Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Bleak House Gets a Little Bleaker

Wallis v. PHL Associates, Inc., No. C066545 (D3 Oct. 17, 2013)

This is an appeal of a case that was originally filed in 1994! Most of the opinion is unpublished but the published section deals with when a statement of decision must be requested under Code of Civil Procedure § 632. 

In the equitable part of a bifurcated case, the trial court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor and awarded her damages on her equitable claims. The trial court spread its oral rulings over three occasions, having taken two issues under submission when it first announced its tentative ruling on the remainder of the equitable case. The defendant requested a statement of decision eight days after the judge announced its tentative ruling on the last issue, which the trial court denied without explanation. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the request was too late because it was made months after the court had handed down its initial tentative ruling that addressed most of its equitable decision. 

Section 632 requires a party to request a statement of decision within ten days of the court’s announcement of a tentative decision. If timely requested, the court’s failure to provide a statement of decision—which can consist of the adoption of a statement drafted by a prevailing party under a procedure set forth in Rule of Court 3.1590—is per se reversible error. The court of appeal took a practical construction of the timeliness requirement and held that the ten days does not begin to run until the court completes the announcement of its tentative decisions on all of the controverted issues. (The court resists the temptation to call this a “final tentative” decision.) In coming to this result, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the time to request a statement of decision ran separately from the date on which any fact or issue was decided by the court, reasoning that such a rule would be cumbersome and require multiple requests during a single bench trial.

The trial judge’s denial of the timely request was thus reversible error. And because the trial judge had been disqualified by the plaintiff’s peremptory challenge under Code of Civil Procedure § 170.6 after the decision but before the appeal was taken*, it would be impossible to apply the ordinary remedy of remanding to the trial court for the entry of a statement of decision. Under the circumstances, the only thing that the court of appeal could do was to remand for a new trial on the equitable issues. So, almost twenty years after it was originally filed, the case must go on.

Reversed and remanded.

*The court’s recounting of the sixteen-year procedural history of this case raises a bunch of questions that are unsatisfyingly left unanswered. For instance, it notes that the plaintiff filed her § 170.6 strike in July 2002—nearly two years after the trial court had finished both a jury and a bench trial with results that appear to have been favorable to the plaintiff—and that the trial judge “stepped aside.” It then mentions that the case was assigned to a new judge in April 2008—almost six years later. Given that a § 170.6 challenge must generally be made within fifteen days of notice of the judge’s assignment, how was the plaintiff able to file a successful strike eight full years into the case? And why did it take six years to get a new judge? Presumably some facts were left out of the recitation that would answer these questions. But inquiring minds want to know....

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