Landry v. Berryessa Union School Dist., H013458

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Citation46 Cal.Rptr.2d 119,39 Cal.App.4th 691
Decision Date25 October 1995
Docket NumberNo. H013458,H013458
Parties, 104 Ed. Law Rep. 446, 95 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 8375, 95 Daily Journal D.A.R. 14,360 Terry LANDRY, a minor, etc., et. al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. BERRYESSA UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant and Respondent.

Jessie Serna, San Jose, for appellants.

Rankin, Luckhardt, Vandeweghe, Landsness & Lahde and Michael C. Serverian, San Jose, for respondent.

ELIA, Associate Justice.

In this action for assault and battery and negligence, the trial court denied the minor plaintiffs' request for trial preference (Code Civ.Proc., § 36, subd. (b)) and granted defendant school district's motion to dismiss for delay in prosecution. (Code Civ.Proc., §§ 583.410, 583.420.) 1 Plaintiffs appeal, contending their statutory entitlement to trial preference overrides the court's discretion to dismiss the action for delay in prosecution. Alternatively, they argue the court abused its discretion in dismissing their case and in denying their motion for reconsideration. Finally, they claim the five-year dismissal statute was tolled by the court's referral of the matter to arbitration. We find no error and affirm the judgment of dismissal.

Procedural History

Plaintiffs Maria and Terry Landry commenced this action December 15, 1989, when they were eight and nine years old, respectively. Both plaintiffs have Downs Syndrome. According to their complaint, plaintiffs were sexually assaulted by two students during recess at their elementary school. Plaintiffs alleged physical and emotional injury arising from negligent supervision by school district employees and the perpetrators' parents.

Between April 1990, when defendant answered the complaint, and August 1991, the parties engaged in mutual discovery. In April 1992, after a 7 1/2-month period of inactivity, discovery resumed. After July 28, 1992, however, the case was dormant until June 23, 1993, when plaintiffs' counsel began settlement negotiations. Settlement discussions continued until April 14, 1994.

On July 27, 1994, plaintiffs filed their at-issue memorandum and a case management conference was scheduled for October 25, 1994. On August 17, 1994, plaintiffs moved to advance the case management and trial setting date. Plaintiffs asserted that they were minors under the age of 14 and therefore entitled to mandatory trial preference under section 36, subdivision (b). Defendant responded by filing a motion for discretionary dismissal of the action pursuant to section 583.410 and section 583.420, subdivision (a)(2). According to defendant, plaintiffs had failed to exercise diligence in bringing the case to trial, and dismissal would appropriately remove this case from the court's overcrowded calendar.

After hearing argument on both motions, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motion to advance and granted defendant's motion to dismiss. After unsuccessfully moving for reconsideration, plaintiffs filed this appeal.

1. Effect of Trial Preference Status on Discretion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs renew their contention that the mandatory language of section 36, subdivision (b), entitled them to preferential trial setting and prevented the trial court from dismissing their action under section 583.410 and section 583.420, subdivision (a)(2). Generally, a trial court may dismiss an action for delay in prosecution "if to do so appears to the court appropriate under the circumstances of the case." (§ 583.410, subd. (a).) Section 583.420, subdivision (a)(2), more specifically conditions such dismissals on the time that has elapsed since inception of the action. Thus, discretionary dismissal is permitted when the action has not been brought to trial within "(A) Three years after the action is commenced against the defendant unless otherwise prescribed by rule under subparagraph (B). [p] (B) Two years after the action is commenced against the defendant if the Judicial Council by rule adopted pursuant to Section 583.410 so prescribes for the court because of the condition of the court calendar or for other reasons affecting the conduct of litigation or the administration of justice." California Rules of Court, rule 373(e), sets forth the factors a court must consider in determining the motion.

Section 36 also is concerned with the advancement of a case to trial, but more specifically, it gives certain litigants priority in the disposition of their cases. Thus, section 36, subdivision (a), grants preference to a party over the age of 70 if he or she has a substantial interest in the action and if, because of the state of his or her health, preference is necessary to avoid prejudice to the party's interest in the action. Subdivision (b), the provision at issue in this case, similarly grants preference to litigants under the age of 14 if they have a substantial interest in the case. 2 Section 36 further provides for discretionary grants of preferential status in the interests of justice when it appears that a party may not live beyond six months. (§ 36, subd. (d).) Finally, a catchall provision in subdivision (e) of this section enables the court to grant a motion for preference upon a showing of cause which demonstrates that such preference will serve the interests of justice.

Plaintiffs take the position that because section 36, subdivision (b) is mandatory, it divests the trial court of its discretion to dismiss the case under sections 583.410 and 583.420. We disagree.

The Legislature has determined that certain classes of litigants--those over 70 with health problems and those under 14 who have suffered personal injury or parental death--should be ensured timely access to the courts. There is no question that this is a legitimate state purpose. (Peters v. Superior Court (1989) 212 Cal.App.3d 218, 226, 260 Cal.Rptr. 426.) Like subdivision (a), subdivision (b) is mandatory; accordingly, as plaintiffs point out, the trial court does not have discretion to deny trial preference to a party under 14 who has a substantial interest in the litigation. (Id. at p. 224, 260 Cal.Rptr. 426.) But this rule was never intended to eviscerate the discretionary dismissal provisions of sections 583.410 and 583.420. The underlying assumption behind section 36 is that the plaintiff has diligently engaged in preparation for trial or settlement; in those circumstances the plaintiff clearly is entitled to priority based on his or her age. Where the plaintiff has been dilatory in efforts to move the case along, however, the trial court retains jurisdiction to dismiss under sections 583.410, et. seq.

Section 36 should not be cast in opposition to the statutes providing for dismissal, but instead be viewed as consistent with the Legislature's overall interest in promoting the orderly and fair administration of justice. To negate the court's discretion to dismiss based solely on section 36, subdivision (b) would only invite abuse of trial preference status, enabling an attorney for a young plaintiff to let the plaintiff's case languish and then demand trial priority when the five-year mandatory dismissal deadline is imminent. The Legislature could not have anticipated such an incongruous result when it determined that litigants under 14 years of age deserved to have their cases heard before other civil actions.

The decisions on which plaintiffs rely do not convince us otherwise. Peters v. Superior Court, supra, 212 Cal.App.3d 218, 260 Cal.Rptr. 426, which recognized the mandatory nature of section 36, subdivision (b), did not address the interaction between this provision and the statutes governing discretionary dismissal. Likewise, the appellate court in Rice v. Superior Court (1982) 136 Cal.App.3d 81, 185 Cal.Rptr. 853, and Koch-Ash v. Superior Court (1986) 180 Cal.App.3d 689, 225 Cal.Rptr. 657, in considering the mandatory trial preference for a party over the age of 70 (§ 36, subd. (a)), did not discuss the preference in light of a plaintiff's delay in prosecution.

Plaintiffs, however, point to language in Rice and Koch-Ash suggesting that trial preference must be accorded a plaintiff who qualifies under section 36(a) "irrespective of the circumstances leading to the motion for preference." (Rice v. Superior Court supra, 136 Cal.App.3d at p. 84, 185 Cal.Rptr. 853; accord Niesner v. Kusch (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 291, 299, 230 Cal.Rptr. 613.) As the court explained in Koch-Ash, "We held in Rice that section 36 is mandatory and absolute in its terms and is unaffected by such tactical maneuvering by plaintiff's counsel." (Koch-Ash v. Superior Court, supra, 180 Cal.App.3d at p. 698, 225 Cal.Rptr. 657.) But the court in both Rice and Koch-Ash was concerned with defense attempts to undermine a legitimate and timely request for trial preference; both cases merely reinforced the point that "as to section 36 matters, no discretion is left to trial courts." (Koch-Ash v. Superior Court, supra, 180 Cal.App.3d at p. 694, 225 Cal.Rptr. 657, emphasis added.) Any broader interpretation of Rice and Koch-Ash to suggest section 36 divests the trial court of its discretion to dismiss for delay in prosecution is, in our view, mistaken.

2. Abuse of Discretion

Alternatively, plaintiffs argue the trial court abused its discretion in granting defendant's motion to dismiss. The motion, however, was addressed to the trial court's sound discretion, and its determination will not be reversed absent a showing of manifest abuse resulting in a miscarriage of justice. (Blank v. Kirwan (1985) 39 Cal.3d 311, 331, 216 Cal.Rptr. 718, 703 P.2d 58.) Such abuse of discretion is generally considered to be demonstrated when the trial court has exceeded the bounds of reason. (Shamblin v. Brattain (1988) 44 Cal.3d 474, 478, 243 Cal.Rptr. 902, 749 P.2d 339.) We must presume the trial court's order was correct, and it is the plaintiff's burden to overcome that presumption and establish a clear...

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