Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Escape from Muni Court

Leonard v. Superior Court, No. C077597 (D3 May 22, 2015)

Defendant in this erstwhile limited jurisdiction collections case amended her pending cross-compliant, raising the demanded damages from $5,500 to $250,000. That qualified the case for unlimited treatment—a reclassification that should have been automatic under Code of Civil Procedure § 403.020. All she had to do was pay a $140 fee. But when she tried to pay the fee to the clerk she was told (twice) that it wasn’t necessary at that time and that her case had been reclassified.

Subsequently, the court granted a SLAPP motion directed at the counterclaims. About forty-eight days after the dismissal, Defendant filed a notice of appeal. But to her surprise, the case had not really been reclassified. The trial court struck her notice of appeal as untimely because unlike the sixty-day window in an ordinary case,
Cal. R. Ct. 8.104(a)(1), the rule governing limited cases affords thirty days to appeal. Cal. R. Ct. 8.822. To save her appeal, Defendant filed a motion to reclassify the case, which the trial court denied on account of her not being able to prove that more than $25,000 was at issue. Defendant took a writ, which the Third District grants.

As I mentioned, § 403.020(a) says that whenever a party files an amended pleading that increases the amount at issue past the $25,000 jurisdictional minimum and pays the fee, the clerk should reclassify the case as unlimited. It’s a non-discretionary, ministerial duty. The court faults Defendant for filing a reclassification motion under § 403.040, which is ordinarily used when a case is incorrectly classified, as opposed to a change in classification caused by an increased demand for damages in an amended pleading. But it’s not really clear what Defendant was supposed to do to get the trial court to act.  In any event, the clerk should have reclassified the case, so the court of appeal grants the writ and orders it to do so.

The court goes on to note a second mistake. The trial court should not have struck the notice of appeal as untimely, even if was right on the merits. That’s not its job. The filing of the notice divested the trial court of jurisdiction, so any challenge to the timeliness of the notice should have been directed to the court of appeal.

Writ granted.

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