51 Cal.4th 717, S172684, Bruns v. E-Commerce Exchange, Inc.

Docket NºS172684.
Citation51 Cal.4th 717, 248 P.3d 1185, 122 Cal.Rptr.3d 331
Opinion JudgeCHIN, J.
Party NameDana BRUNS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. E-COMMERCE EXCHANGE, INC., et al., Defendants and Respondents.
Attorney[122 Cal.Rptr.3d 334] Law Offices of Kevin M. Tripi and Kevin M. Tripi, Irvine, for Plaintiff and Appellant. Horvitz & Levy, Bradley S. Pauley, Robert H. Wright, Encino; Bremer Whyte Brown & O'Meara, Nicole Whyte, Stephanie N. Rachel and Alison Hurley, Newport Beach, for Defendant and Respondent ...
Judge PanelWE CONCUR: CANTIL-SAKAUYE, C.J., KENNARD, BAXTER, WERDEGAR, MORENO, and CORRIGAN, JJ.
Case DateFebruary 28, 2011
CourtSupreme Court of California

Page 717

51 Cal.4th 717

248 P.3d 1185, 122 Cal.Rptr.3d 331

Dana BRUNS, Plaintiff and Appellant,

v.

E-COMMERCE EXCHANGE, INC., et al., Defendants and Respondents.

No. S172684.

Supreme Court of California

February 28, 2011

Page 718

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[122 Cal.Rptr.3d 334] Law Offices of Kevin M. Tripi and Kevin M. Tripi, Irvine, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Horvitz & Levy, Bradley S. Pauley, Robert H. Wright, Encino; Bremer Whyte Brown & O'Meara, Nicole Whyte, Stephanie N. Rachel and Alison Hurley, Newport Beach, for Defendant and Respondent E-Commerce Exchange, Inc.

Duane Morris, Max H. Stern, W. Andrew Miller and Jessica E. La Londe, San Francisco, for Defendants and Respondents CSB Partnership, Chris & Tad Enterprises, CSB & Ellison, LLC, CSB & Hinckley, LLC, CSB & Humbach, LLC, CSB & McCray, LLC, and CSB & Perez, LLC.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, Jon Steiger, G. Lisa Wick, David E. Azar, Andrea L. Manka and Jon Cederberg, Los Angeles, for Defendant and Respondent Flagstar Bank, FSB.

Casello & Lincoln and James H. Casello, Santa Ana, for Defendants and Respondents Clayton Shurley, Elliot McCrosky, Daniel Quon and Fax.com, Inc.

CHIN, J.

Page 721

[248 P.3d 1188] Code of Civil Procedure section 583.310,1 which governs the action plaintiff dana bruns BROUGHT AGAINST defendants E-Commerce Exchange, Inc., et al., requires an action " be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant." Otherwise, dismissal of the action is " mandatory and ... not subject to extension, excuse, or exception except as expressly provided by statute." (§ 583.360, subd. (b).) In this case, we must construe two statutory exclusions to the five-year period, specifically those stated in section 583.340, subdivisions (b) and(c).2

[122 Cal.Rptr.3d 335] First, in computing the time within which an action must be brought to trial, courts must exclude the time during which " [p]rosecution or trial of the action was stayed or enjoined." (§ 583.340(b).) During the nearly seven years that plaintiff's case was pending before it was dismissed, the trial court ordered stays of all the proceedings in plaintiff's action, as well as partial stays, such as stays of discovery and other specific proceedings. We first address whether a stay of the " prosecution" of the action under section 583.340(b) includes a stay of specific proceedings, such as a stay of

Page 722

discovery, while other aspects of the action may go forward. We conclude, contrary to the Court of Appeal, that the prosecution of an action is stayed under subdivision (b) only when the stay encompasses all proceedings in the action.

Second, in computing the time within which an action must be brought to trial, courts must exclude the time during which " [b]ringing the action to trial, for any other reason, was impossible, impracticable, or futile." (§ 583.340(c).) We will discuss the standard trial courts should employ under section 583.340(c) and the standard of appellate review of a trial court's ruling under that provision. Finally, we will remand the matter to the Court of Appeal to review the trial court's ruling in a manner consistent with our opinion.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On February 22, 2000, plaintiff Dana Bruns filed a suit against a number of defendants for allegedly transmitting advertisements by telephone facsimile machine that violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. (47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(C).)

On November 22, 2006, one defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff's fifth amended complaint because the five-year period for plaintiff to bring her action to trial had elapsed. The other defendants joined the motion. In response, plaintiff argued that certain periods of time had to be excluded from the five-year period under subdivision (b) or (c), or both, of section 583.340. 3 On [248 P.3d 1189] January 25, 2007, after hearing the motion to dismiss, the court stayed all proceedings and requested briefing regarding the specific litigation that had taken place during the periods plaintiff claimed should be excluded from the five-year period. Ultimately, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss.

Plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed the dismissal and remanded the matter to the trial court. It held that periods of time in which there was a partial stay of proceedings had to be excluded from the five-year period under 583.340(b), which reduced the total elapsed time to less than five years. The dissenting justice concluded that the Legislature intended the stay language in section 583.340 to involve only a " complete, as distinguished from a partial, stay." We granted review.

Page 723

II. DISCUSSION

" An action shall be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant." (§ 583.310.) Section 583.340, the statute at issue here, provides as relevant: " 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 [122 Cal.Rptr.3d 336] the action was stayed or enjoined. [¶ ] (c) Bringing the action to trial, for any other reason, was impossible, impracticable, or futile." We must construe both subdivision (b) and subdivision (c) of this section.

The parties do not dispute that this lawsuit is an " action" within the meaning of these provisions. " As used in this chapter, unless the provision or context otherwise requires: [¶ ] (a) ‘ Action’ includes an action commenced by cross-complaint or other pleading that asserts a cause of action or claim for relief." (§ 583.110, subd. (a).) This action was commenced on February 22, 2000, when plaintiff filed the original complaint. (See Bank of America v. Superior Court (1988) 200 Cal.App.3d 1000, 1010-1011, 246 Cal.Rptr. 521 [an action is commenced within the meaning of section 583.310 upon the filing of the plaintiff's original complaint].) It is also undisputed that this action was not brought to trial within five years of this date. " ‘ A " trial" within the meaning of section 583 is the determina[tion] of an issue of law or fact which brings the action to the stage where final disposition can be made.’ [Citation.]" ( Briley v. Sukoff (1979) 98 Cal.App.3d 405, 410, 159 Cal.Rptr. 452.) A case is brought to trial if it has been assigned to a department for trial, it is called for trial, the attorneys have answered that they are ready for trial, and proceedings begin, even if the proceeding is a motion for judgment on the pleadings. ( Katleman v. Katleman (1959) 175 Cal.App.2d 493, 496-497, 346 P.2d 218.) In an action tried to a jury, the action is brought to trial when the jury is impaneled and sworn. ( Hartman v. Santamarina (1982) 30 Cal.3d 762, 765-767, 180 Cal.Rptr. 337, 639 P.2d 979.) None of this had happened by the time defendants filed their motion to dismiss under section 583.340, more than five years after plaintiff filed the complaint.

But plaintiff argues that certain periods should have been excluded from the statutory time, reducing the elapsed time from commencement of the action to less than five years. The Court of Appeal agreed with plaintiff. It held, and plaintiff argues, that " a partial stay of an action constitutes a stay of the prosecution of the action within the meaning of section 583.340, subdivision (b)."

We will first discuss the proper interpretation of section 583.340(b). Because we conclude it applies only when a stay encompasses all proceedings in the action and does not include partial stays, we will also discuss the extent to which section 583.340(c) may apply.

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A. Code of Civil Procedure section 583.340(b)

We must decide whether section 583.340(b) applies to a stay of any part of the proceeding or only to a complete stay of the entire action. Statutory interpretation is a question of law that we review de novo. ( Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (1999) 20 Cal.4th 509, 531, 85 Cal.Rptr.2d 257, 976 P.2d 808.) " Our fundamental task in interpreting a statute is to determine the Legislature's intent so as to effectuate the law's purpose. We first examine [248 P.3d 1190] the statutory language, giving it a plain and commonsense meaning. We do not examine that language in isolation, but in the context of the statutory framework as a whole in order to determine its scope and purpose and to harmonize the various parts of the enactment. If the language is clear, courts must generally follow its plain meaning unless a literal interpretation would result in absurd consequences the Legislature did not intend. If the statutory language permits more than one reasonable interpretation, courts may consider other aids, such as the statute's purpose, legislative [122 Cal.Rptr.3d 337] history, and public policy." ( Coalition of Concerned Communities, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2004) 34 Cal.4th 733, 737, 21 Cal.Rptr.3d 676, 101 P.3d 563.)

Section 583.340(b)'s language does not definitively answer whether partial stays generally are excluded from the five-year period under section 583.340. It provides that those times must be excluded from the five-year time period in which " [p]rosecution or trial of the action was stayed or enjoined." (§ 583.340(b).) Nothing was enjoined in this case, so the operative word here is " stayed." The term " stay," by itself, could refer to either a partial or a complete cessation of proceedings. A stay " freezes" a court's proceedings at a particular point. (Black's Law Dict. (5th ed. 1979) p. 1267, col. 1.) " It can be used to stop the prosecution of the action altogether, or to hold up only some phase of it, such as an execution about to be levied on a judgment." ( Ibid., italics added.).

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