Monday, July 27, 2015

Stipulation Beats Five-Year Rule

Munoz v. City of Tracy, C075955 (Jun. 30, 2015)

This case got dismissed under Code of Civil Procedure §§ 583.310 and 583.630 for plaintiff’s failure to bring it to trial within five years. But two months before the five years had run, with a scheduled trial date only a month away, the parties jointly stipulated to continue the trial for six months, so that plaintiff’s newly hired trial attorney could get up to speed. The stip didn’t mention the five-year rule. Soon after the five years had run—and during the continuance to which Defendant had stipulated—Defendant moved to dismiss under §§ 583.310 and 583.360(a). The trial court held that the stip didn’t prevent dismissal, because it did not contain an express waiver of the five-year rule. It dismissed the case with prejudice.

If it seems unfair that a defendant can rock a plaintiff to sleep by stipulating to extend the trial date past the five-year window, and then jack him up with a motion to dismiss as soon as the five years run, that’s because it is. So the court of appeal reverses. Section 583.330 says that the five-year period can be extended by stipulation. It mentions no formalities. That is bolstered by § 583.130, which adopts a policy that the parties stipulations and agreements about the progress of a case are generally preferred over the statutory policy requiring trial within five years. The court finds further support in Miller & Lux. Inc. v. Superior Court, 192 Cal. 333, 337–38 (1923), a ninety-two year old California Supreme Court opinion. There, interpreting a prior version of the statute, the court noted that the five year window could be tolled by a stipulation that either expressly stopped the clock or extended the trial date beyond the five year window. Since the defendant took the second option, the dismissal was improper.


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