According to Section 583.310 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, “An action shall be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant.”

On the surface, it seems like a simple rule. But as with so many things, the devil is in the details. During last week’s conference, the California Supreme Court agreed to further clarify how to calculate the five-year period, granting a petition for review in Gaines v. Fidelity National Title Insurance Company.

According to Section 583.340, there are only three situations in which the five-year clock pauses – during times that (1) the jurisdiction of the court to try the action was suspended; (2) prosecution or trial of the action was stayed or enjoined; or (3) bringing the action to trial, for any other reason, was impossible, impracticable, or futile.  Once the clock runs out, dismissal is mandatory. Gaines involves the application of the second and third exclusions.

Gaines started in 2006 when two senior citizen homeowners fell behind on their mortgage. An individual defendant contacted the homeowners and identified herself as an employee of the loan holder. She explained that she had given a copy of the homeowners’ refinance application to her fiance, who helped homeowners find refinancing loans. Within a few months, after a complicated series of transactions, the fiance and his business partners wound up owning the homeowners’ home – which they allegedly bought for $300,000 less than it was worth – and the homeowners held only a month-to-month lease with no option to buy. Around this time, the husband homeowner died.

The surviving wife filed suit in November 2006 against the original loan holder, the loan holder’s employee, her fiance and his business partners, and various others. In January 2008, the plaintiff filed a fourth amended complaint adding additional defendants. In April 2008, the plaintiff’s counsel successfully obtained an order staying the action for 120 days, excepting only outstanding discovery, and directing the parties to participate in good faith in a mediation. The stay was terminated in November 2008 after the mediation failed to produce a settlement.

The new presiding judge set an August 2009 trial date. Around that time, one of the newly added defendants indicated that it didn’t have title to the property after all, and the trial date was vacated. In a declaration filed in November 2009, counsel for that defendant indicated that a bankrupt entity in New York owned the relevant loan, and his client had no interest in the property or the loan.

The wife died in November 2009. Leave was granted two months later to substitute her son as the successor in interest and plaintiff, and the court set yet another trial date in 2010. At a mid-2010 status conference, with the real loan holder still in bankruptcy, the plaintiff’s counsel suggested a further continuance to allow time to bifurcate proceedings, carving out the claim against the bankrupt entity and proceeding against the other defendants. Three months later at another status conference, plaintiff’s counsel said they were ready to proceed to trial, but one of the defense counsel pointed out that plaintiff had made no attempt to proceed against the bankrupt entity. By February 2011, plaintiff’s counsel indicated he had authorization to retain New York counsel to seek relief from the bankruptcy stay as to the missing party. In October 2011, the bankruptcy court entered an order lifting the bankruptcy stay for the missing party as to the plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff amended her complaint to name the bankrupt entity in mid-November 2011, and trial was finally set for August 2012.

In May 2012, one group of defendants moved to dismiss the action under Section 583.310 on the grounds that it had been pending five years without being brought to trial. The trial court granted the motion and – concluding that violation of the five-year statute was jurisdictional – dismissed the remaining defendants as well. A divided Court of Appeal (Second District, Division Eight) affirmed in part and reversed in part.

The trial court declined to exclude the seven-month 2008 stay from the five-year calculation. The Court of Appeal agreed. The Supreme Court had held in Bruns v. E-Commerce Exchange, Inc. that a partial stay was not enough to pause the five-year clock, the court pointed out. Since the 2008 stay in Gaines exempted already-outstanding discovery, it was a partial stay, and Bruns governed. Nor were the defendants estopped from arguing that the 2008 stay counted in the calculation just because they had agreed to it.

The Court of Appeal further held that the trial court was within its discretion to find that it was not impossible, impractical or futile to bring the case to trial during the 2008 partial stay.  The plaintiff had failed to establish a causal connection between the stay and missing the five-year deadline, the court found. Moreover, even if the causal connection existed, the court agreed with the trial court’s finding that plaintiff had not been reasonably diligent at all times in prosecuting the case. Nor was the fact that certain defendants hadn’t formally joined the motion to dismiss a barrier to dismissal, the Court held. As long as those defendants were named in the original complaint, they were entitled to dismissal, even on the court’s own motion.

The Court of Appeal reversed the dismissal only with respect to the bankrupt defendant. That defendant had been named for the first time in the Fourth Amended Complaint, the court pointed out. There’s an additional wrinkle here for counsel to be aware of here, however. When a defendant is brought into the action by being identified as a previously sued Doe defendant, the five-year clock begins when the Doe defendant is sued, not when the defendant is finally identified.

Associate Justice Laurence D. Rubin dissented, writing that he would have reversed the trial court’s judgment in its entirety. Justice Rubin’s dissent is noteworthy to appellate practitioners for its initial section – a scholarly discussion of the abuse of discretion standard and its shortcomings as a guide for appellate decision-making.

We expect Gaines to be decided in eight to ten months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Alan Cleaver (no changes).