Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Time Limit for Trial Request After Fee Arbitration Strictly Construed
High Court Rules Unanimously That Late Filing Cannot Be Excused Under Sec. 473(b)
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A trial court cannot relieve a party of the consequences of failing to timely request a trial de novo following a mandatory attorney fee arbitration proceeding, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the court in a 6-0 decision, said the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. Two was wrong when it said the former clients of a San Diego attorney could seek to set aside a judgment entered against them after a fee arbitration proceeding.
The attorney, James N. Maynard, sued the Lakoo Kriya Church and the Institute of Spiritual Education and Evolution, along with two individuals, in Riverside Superior Court in 1999. Maynard, a disaffected member of the church who said he had resumed his long-abandoned legal career at the urging of its leaders, claimed he was owed more than $200,000 in fees.
The defendants invoked their right to arbitration under the state’s mandatory fee arbitration statute. A three-member arbitration panel found that Maynard and the church had renegotiated their fee agreement, setting the total amount of fees for all services rendered by the attorney at $120,000.
Finding that Maynard had already been paid $19,000, the panel awarded him $101,000. The defendants requested a trial de novo under the statute, but the request—although promptly served on the plaintiff—was not filed with the court within the 30 days allowed by the legislation.
The defendants moved for relief under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 473(b). They claimed that the expiration of the 30-day period was a result of mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. In support of the motion, defense counsel declared that the late filing was a result of his secretary having left work due to a death in her family.
Riverside Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask ruled that Sec. 473(b) did not permit the court to grant relief from the 30-day limit. She granted Maynard’s motion to confirm the award, and judgment was entered in the plaintiff’s favor.
Judicial Arbitration Analogy
In reversing, the Court of Appeal noted that the judicial arbitration statute and Rules of Court authorize Sec. 473(b) relief from failure to timely request trial de novo following a judicial arbitration award. Fee arbitration, the court reasoned, should not be treated differently.
Maynard and his former clients settled prior to oral argument in the Supreme Court, but the justices opted to decide the case under the “issues of continuing public importance” exception to the mootness doctrine.
Moreno, writing for the high court, noted that another Court of Appeal panel had reached a contrary conclusion in 1990 and concluded that panel was correct.
The justice concluded that the Legislature intended the 30-day limit to be jurisdictional, likening the request for trial de novo to a notice of appeal. Moreno cited a 1982 case in which the high court held that the time limit for filing a request for trial de novo following a labor commissioner’s ruling was jurisdictional, rendering Sec. 473 relief unavailable when the request was untimely.
The fee arbitration law and the labor commissioner statute, Moreno noted, both specify that an award is binding if trial de novo is not requested within the allotted time period. Thus, he wrote, the fee arbitration law “envisions the deadline for seeking a trial following fee arbitration as injecting a measure of finality into a dispute.”
Judicial arbitration is treated differently, he explained, because it is focused primarily on relieving court congestion, whereas the fee arbitration act “was enacted to address a disparity in bargaining power between clients and attorneys involved in fee disputes;” a disparity which would be exacerbated, the justice reasoned, if the parties had to go through additional court proceedings over a Sec. 473 motion.
The case is Maynard v. Brandon, 05 S.O.S. 3430.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company