California Supreme Court Restores Sanity to Summary Judgment Evidence Objections

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Until today, one of the most dysfunctional areas of litigation was the apparent requirement that a party who made written objections to evidence offered in a summary judgment proceeding had to force the trial judge to rule on the motions or was deemed to have waived the objection.  Aside from the questionable statutory basis for this rule, as a practical matter, the result often was a tense confrontation between the attorney, who was forced to press for a ruling in order not to waive the multitude of objections that had been made on paper, and the trial judge, who did not want to spend the time or effort deciding what often was an overwhelming number of inconsequential evidentiary issues.

In Reid v. Google Inc. (August 5, 2010) __ Cal.4th __ (Reid), common sense prevailed and the California Supreme Court ruled that (1) objections need only be made in writing, not also at the hearing, and (2) objections are deemed to be overruled if no actual ruling is made, rather than waived. The key distinction between having an objection overruled and having waived an objection is that an objection that has been overruled is preserved for appeal.

The genesis of the problem was California Civil Code §437c, subd. (b)(5), which states that “[e]videntiary objections not made at the hearing shall be deemed waived.” and Section 437c, subd. (d), which requires that any objections based on failure to establish a foundation “shall be made at the hearing or shall be deemed waived.”  As is recounted in Reid, two competing and confounding lines of cases dealing with these requirements caused uncertainty, annoyance and unjust results.

The first line of cases, based on the reasoning of Biljac Associates v. First Interstate Bank(1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 1410, 1419 (Biljac), excused the trial court judge from having to make specific rulings on objections.  In Biljac, the plaintiff sought trial court rulings on the voluminous objections he had filed, but the judge refused, calling that “a horrendous, incredibly time-consuming task” that “would serve very little useful purpose.”  On appeal, the plaintiff argued that this was reversible error, but the Court of Appeal held that express rulings were not needed because the objections would be renewed de novo on appeal.  Under Biljac, it was enough that the judge said the ruling was based only on competent and admissible evidence.

However, in two cases that ignored Biljac, the Supreme Court held that if an attorney did not actually obtain specific rulings on objections, the objections were waived and not preserved for appeal.  Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center(1993) 6 Cal.4th 666 (Ann M.); Sharon P. v. Arman, Ltd.(1999) 21 Cal.4th 1181, 1186-1187, footnote 1 (Sharon P.).)  Under this theory, ostensibly based on a reading of the summary judgment statute §437c, if there was no specific ruling on meritorious objections, the appeal would be decided as if the evidence had been admissible.

Chaos ensued, as many courts of appeal disapproved Biljac, some finding waiver, some ruling on the objections and some sending the case back to the trial court to make rulings.  A particularly preposterous development, referred to in Reid as the “stamp and scream” rule, required attorneys to avoid waiver by asking for a ruling with sufficient vigor at the hearing, even if no ruling was obtained as a result.  See e.g.City of Long Beach v. Farmers & Merchants Bank(2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 780, 783-785.

Reid, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Chin, settles this confusion based on a combination of the history of the summary judgment statute and common sense.  The first problem is the requirement that objections be made “at the hearing.”  Although the statute allows objections to either be in writing five days before the hearing or orally at the hearing, appellate courts were divided on whether written objections were made “at the hearing” or if they had to be orally reiterated.  Reid reasons that at a hearing, the court considers memoranda, arguments and evidentiary objections, so, “written evidentiary objections made before the hearing, as well as oral objections made at the hearing are deemed made ―at the hearing under section 437c, subdivisions (b)(5) and (d), so that either method of objection avoids waiver.” (Slip Op. at 23.)

Next, Reid requires the trial court to rule on the motions, but holds that if no ruling is obtained, the objections are deemed to be overruled.  Contrary to Ann M. and Sharon P., the objections are preserved for appeal and are not waived.
Stating that it has “become common practice for litigants to flood the trial courts with inconsequential written evidentiary objections, without focusing on those that are critical,” the court encouraged litigants “to raise only meritorious objections to items of evidence that are legitimately in dispute and pertinent to the disposition of the summary judgment motion. In other words, litigants should focus on the objections that really count. Otherwise, they may face informal reprimands or formal sanctions for engaging in abusive practices.”  (Slip Op. at 24.)

Surely, this is the ruling for which all litigators had hoped.  Summary judgment hearings had become needlessly tedious and were not focused on the key issues.  Moreover, at the same time an attorney was trying to persuade a judge on the merits, the attorney also had to annoy the judge by pressing for evidentiary rulings.  Any summary judgment motion contains many more points than can be discussed at a hearing.  Now one can focus on the key points without the danger of waiving the ones that are only in the papers.

Originally posted on the Cooper, White & Cooper LLP web site.

California Supreme Court

~ by skaus on August 7, 2010.

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