Appeals/Post-Trial Matters Civil Litigation Legal Topics

Cautionary Tale: When a Stipulated Continuance Won’t Save You from Untimeliness

170446161A recent case shows what happened when counsel stipulated to a continuance that took the ruling on a motion to vacate a default judgment past the jurisdictional time limit. It’s the tale of a big win, followed by a crushing loss. And it was an issue of first impression, so arguably counsel couldn’t have seen it coming.

Under CCP §663a(b), a trial court’s power to rule on a motion to vacate a judgment expires 60 days after (1) service of notice of entry of judgment or (2) service of the first notice of intention to move to vacate, whichever occurs first. The statute further provides that the trial court’s failure to rule within that period automatically results in a denial of the motion without further court order.

In Garibotti v Hinkle (Dec. 29, 2015, G048680) 2015 Cal App Lexis 1163, plaintiff got a default judgment against defendant for a total of almost a half a million dollars. Two months later, defendant got a new attorney and filed a motion to vacate the judgment. The trial court granted the motion and cut the damage amount way down to just under $50,000. Both sides appealed.

Things went very badly for defendant on appeal. The appellate court found that the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion to vacate and the revised judgment were void because the trial court didn’t rule within the statutorily mandated 60-day period. Defendant filed and served his motion to vacate on March 18, 2013, thereby triggering the 60-day period in the statute’s second prong. But the trial court didn’t rule on the motion until June 12, 2013, nearly 90 days later.

And why didn’t the court rule on time? Because the trial court, which had originally set the hearing on the motion within the 60-day period, then entered an order continuing the hearing to a date outside the period based on a stipulation of the parties requesting the new hearing date.

On an issue of first impression, the court of appeal held that trial court lacks authority to extend §663a(b)’s time limit for ruling on a motion to vacate the judgment, even with both parties’ consent. This is a jurisdictional time limit, like the time limit in CCP §660 for ruling on a motion for new trial. And there’s no equitable exception or relief, such as estoppel, from the harsh consequences of the trial court’s failure to rule on time.

Defense counsel learned a hard lesson: When it comes to jurisdictional limits, you can’t use a consensual stipulation for a continuance—even one accepted by the court—to get out of a deadline.

Don’t find yourself the center of a cautionary tale! Get guidance on the timing and procedures for motions to vacate, as well as other post-trial motions, in CEB’s California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial, chap 25.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

2 replies on “Cautionary Tale: When a Stipulated Continuance Won’t Save You from Untimeliness”

Ah, shades of Bowles v. Russell. An infamous 2007 SCOTUS case where a U.S. District Court judge granted a request for an extension of time to file a notice of appeal on a denied habeas petition. The law allowed for a 14-day extension; the judge granted a 17-day extension (probably just a calendaring error), and the defendant filed his notice of appeal on the 16th day, in reliance on the federal judge’s order. The Supreme Court ruled, in 5-4 decision with an opinion by Clarence Thomas, that notwithstanding the defendant’s compliance with the judge’s order, the appeals court had no jurisdiction to entertain the appeal.

A most unfair result, in my opinion, holding a person’s reliance on what he was told by the judge against him, and putting the most technical of technicalities above the merits of the case. The dissent said “The District Court told petitioner Keith Bowles that his notice of appeal was due on February 27, 2004. He filed a notice of appeal on February 26, only to be told that he was too late because his deadline had actually been February 24. It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for condoning this bait and switch.”

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