Friday, June 27, 2003
State High Court Clarifies Deadline for Filing New Trial Motion
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Service of a copy of the file-stamped and dated judgment is sufficient to trigger the 15-day period in which a motion for new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict must be brought, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
Resolving an issue that had confused practitioners and judges and resulted in conflicting decisions from the Court of Appeal, the justices said it is not necessary to have a “notice of entry of judgment” issued by the clerk in order to start the clock running, at least not in counties that no longer use the archaic “judgment book.”
The immediate impact of the decision is to reinstate a $790,000 jury verdict in favor of a longtime GTE California employee who sued the company for sexual harassment and false imprisonment after a run-in with two supervisors.
An order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Farrell throwing out the sexual harassment award and cutting the false imprisonment damages from $175,000 to $35,0000 was reversed for lack of jurisdiction.
The jury verdict followed a lengthy trial that ended in February 1999. Judgment was entered on Feb. 24 of that year and an attorney for the plaintiff, Debbie Palmer, mailed a conformed copy two days later.
Both defense counsel and the court clerk informed the plaintiff’s attorney that he needed to prepare and serve a notice of entry of judgment and to file it with proof of service attached. Counsel did so on March 10, attaching proof of the earlier service as well as of the service by mail of the notice of entry itself.
GTE filed its motions attacking the verdict on March 21—14 days after the notice of entry was filed, but 26 days after counsel was served with the conformed copy of the judgment. After Farrell granted the motions in part, the plaintiff unsuccessfully moved to strike his orders for lack of jurisdiction citing Code of Civil Procedure Secs. 659 and 660.
The statutes require that a motion for JNOV or notice of intent to move for new trial be brought within a jurisdictional limit of 15 days after “service...by any party of written notice of entry of judgment.” The judge must rule on the motions within 60 days of such service; otherwise the motions are deemed denied by operation of law.
In Palmer’s case, the Court of Appeal ruled that the motions were untimely, and that in any event, the trial court had lost jurisdiction under Sec. 660 because it did not rule until 66 days after the plaintiff’s attorney served the conformed copy.
In doing so, it rejected GTE’s contention that the 15-day and 60-day periods are not triggered until Sec. 664.5 is complied with.
The Supreme Court yesterday agreed with the lower panel.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, explained that prior to 1974, every superior court was required to maintain a book containing a notation of every judgment entered by the court. A judgment was not considered entered until it was entered in this judgment book, which might come several days after it was placed in the court file.
Under a legislative amendment, however, counties were given the option—which most, if not all, counties have taken, Kennard noted—of doing away with the judgment book. In these counties, a judgment is considered entered as soon as it is filed, but must first be entered in the register of actions, microfilmed, or entered in a data processing system.
Legislative History Cited
Subsequent to that change, the justice explained, the Legislature adopted the present version of Sec. 664.5. The purpose, she said, was to spare counties the cost of having the court clerk mail the notice of entry in every case; the legislative history, Kennard noted, shows that lawmakers chose not to address the issue of what event triggers the time limits for new trial and JNOV motions.
Nor has the Legislature addressed the issue since, and Court of Appeal decisions in the intervening years have been in conflict, the justice noted.
“Like the Court of Appeal here, we conclude that under the express terms of sections 629, 659, and 660, the time limits for bringing and ruling on motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict start to run either on the date of the court clerk’s mailing or on the date of service on the moving party of notice of entry of judgment,” she wrote.
The case is Palmer v. GTE California, Inc., 03 S.O.S. 3311.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company