorrow, we'll combine them with a case update for all the appellate decisions from last week.  On Wednesday and Thursday, we'll discuss some stuff left over from the US Supreme Court's last term.

The big civil decision was Williams v. Spitzer AutoworldWilliams had purchased a car from Spitzer, and was told that he would be given $16,500 as a trade-in for his old vehicle.  The written contract gave him only a $15,500 allowance, though.  Although it's not clear from the opinion why he waited, he eventually did sue, and a jury agreed with him that he'd been orally promised the extra grand.  Spitzer wound up getting hit for trebled compensatory damages of $7,500, plus attorney fees.

Now, you're probably sitting there wondering, "What about the parol evidence rule, the one that says that you can't introduce evidence of oral statements to vary the terms of a written contract?"  Sure you are.  At any rate, that's what the lawyers for Spitzer claimed, but the 5th Distict rejected it, pointing to a provision of the administrative regs for the Consumer Sales Practices Act which provides that an auto dealer violates the CSPA if he doesn't incorporate all the oral terms into a contract.  No go, say the Supremes, holding that the regulation conflicts with RC 1302.05, the parol evidence statute, and that the rule is not one merely of evidence, but of substantive law.  It's not a pro-consumer decision, but it can easily be rectified by the pro-consumer Ohio legislature.  Don't hold your breath. 

Less controversial decisions included Niskanen v. Giant Eagle and National Union v. Wuerth.  The latter holds that a law firm does not itself practice law, and therefore cannot be directly sued for malpractice, and can be vicariously liable for malpractice only when one of attorneys are.  The case presents an unusual fact and procedural situation -- the statute of limitations had expired against the lawyer, and the case came before the court upon a certified question by the 6th Circuit -- and four justices concurred in Chief Justice Moyer's concurrence stressing how narrow the decision was, so it's best not to make more of it than the syllabus. 

Niskanen also involved an unusual fact situation:  Niskanen's son had tried to shoplift $289 worth of groceries from a Giant Eagle store, and punched the clerk attempting to apprehend him.  A general scuffle ensued, with the result that Niskanen was asphyxiated while being restrained.  The mother sued, the jury found Niskanen 60% responsible for his own damages, and so awarded her nothing, but the 9th District reversed, ruling that the judge erred in instructing the jury not to award punitive damages if it didn't award compensatory damages.  The Supreme Court reverses, holding that an award of compensatory damages is a prerequisitive for punitives.

But if you want to see a really weird factual pattern, check out State v. HarrisonHarrison had pled out to various sex offenses and was sentenced to one year in prison.  Instead of the mandated five-year period of post-release control, though, the sentencing entry specified a discretionary three-year period.  Six months after Harrison finished his sentence, the prosecutor moved to resentence him.  The trial court ordered a resentencing, but also stated it would let Harrison withdraw his plea.

For whatever reason, Harrison agreed to, at which point the whole thing went completely off the rails.  The prosecutor obtained a 23-count indictment for the same offenses Harrison had pled out to before, and a jury convicted him of 18 counts, for which he received a six-year sentence.

Most times, the Supreme Court, at both the state and Federal level, will accept a case to clarify a point of law; on rare occasions, it will do so to remedy something that just got totally screwed up.  Harrison presents an example of the latter.  There are a number of decisions, State v. Bezak and State v. Simpkins being the most recent, holding that once a defendant has completed his sentence, a goof-up in imposing post-release controls can't be remedied; thus, the trial court had no jurisdiction to re-sentence Harrison.  The case contains no syllabus, just the majority's opinion noting that "the journey this case has taken is lamentable" and the fervent hope that "it will never be repeated."  (The judgment was unanimous, but two justices didn't concur in the opinion.)

Finally, we come to State v. Elmore, a story of missed opportunities.  A couple of years back, the raging fad was the argument that applying State v. Foster to defendants who committed their crimes prior to that decision was an ex post facto violation.  That theory is detailed here; in a nutshell, the argument went, a person committing a crime in 2005 was entitled to a presumption for a minimum term of imprisonment if he'd never served a prison term, and a non-maximum concurrent sentence if he had.  Foster's  elimination of those presumptions thus retroactively disadvantaged an offender.

The most notable aspect of the argument is that not a single court, state or Federal, ever bought it.  Elmore doesn't change that, but what's interesting is its treatment of the question of consecutive sentences.  As I've noted (posts here, here, and here), the US Supreme Court's decision this year in Oregon v. Ice completely undercuts Foster's finding that Ohio's law on consecutive sentencing violated Blakely.  In Elmore, the court mentions Ice only in passing, deciding that it "will not address fully all ramifications of Oregon v. Ice, since neither party sought the opportunity to brief this issue before oral argument," and then more fully describing that missed opportunity in a footnote:

Three weeks after oral argument, the state filed a "Motion for Post-Argument Supplemental Briefing Regarding Impact of Oregon v. Ice." That motion is denied. The common pleas court had no opportunity to consider the impact of Ice on this case and our opinion in Foster. Furthermore, after the United States Supreme Court opinion in Ice was announced in January, both Elmore and the state had more than four months to file a motion seeking to supplement the briefs prior to oral argument; however, the parties chose not to do so.

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