Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, January 14, 2004


Page 1


C.A. Mandates Oral Argument of Summary Judgment Motions


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


A trial judge cannot rule on a summary judgment motion without affording the parties an opportunity for oral argument, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Recent amendments to the summary judgment statute make it clear that an opportunity to argue the motion is required, Justice Judith Haller wrote for Div. One. Dicta in a 1995 opinion, in which Haller concurred and which suggested that a hearing with oral argument was not always required, is no longer pertinent, the justice said.

Yesterday’s decision grants a writ of mandate directing San Diego Superior Court Judge Charles Hayes to hold a hearing on the summary judgment motion filed on behalf of the defendants in a personal injury action.

Duane and Wayne Brannon and entities owned by them claim they are not liable for injures suffered by Dario Crippen as a result of an accident involving a well-drilling rig. The defendants argued that because Crippen was an independent contractor, and they did not own the rig, there is no legal basis for liability.

Local Rule

Pursuant to local rule, the judge issued a “telephonic” ruling denying the motion and declaring that oral argument would not be entertained. The defendants then brought their writ petition, asserting substantive objections as well as their procedural contention that it was error for the judge not to hear oral argument.

The Court of Appeal only ruled on the procedural issue.

Haller cited Mediterranean Construction Co. v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 257, a decision of the Fourth District’s Div. Three. The court there held that the statutory requirements that a “hearing” be held and that the motion be “heard” mean that oral argument must be allowed.

The statute cannot be satisfied by “posting a ruling on a locked courtroom door or telephoning litigants with an ex cathedra decision,” since-retired Justice Thomas Crosby wrote on that occasion.

Precedent Acknowledged

Haller acknowledged that the Supreme Court, in Lewis v. Superior Court (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1232, held that identical language in the statutes governing writs of mandate and prohibition do not require that the court entertain oral argument before granting a peremptory writ.

But Lewis was based on the legislative intent behind the specific statutes, Haller noted, pointing out that the Supreme Court explicitly declined to address the validity of Mediterranean or of Div. One’s contrary suggestion in Sweat v. Hollister (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 603.

The usual expectation in law and motion practice, Haller said, is that oral argument will be allowed unless waived with the approval of the court. The California Rules of Court, the justice pointed out, provide in several places for “oral” proceedings on motions, for “hearings” at which appearances are mandatory in the absence of court approval, for the presence of a court reporter at a hearing at which evidentiary objections will be raised, and for the presentation of oral evidence at a “hearing.”

The justice also cited the 2002 legislation extending the time frame in which to respond to a summary judgment motion. In taking that action, lawmakers recognized that “both the moving and opposing parties have substantial rights at stake in the procedure” and are entitled to “a full and fair opportunity to address the merits of a summary judgment,” Haller said.

“Providing parties with the opportunity to orally argue summary judgment motions substantially promotes this legislative objective,” the justice declared. “An oral hearing on a summary judgment motion will ensure the parties’ critical pretrial rights are protected by providing the parties with an opportunity to address perceived legal and factual misconceptions in the court’s tentative rulings, and will also enhance the quality of justice, reduce the need for appellate and/or writ review, and promote the appearance of fairness.”

The case is Brannon v. Superior Court (Crippen), 04 S.O.S 177.


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