Don’t lightly assume that you’ve extended your time to appeal with a post-trial motion

The parties in your case have stipulated to have their case tried before a temporary judge (pursuant to Cal. Const., art. VI, § 21) and filed all trial-related papers (trial briefs, closing briefs, and requests for statement of decision) directly with the temporary judge at his alternative dispute resolution service.

So, where should you file your motion to vacate the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure sections 663 and 663a? The answer is: with the clerk of the superior court. (As all documents should be, pursuant to Cal. Rules of Court, rule 2.400(b).)

The appellant in Gonzalez v. Aroura Loan Services, LLC, case no. B247366 (2d Dist., Nov. 17, 2014) learned that lesson the hard way, but not through having its motion to vacate denied. In fact, the judge never even ruled on the motion. But the appellant suffered another consequence from filing its motion to vacate directly with the temporary judge instead of with the clerk of the superior court. Its appeal was dismissed as untimely because the improperly filed motion to vacate did not trigger the extension of time to file the notice of appeal described in rule 8.108(c), California Rules of Court.

Rule 8.108(c) extends the time to appeal whenever a party files “a valid notice of intention to move — or a valid motion — to vacate the judgment.” (Emphasis added.) The court held that the motion to vacate filed directly with the temporary judge was not valid because section 663 directs that the moving party ” shall file with the clerk and serve upon the adverse party a notice of his or her intention, designating the grounds upon which the motion will be made[.]” (Emphasis added.) Thus, the rule 8.108(c) extension was never triggered. Without that extension, the appellant’s notice of appeal was untimely.

I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is that a party file its notice of appeal on time. Gonzalez has more to say on this broader topic, which I will save for another post.

Split of Authority re Mandatory Relief under CCP § 473(b)

The first time I read Code of Civil Procedure section 473(b) and the practice guides about it, it horrified me. There I was, a very young lawyer at a BigLaw firm, reading that the court must grant relief from a default if the attorney swears by affidavit that the default was due to the mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect of the attorney. I thought that surely, from time to time, some attorney has relied on this provision, admitting fault, only to have the court deny relief because the relief sought did not fall within the mandatory provision of section 473(b). Shudder.

But I never read about that actually happening until the decision in Hossain v. Hossain, case no. 196198 (2d Dist. Nov. 30, 2007). Plaintiff’s opposition to a motion to enforce a settlement agreement and his cross-motion to enforce it on different terms were both untimely, and the trial court refused to consider them because of their untimeliness. Plaintiff filed a section 473(b) motion for relief from the order enforcing settlement and appealed from the order denying relief.

The court notes a split of authority regarding the orders to which the mandatory relief provision of section 473(b) applies. Section 473(b) provides for mandatory relief from a “default entered by the clerk against his or her client, and which will result in entry of a default judgment,” or “default judgment or dismissal” provided that the default or default judgment or dismissal results from the attorney’s “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect,” the attorney so admits in an affidavit, and application is made within six months. The split concerns interpretation of “default.”

Plaintiff cited several cases holding that mandatory relief applies to situations that are the “procedural equivalent of a default.” Those cases found mandatory relief from failure to appear for trial, failure to appear for arbitration, and failure to oppose a summary judgment motion.

But the Second District Court of Appeal adopts the position of English v. IKON Business Solutions, Inc. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 130, which, after examining the legislative history of the provision, held that mandatory relief applied only to defaults explicitly described in the statute, i.e., a default “entered by the clerk against his or her client, and which will result in entry of a default judgment.” Thus, it affirms the order denying relief.

I don’t know if this issue arises often enough to make this split of authority important enough for the Supreme Court to grant review. But it is certainly a significant split, not just for parties, but also for attorneys, who admit fault in the course of seeking relief. A scary proposition for those attorneys who are unsure of whether mandatory relief applies, even if the mistake, inadvertence, surprise or neglect was arguably excusable.

As a side note, the court only certified for publication the introductory paragraph, a section of its discussion, and the disposition. It did not certify the “Factual and Procedural Summary.” Oversight?