Associate Justice William W. Bedsworth of the Court of Appeal, State of California. Photographed in his office in Santa Ana, California, on May 8, 2003. Photo: Alan J. Duignan

A California appellate court has overturned a $1 million default judgment against an Orange County family lawyer finding that opposing counsel ran afoul of the requirement in the state’s Code of Civil Procedure that parties “cooperate” in bringing an action to trial or disposition.

“We are reluctant to come down too hard on respondent’s counsel or the trial court because we think the problem is not so much a personal failure as systemic one,” wrote Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice William Bedsworth in Tuesday’s 16-page published decision. “They have heard the mantra so often unthinkingly repeated that, ‘This is a business,’ that they have lost sight of the fact the practice of law is not a business. It is a profession. And those who practice it carry a concomitantly greater responsibility than businesspeople.”

The ruling is a victory for Garden Grove-based family lawyer Joanna Vogel, who was facing a $1 million default judgment in a malpractice case brought by former client Angele Lasalle, whom she represented from 2011 to 2015 in the dissolution of a domestic partnership. Lasalle herself was defaulted in the dissolution case after failing to respond to discovery orders—orders she claimed Vogel failed to flag for her.

Lasalle sued Vogel on March 3, 2016, and after 35 days went by, her attorney sent Vogel a letter and an email on Thursday, April 7, 2016, saying Vogel’s responsive filing was “past due.” The letter and email threatened to request a default judgment if Vogel didn’t respond by close of business the next day. Lasalle ultimately asked for and received default judgment the following Monday.

Although the trial judge below, Orange County Superior Judge Randall Sherman, denied Vogel’s request to set aside the default judgment, Bedsworth wrote that state’s “statutory policy” outlined in Code of Civil Procedure Section 583.130 requires all parties to “cooperate in bringing the action to trial or other disposition” and that the actions of Lasalle and her lawyer fell short.

“Quiet speed and unreasonable deadlines do not qualify as ‘cooperation’ and cannot be accepted by the courts,” Bedsworth wrote.

The judge further wrote that using email to announce an impending default request was “hardly distinguishable from stealth.”

“Email has many things to recommend it; reliability is not one of them,” he wrote. “Between the ease of mistaken address on the sender’s end and the arcane vagaries of spam filters on the recipient’s end, email is ill-suited for a communication on which a million dollar lawsuit may hinge.”

Lasalle’s lawyer, Frank Battaile Jr. of Irvine, didn’t immediately respond to phone and email messages.

Neither Vogel nor her lawyer, Dorie Rogers of Orange County, immediately responded to messages.

Bedsworth was joined in Tuesday’s opinion by Justices Eileen Moore and Raymond Ikola.

Read the opinion: