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February 28, 2017

CA Appeals Court Finds “Abuse of Discretion” Where Trial Court Fails to Continue Summary Judgment Hearing

John Austin

A California Court of Appeals panel overturned a defendant’s uncontested motion for summary judgment where the trial court abused its discretion by failing to accommodate counsels’ joint request for a further 60-day continuance. In Hamilton v. Orange County Sheriff's Dept., Cal. App. 5th (No. G051773. Fourth Dist., Div. Three. Feb. 7, 20170, the court of appeals found that the plaintiff’s counsel was not “optimally diligent” but that the refusal of the continuance and grant of summary judgment created a “substantial injustice.”

Under California law, a plaintiff may seek a continuance under the ordinary discretionary standard applied to requests for a continuance. (Mahoney v. Southland Mental Health Associates Medical Group (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 167, 170.) This requires a showing of good cause. “[I]n deciding whether to continue a summary judgment to permit additional discovery courts consider various factors, including (1) how long the case has been pending; (2) how long the requesting party had to oppose the motion; (3) whether the continuance motion could have been made earlier; (4) the proximity of the trial date or the 30-day discovery cutoff before trial; (5) any prior continuances for the same reason; and (6) the question whether the evidence sought is truly essential to the motion,” wrote the court, citing Chavez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., 238 Cal.App.4th 632, 644 (2015). The court found that the plaintiff made a showing of good cause:

Plaintiff sought to depose the witnesses who submitted declarations in conjunction with the summary judgment motion. These witnesses were obviously essential to the motion. Those depositions were noticed a month and a half prior to the opposition due date. Defense counsel was in trial at that time, and as a courtesy plaintiff’s counsel agreed to postpone the depositions. When plaintiff's counsel sought deposition dates again towards the end of December, he was ignored by defense counsel for two weeks. Then defense counsel, in an apparent concession of fault, stipulated to a continuance. While that stipulation was, of course, not binding on the court, principles of encouraging civility, encouraging the settlement discussions that were ongoing, and disposing of cases on their merits counseled in favor of accepting it, absent some good reason for rejecting it.

 The trial court found a lack of diligence. The court concluded “this relatively minor lack of diligence did not justify the substantial injustice the court’s order created….  Defendant obtained a judgment not on the merits of the case, but on its ability to postpone depositions past the point of no return.”

John Austin

Principal at John Austin Law Firm in Raleigh, North Carolina.