What does “abuse of discretion” mean in your case?

Sometimes, it seems that defining an “abuse of discretion” is like nailing jello to the wall (maybe worse, since the latter is difficult, but not impossible).  There are many nuances to the standard, which can depend on the statute being applied, the basis for the abuse of discretion, and the particular procedural posture of the case. 

The last of these variables is what helps the appellant overcome this highly deferential standard of review and have the default judgment against it lifted in Fasuyi v. Permatetex, Inc. case no. A117760 (1st Dist. Oct. 15, 2008).  Permatex made a motion under Code of Civil Procedure section 473 to vacate the default judgment against it and appealed from the order denying relief.  The court of appeal tells us at the outset that the “abuse of discretion” standard applicable here may not be quite as deferential as you would expect (footnote omitted): 

The law favors resolution of cases on their merits, and because it does, any doubts about whether Code of Civil Procedure section 473 relief should be granted “must be resolved in favor of the party seeking relief from default [citations]. Therefore, a trial court denying relief is scrutinized more carefully than an order permitting trial on the merits. [Citations.]” (Rappleyea v. Campbell(1994) 8 Cal.4th 975, 980 (Rappleyea).) Justice Mosk began Rappleyea with a succinct statement of the question before the Supreme Court and its answer: “The question is whether a default must be set aside and a default judgment reversed on the ground of abuse of discretion. We conclude that they must be.” (8 Cal.4th at p. 978.) The question before us is the same. And so is our answer.

There are two dichotomies here, one clearly defined, one not.  Orders denying 473 relief will be “scrutinized more carefully” than orders granting relief.  That is clear-cut.  What isn’t so clear is what “scrutinized more carefully” actually means while remaining within the “abuse of discretion” standard.” 

In any event, the case is yet another reminder that “abuse of discretion” may have a particularized meaning or application in your case.  And if you happen to be requesting a default judgment any time soon, I suggest you read this case for some of the pitfalls and an exposition on the gatekeeping role of the trial court.

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