Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Judicial Council Relaxes Disposition Goals Under Fast-Track Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Judicial Council of California yesterday relaxed the goal of fast-track rules, dropping the percentage of cases to be disposed of within one year from 90 percent to 75 percent.
The change comes on the same day the Fourth District Court of Appeal ordered publication of a ruling that fast-track rules must give way if they conflict with a party’s right to sufficient time to prepare and serve a summary judgment motion.
The two developments were hailed by Robert Harrison, president of the Association of Southern California Defense Council. Harrison, a partner with Neil, Dymott, Perkins, Brown & Frank in San Diego, said defense lawyers had been encountering particular difficulty in dealing with the deadlines because they are often not served until weeks or months after a case has been filed.
The goals change, which had been recommended by a special “blue ribbon” panel, was intended to provide trial courts with more flexibility, Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who chairs the council, said in a statement.
The rules retain the goal of disposing of all cases within two years.
“Since delay reduction rules were first adopted statewide more than a decade ago, California courts have dramatically reduced the time to trial in civil cases,” George’s statement said. “The new rules will provide courts with greater flexibility in meeting the goals of the delay reduction program and will improve the courts’ ability to continue to resolve cases fairly and expeditiously.”
George appointed the Blue Ribbon Panel of Experts on the Fair and Efficient Administration of Civil Cases in February. It was chaired by Justice Richard D. Aldrich of Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal.
The new rules will take effect Jan. 1. According to the Judicial Council, they will:
-Provide explicit criteria for setting civil cases for trial so that courts can focus on the need of each individual case.
•Provide a clear and practical good cause standard for granting continuances of trial dates.
•Modify the goal for disposing of civil cases over $25,000, so that 75 percent are disposed of within 12 months after filing, rather than 90 percent.
•Provide that all civil case management rules are “to be applied in a fair, practical, and flexible manner so as to achieve to ends of justice.”
The Trial Court Delay Reduction Act was enacted on a pilot basis in 1987 and was extended to all civil cases in the early 1990s. At the time the act was passed, many civil cases were taking up to five years to get to trial, and many courts had large backlogs of civil cases waiting for trial.
By fiscal year 2001–2002, according to figures provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, 65 percent of cases over $25,000 and 85 percent of cases under $25,000 were disposed of within one year.
Publication of the Fourth District ruling, filed Sept. 24, had been sought by the defense lawyers’ group.
The opinion by Div. Three Presiding Justice David G. Sills addresses the tension between fast track rules and amendments to the Code of Civil Procedure last year lengthening the notice required for summary judgment motions from 28 to 75 days. The new summary judgment timelines under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 437c took effect Jan. 1.
Sills wrote that the two-year fast track rule, codified in Rule 208(b) of the California Rules of Court and Sec. 2.1(c)(3) of the California Standards of Judicial Administration, “by its terms, is merely a ‘goal’ and courts are only directed that they ‘should’ process all cases within two years of filing.”
The presiding justice said Orange Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk erred in denying a six-month continuance sought by Polibrid Coatings, Inc., which was named as a defendant in an amended cross-complaint filed 14 months into litigation over alleged defects in work on a water reclamation plant.
Perk granted a four-month continuance, but declined to push the trial date beyond this month, which will mark two years from when the case was originally filed.
The continuance granted by Perk was not long enough to allow Polibrid to conduct discovery and prepare and serve a summary judgment motion under Sec. 437c, which also requires that the motion be heard at least 30 days before trial, Sills explained.
Polibrid “was correct...when it asserted that the fast track rules must give way to the statutory right to bring a summary judgment motion,” Sills declared, adding:
“When state rules conflict with statutes, it is the state rule that must give way.”
Justices William F. Rylaarsdam and Richard D. Fybel concurred. The case is Polibrid Coatings, Inc. v. Superior Court (SSC Construction, Inc.), G032459.
The tension between fast track rules and the new summary judgment timelines have been a subject of considerable discussion among civil litigators.
The Los Angles County Bar Association sponsored a resolution at this year’s meeting of the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations calling for reinstatement of the 28-day notice period. After other delegations at the conference in Anaheim early this month argued it was too soon to conclude the longer deadline was unworkable, the resolution was amended to call for an amendment to Sec. 437c clarifying that judges have discretion to order the notice period shortened.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company