Court of Appeal Takes On Dispositive Motions in Limine

I’ve told you about one or two of my lingusitic peeves before. In Amtower v. Photon Dynamics, Inc., case no. H030386 (6th Dist. Jan. 17, 2008), the Court of Appeal takes on one of my peeves about procedure, and I’m glad to see it.

Just prior to trial, the defendant moved in limine to exclude all evidence on one of plaintiff’s claims (the “section 11 claim”) on the ground that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court granted the motion. After a jury trial and judgment for defendant on the remaining claims, plaintiff argued on appeal that “the trial court’s use of an in limine motion to adjudicate his section 11 claim deprived him of the right to a jury trial on the statute of limitations issue.” In response, the court gives this preview of its opinion:

Plaintiff’s argument highlights a procedure that has become increasingly common among litigants in our trial courts, which is the use of in limine motions as substitutes for summary adjudication motions, motions for judgment on the pleadings, or other dispositive motions authorized by statute. We have certified this case for publication in order to express our concerns surrounding the proliferation of such short-cut procedures.

The court ultimately agrees that the plaintiff was deprived of his right to a jury trial on the statute of limitations issue, but finds the error is harmless.

The deprivation occurred when the court held a “mini-trial” on the in limine motion, where plaintiff testified as to when he learned of the actionable conduct, and the court made a factual finding that plaintiff learned of the conduct as of a given date that was outside the limitations period.

The defendant didn’t even contest that the running of the statute of limitations is generally a question of fact for the jury, but insisted that in this case “there was no question of fact and that its in limine motion was the proper vehicle for the court to decide the issue as a matter of law.” Is it just me, or does that sound like what summary judgment motions are for?

It’s not just me. The court started its response to this as follows:

Strictly speaking, Photon’s motion was not an in limine motion. In limine motions are designed to facilitate the management of a case, generally by deciding difficult evidentiary issues in advance of trial. “ ‘The usual purpose of motions in limine is to preclude the presentation of evidence deemed inadmissible and prejudicial by the moving party. A typical order in limine excludes the challenged evidence and directs counsel, parties, and witnesses not to refer to the excluded matters during trial. (3 Witkin, Cal. Evidence [(3d. ed. 1986)], supra, § 2011 at p. 1969.) “The advantage of such motions is to avoid the obviously futile attempt to ‘unring the bell’ in the event a motion to strike is granted in the proceedings before the jury.” (Hyatt v. Sierra Boat Co. (1978) 79 Cal.App.3d 325, 337.)’ ” (Kelly v. New West Federal Savings (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 659, 669.) What in limine motions are not designed to do is to replace the dispositive motions prescribed by the Code of Civil Procedure. It has become increasingly common, however, for litigants to utilize in limine motions for this purpose.

The court notes past creative uses of motions in limine to obtain judgment on the pleadings and challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, then advises that the Courts of Appeal are on to these little tricks: “In purpose and effect, the foregoing nonstatutory procedures are merely substitutes for the dispositive motions authorized by statute. Appellate courts are becoming increasingly wary of this tactic.”

One adverse effect of these procedures, notes the court, is on the standard of review. A dispositive ruling on an in limine motion is reviewed as if it were the product of a motion for nonsuit after opening statement, in which “all inferences and conflicts in the evidence be resolved in favor of the losing party and against the judgment.” (Emphasis in original.) Had the issue been decided in favor of the defendant at trial, of course, any inferences from and conflicts in the evidence would be resolved in favor of the judgment. “Thus, some cases will be subject to reversal where, had the trial court just taken the time to hold a trial, reversal would not be warranted. [Citation.]”

Though the court apparently intends its opinion to discourage use of in limine motions as dispositive devices, they nonetheless somewhat grudgingly acknowledge the great leeway that trial courts have in managing litigation means that such use is not per se improper. The court does not outright limit the scope of in limine motions. But it does caution litigants:

[W]hen the trial court utilizes the in limine process to dispose of a case or cause of action, we review the result as we would the grant of a motion for nonsuit after opening statement, keeping in mind that the grant of such a motion is not favored, that a key consideration is that the nonmoving party has had a full and fair opportunity to state all the facts in its favor, and that all inferences and conflicts in the evidence must be viewed most favorably to the nonmoving party.

Applying that standard, the trial court finds a harmless “procedural irregularity”:

In the present case, plaintiff did not make an opening statement. And, unlike the process employed in some of the above-noted cases, plaintiff was not offered the chance to make a comprehensive offer of proof. (See e.g., Michelson v. Camp, supra, 72 Cal.App.4th at p. 960 and Stein-Brief Group, Inc. v. Home Indemnity Co., supra, 65 Cal.App.4th at p. 368.) He certainly was not afforded the detailed procedural protections he would have had if Photon had filed a summary adjudication motion or had the court allowed the statute of limitations defense to be tried separately as contemplated by Code of Civil Procedure section 597. Nevertheless, the perfunctory nature of the proceedings does not warrant reversal if the record shows that plaintiff could not have prevailed under any circumstances. (Atkinson v. Elk Corp., supra, 109 Cal.App.4th at pp. 748-749.) That is the case here. As we shall explain in the following section, plaintiff could not have produced any additional evidence that would have changed the result. Accordingly, the procedural irregularity was harmless.

The bottom line? The Court of Appeal clearly does not like dispositive use of motions in limine, but in light of the inherent power of the trial court to manage litigation, there is little they can do to stop it except to apply a standard of review that does not favor the judgment. It is up to the trial courts to consider the criticism in Amtower and exercise restraint when confronted with such a motion. Will they?

Nonsuit after Opening Statement in Bench Trial

Lingenfelter v. County of Fresno, case no. F005021 (5th Dist. August 16, 2007) unknots a sticky procedural question:

In the published portion of this opinion, we hold that a motion for nonsuit, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 581c, subdivision (a), does lie in a trial by the court.  We publish on this issue because the disagreement of our concurring colleague demonstrates that there is a conflict of authority.

More specifically, the court holds that nonsuit is available in a bench trial immediately after the close of plaintiff’s opening statement.  The court’s exercise in statutory interpretation of Section 581c is detailed.  It examines not only Section 581c, but also Code of Civil Procedure section 631.8, which allows motions for judgment in bench trials after presentation of the evidence, and applies the “last antecedent rule.”  The court distinguishes a line of cases finding that Section 631.8 made nonsuit in a bench trial unavailable  because those cases considered a motion for nonsuit after the close of evidence rather than after opening statement.  It cites numerous cases agreeing with it that nonsuit remains available in a court trial after opening statement even after the enactment of Section 631.8.

The court’s effort seems wasted, for it concludes in the unpublished portion of its opinion that the trial court improperly granted the nonsuit motion.  The majority is taken to task by the concurring and dissenting opinion, in which Justice Cornell insists that the holding on availability of nonsuit in court trials is both wrongly decided and dictum.  The majority agrees it could decide the case without tackling the availability of nonsuit, but justifies its holding in part because two oft-used secondary authorities opine on the issue, and their position should be either confirmed or countered by the court.