15 Chap. L. Rev. 693 (No PDF)
Chapman Law Review
DIGEST: BRUNS V. E-COMMERCE EXCHANGE, INC.
Copyright (c) 2012 Chapman Law Review; Jaspreet Kaur
Opinion by Chin, J., with Cantil-Sakauye, C.J., Kennard, J., Baxter, J., Werdegar, J., Moreno, J., and Corrigan, J.
Does only a complete stay of all proceedings toll the running of the five-year period in which a case must be brought to trial under section 583.310 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, or does a partial stay of specific proceedings also toll the running of the five-year period?
On February 22, 2000, Dana Bruns filed a lawsuit against several defendants alleging that the defendants transmitted advertisements via telephone facsimile machine in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. On November 22, 2006, one defendant filed a motion to dismiss the action as Bruns had failed to bring the action to trial within five years of its commencement as required under section 583.310 of the California Code of Civil Procedure. Bruns argued, however, that under section 583.340(b) or 583.340(c), certain periods of time in which litigation was stayed must be excluded in calculating the five-year period. After hearing the parties’ briefing regarding the litigation that Bruns sought to exclude from the five-year period, the trial judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
Bruns appealed the decision. In reversing the dismissal, the court of appeal held that under section 583.340(b), in addition to excluding a complete stay of all proceedings, the periods of time in which a partial stay of proceedings was granted must also be excluded when calculating the five-year period. This brought the total time period to less than five years, thus not mandating a dismissal of Bruns’ action. The dissenting justice, however, argued that it was the intent of the Legislature for the language of section 583.340 to apply only to a complete stay of all proceedings. The Supreme Court of California granted review.
The court began by noting the sections of the Code of Civil Procedure at issue. Section 583.310 states that “[a]n action shall be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant.” Section 583.340 delineates instances in which time must be excluded when determining the five-year period. It states, in part:
In computing the time within which an action must be brought to trial pursuant to this article, there shall be excluded the time during which any of the following conditions existed: . . . (b) Prosecution or trial of the action was stayed or enjoined. (c) Bringing the action to trial, for any other reason, was impossible, impracticable, or futile.
The court noted that the parties did not dispute whether the lawsuit was an “action.” In this case, the action was commenced on February 22, 2000, when Bruns filed her initial complaint. The court further noted that the parties did not dispute that the action was not brought to trial within five years of the commencement date.
The court then reviewed the interpretation of section 583.340(b) de novo. The court first looked to the language of the statute in the context of the statutory framework. It found that the actual language does not definitively state that a partial stay is excluded from the five-year period, as the statute only refers to a “stay.” In Holland v. Dave Altman’s R.V. Center, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District held that a stay is “an indefinite postponement of an act of the operation of some consequence, pending the occurrence of a designated event” or a “suspension of the case or some designated proceedings within it.” However, the court distinguished Holland from the current case, rejecting Bruns’ argument. The court found that Holland did not address whether the prosecution of an action was stayed under section 583.340(b) when a designated proceeding in a case, other than the trial, was stayed. Rather, Holland gave examples of instances in which a case could not be brought to trial, such as when the court lacks jurisdiction or if there is a court order barring the trial.
Finding that the term “stay” was ambiguous, the court analyzed what must be stayed. Since trial was never stayed, the court focused on the term “prosecution,” stating that it has legally been defined “[a]s applied to actions or suits generally, [as] the following up or carrying on of an action or suit already commenced until the remedy be attained . . . .” The court acknowledged that the term “prosecution” in its broadest sense encompasses all proceedings in an action. In Wong v. Earle C. Anthony, Inc., the court noted that “prosecution” includes every step from the commencement of an action to the final determination. Relying on Wong, the court in Melancon v. Superior Court further noted that even depositions are considered a step in the prosecution of the action. However, the court rejected the court of appeal’s reasoning and distinguished Wong and Melancon from the issue at hand in Bruns’ case. The court specified that Melancon only held that the entire action, including all steps such as the taking of depositions, is stayed when a motion to post security is filed. Neither the Wong court nor the Melancon court considered the issue of whether only a complete stay of all the proceedings tolls the running of the five-year period in which a case must be brought to trial.
The court then looked at the statute as a whole to determine the legislative scheme. It noted that when section 583.340(b) is read together with section 583.340(c), it becomes clear that section 583.340(b) provides a bright-line, nondiscretionary rule that excludes only times in which all proceedings in action are stayed when calculating the five-year time period. The court reasoned that it is subsection (c) that gives the trial court discretion to exclude other periods, such as partial stays, when the court finds that bringing the action to trial was “impossible, impracticable, or futile.” Of course, if a complete stay is in effect, as contemplated in subsection (b), it is impossible to bring the action to trial. On the other hand, the effect of a partial stay can vary, and may or may not make it “impossible, impracticable, or futile” to bring the action to trial.
The court further bolstered its finding that 583.340(b) applies only to complete stays of all proceedings by comparing the statute’s language to another statute which the Legislature passed at the same time. Section 583.210 provides the time frame within which the summons and complaint must be served upon the defendant after the commencement of the action. This provision is similar to the time period in section 583.310 in which a case must be brought to trial. The Legislature also enacted a provision that provides exclusions for computing the time period within which the summons and complaint must be served. Section 583.240 states that “[i]n computing the time within which service must be made pursuant to this article, there shall be excluded the time during which any of the following conditions existed: . . . (b) The prosecution of the action or proceedings in the action was stayed . . . .” The fact that the Legislature added the phrase “or proceedings” in section 583.240 indicates that the Legislature knew how to reference a partial stay as opposed to a complete stay. Therefore, because the Legislature included the term “or proceedings” in one provision but failed to include it in another provision of the same bill, there is a compelling inference that section 583.340(b) refers only to a complete stay of all proceedings.
The court further noted that the legislative history of section 583.340(b) and related statutes that were also enacted in 1984 supports the conclusion that section 583.340(b) refers only to a complete stay of all proceedings in a case. The California Law Review Commission sought to add these provisions to “clarify ambiguities in the law, to bring the statute into conformity with case law interpreting them, and to reconcile discrepancies in statutes and cases.” The existing statutes conflicted with the strong public policy of dismissing litigation on the merits rather than on procedural grounds. Due to this conflict, there had been continuous appellate litigation which resulted in many exceptions to the dismissal statutes. The court also pointed to the Law Review Commission’s comment to section 583.340(b) to support the interpretation that the subsection applies only to complete stays. The comment states that the subsection codifies existing case law, and cites only one case, Marcus v. Superior Court. In Marcus, the appellate court stayed all judicial proceedings until arbitration was completed. As a result, the court found that because Marcus was the only case that was cited and it involved only a complete stay of all proceedings, it was the intent of the Legislature that subsection (b) apply only in instances when all proceedings in an action are stayed.
After finding that section 583.340(b) applies only to complete stays of all proceedings in an action, the court turned to the interpretation of section 583.340(c). The court noted that partial stays are not automatically excluded from the five-year time limit, but are instead governed by section 583.340(c), which excludes any time period that makes it “impossible, impracticable, or futile” to bring the case to trial. In determining whether bringing the case to trial is “impossible, impracticable, or futile,” the trial court must look at all the circumstances surrounding the case, including the nature of the case and the parties’ actions and conduct. The “critical factor” in making such a determination is “whether the plaintiff exercised reasonable diligence in prosecuting his or her case.” However, the plaintiff’s reasonable diligence is not enough in itself to preclude an involuntary dismissal, but is instead just one factor. Moreover, the court noted that delays due to ordinary “incidents of proceedings, like disposition of demurrer, amendment of pleadings, and the normal time of waiting for a place on the court’s calendar are not within the contemplation of these exceptions.” The court found that because the question of impossibility, impracticability, and futility is a fact-sensitive analysis, it is best left to the discretion of the trial court.
The court reversed the court of appeal and remanded the matter to the court of appeal for further proceedings. The court held that section 583.340(b) only excluded a complete stay of all proceedings from the five-year time limit in which a plaintiff must bring an action to trial. Therefore, Bruns could not rely on section 583.340(b) to exclude the partial stays in calculating the total time period. The court further held that partial stays are to be governed, if at all, by section 583.340(c). Because the court of appeal did not consider whether section 583.340(c) applied to the time periods that Bruns sought to exclude, the court remanded the matter to the court of appeal to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in excluding any or all of the time periods under section 583.340(c).
The court’s decision provides a bright line, non-discretionary rule that only complete stays of all proceedings are to be excluded when calculating the five-year time period in which a case must be brought to trial under section 583.310 of the California Code of Civil Procedure. However, it is still possible to have partial stays excluded provided that such partial stays made it “impossible, impracticable, or futile” to bring the action to trial, a determination that is left to the discretion of the trial judge.