Rowe v. Superior Court, No. B070406

Citation19 Cal.Rptr.2d 625,15 Cal.App.4th 1711
Decision Date25 May 1993
Docket NumberNo. B070406
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
PartiesDee ROWE, et al., Petitioners, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Los Angeles County, Respondent; CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY OF ORANGE COUNTY, etc., et al., Real Parties in Interest.

Cummins & White, Barry Van Sickle, Richard J. Wynne and Toby L. Plevin, Los Angeles, for petitioners.

No appearance for respondent.

Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, Eric M. Lieberman, Hillary Richard, New York City, Bowles & Moxon, Karen D. Holly and Laurie J. Bartilson, Hollywood, for real parties in interest.

CROSKEY, Associate Justice.

Petitioners Dee Rowe and S. Glover Rowe (collectively "Rowe") seek a writ of

                mandate to overturn the trial court's refusal to permit the amendment of Rowe's complaint against the Church of Scientology of Orange County ("Scientology") 1 to allege a claim for punitive damages.  Such pre-pleading permission by the court is a requirement imposed by Code of Civil Procedure section 425.14. 2  Rowe attacks this legislation by asserting that it is unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates (1) California's constitutional guarantee of a jury trial and (2) the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  We conclude that Rowe is incorrect on both points.  However, because it appears that the trial court [15 Cal.App.4th 1716] may not have applied the proper standard in evaluating Rowe's proposed amended pleading, we grant the writ

On October 3, 1991, Rowe filed a complaint against Scientology alleging claims for fraud, false imprisonment, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and deceptive trade practices. The allegations arose out of a relationship which began with a management and consulting contract between Rowe and a company known as Sterling Management Systems ("Sterling") which Rowe claims was a Scientology "front group." This contract related to Rowe's Alabama dental practice. Subsequently, Rowe alleges, Sterling recruited Rowe to enroll and participate in counseling programs at Scientology's Orange County facility located in Tustin, California.

There is no need to recite in detail the factual allegations concerning Scientology's claimed misconduct. It is sufficient to note that Rowe's complaint charged six separate intentional torts each of which was alleged to have been committed with malice and oppression. Based on such allegations, Rowe sought recovery of punitive damages.

Scientology responded with a motion to strike Rowe's allegations and prayer for punitive damages on the ground that Rowe had not complied with the requirement of section 425.14 to first obtain leave of court before seeking such relief. On December 11, 1991, the trial court granted the motion. 3

Thereafter, Rowe made a motion for leave to amend the complaint to allege a prayer for punitive damages. In support of the motion, Rowe filed three declarations and documentary material apparently copied from certain Scientology publications. In addition, Rowe argued that section 425.14 violated two constitutional guarantees: (1) the right to a jury trial under both the United States and California constitutions and (2) the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Scientology opposed this motion with excerpts from depositions of Rowe and certain documentary evidence together with legal argument regarding the admissibility of Rowe's evidence and a response to the On September 22, 1992, the motion came on for hearing. The trial court rejected Rowe's constitutional arguments with little or no discussion 5 and then heard extensive argument as to whether Rowe had satisfied the "clear and convincing" pre-pleading hurdle of section 425.14. After considering the competing declarations and evidence before it the court denied Rowe's motion. In describing the conclusion which it reached it appears that the court was of the opinion that section 425.14 required Rowe to demonstrate evidence sufficient to satisfy the clear and convincing standard and that, after weighing the evidence before it, the court concluded that Rowe had failed to meet that burden. 6 Rowe's motion was therefore denied.

constitutional [15 Cal.App.4th 1717] questions raised. Scientology concluded its opposition with arguments which bear upon the issue before us: "... the only evidence submitted by plaintiffs in support of their pending motion consists of the declarations of Dee Rowe and S. Glover Rowe. As demonstrated ... those declarations do not satisfy the Rowe's burden of establishing their claim for punitive damages by clear and convincing proof"; and later, "the evidence offered by [Rowe] not only is not 'clear and convincing,' it is largely inadmissible. Analysis of the remaining admissible evidence pursuant to § 425.14 reveals that plaintiffs have failed to meet the clear and convincing standard, or any lesser standard for that matter." 4

Rowe then brought the instant petition for writ of mandate. We issued an

alternative writ and set the matter for hearing.


Rowe asserts that the trial court's order, which prevented the pleading of any punitive damage claim, resulted from the operation of section 425.14, which Rowe claims is unconstitutional. Therefore, Rowe argues, issuance of a writ of mandate compelling the trial court to vacate its order is warranted. Rowe asserts that section 425.14 is unconstitutional on two grounds: first, it requires the trial court to weigh evidence and decide the issue of entitlement to punitive damages, thus depriving Rowe of the constitutionally protected right to a jury trial; and second, it creates an impermissible benefit for religious organizations and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

We discuss each of these claims in turn.

1. Section 415.14 Does Not Impair the Right to a Jury Trial.

Article I, section 16 of the California Constitution provides in pertinent part, "Trial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all,...." 7 "In California, the constitutional right to a jury trial in civil cases is coextensive with the right as it existed under the common law of England in 1850, when the California Constitution was adopted. [Citation.] ' "The right has always been regarded as sacred and has been jealously guarded by the courts. [Citation.]" ' [Citation.] It is the function of the jury to determine questions of fact. [Citations.]" (Hung v. Wang (1992) 8 Cal.App.4th 908, 927, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 113.)

There is no question or dispute in this case that the claims asserted by Rowe, including the claim for punitive damages, are of the type to which the jury trial right attaches. 8 The question which we must address is whether section 425.14 in any way impairs that right. If we construe the statute to require the trial judge to weigh the evidence on both sides and only permit the filing of a claim for punitive damages if the court finds that Rowe will prevail, then Rowe's jury right would be clearly violated.

a. Section 425.14 Is Ambiguous

We look first to the plain language of the statute. Where statutory language is clear and unambiguous there is no need for construction. (Rojo v. Kliger (1990) 52 Cal.3d 65, 73, 276 Cal.Rptr. 130, 801 P.2d 373.) The critical statutory language here involved reads, "... the court may allow the filing of an amended pleading claiming punitive or exemplary damages on a motion by the party seeking the amended pleading and upon a finding, on the basis of the supporting and opposing affidavits presented, that the plaintiff has established evidence which substantiates that plaintiff will meet the clear and convincing standard of proof under section 3294 of the Civil Code." (Emphasis added.)

Is this language clear and free from ambiguity? We begin our analysis of that question by examining the nature of the burden which this imposes on a pleading party. On the surface, it appears to be a different burden, if not a greater one, than that which is imposed by section 425.13 which contains a related pleading hurdle with respect to punitive damage claims However, similar language used in Civil Code section 1714.10 has recently been examined and found to be ambiguous. (Hung v. Wang, supra, 8 Cal.App.4th at p. 930, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 113.) More than one reasonable construction was possible for the language used in section 1714.10 which required a showing of "reasonable probability of success" before the pleading of a claim of civil conspiracy between an attorney and client would be allowed. The court, noting that it was bound to adopt the construction which would save the statute from constitutional infirmity, stated: "... [T]he legislative purpose of section 1714.10 was to eliminate frivolous allegations that attorneys have conspired with their clients. This statutory purpose is served by a construction that requires a prefiling procedure to determine whether the proposed conspiracy pleading is legally sufficient, and whether it is supported by a sufficient prima facie showing of facts to sustain a favorable decision if the evidence submitted by the petitioner is credited. If either of these requirements is not met, the petition must be denied; if both are satisfied, it must be granted. This is a determination of law, not of fact. [Citation.] So construed, the statute provides a vehicle to preclude frivolous allegations of conspiracy without subjecting the allegations to a fact adjudicative screen that would violate the jury clause." (Id. at p. 931, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 113.) Thus, the demonstration of a "reasonable probability" of success requires only the exhibition of a prima facie case.

                against health care providers.  That section provides in pertinent part, "...  The court [15 Cal.App.4th 1720] may allow the filing of an amended pleading claiming punitive damages on a motion by the

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