Palmer v. GTE California, Inc.

Decision Date26 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. S104997.,S104997.
Citation30 Cal.4th 1265,135 Cal.Rptr.2d 654,70 P.3d 1067
PartiesDebbie PALMER, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. GTE CALIFORNIA, INC., Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Sullivan, Sottile & Taketa, Mark Sullivan, Westlake Village, Timothy B. Sottile, Donn S. Taketa, Thousands Oaks; Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, Paul Grossman, George W. Abele and Heather A. Morgan, Los Angeles, for Defendant and Appellant.

Law Offices of Kerry R. Tepper, Kerry R. Tepper, Thousands Oaks; Law Offices of Louis E. Goebel and Louis E. Goebel, San Diego, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

KENNARD, J.

Motions for a new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict are subject to strict time limits that begin to run when the party seeking such relief is served with a written notice of entry of judgment. (Code Civ. Proc, §§ 629, 659, 660.)1 A party intending to move for a new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict must do so within 15 days of such service. (§§ 659, 629.)

Is the statutory requirement of giving written notice of entry of judgment satisfied by serving a copy of the file-stamped judgment? The answer is "yes," at least in every county that no longer maintains a judgment book.2 To start the statutory time periods for bringing and ruling on motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, it is not necessary to serve on the opposing party a separate document entitled "notice of entry of judgment" and to file in the trial court that document, as well as a copy of the judgment and proof of its service.

I

Plaintiff Debbie Palmer began working for defendant GTE California, Inc. (GTE), in 1979. In April 1995, Palmer sued GTE and two supervisors in superior court for sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, and false imprisonment. In 1998, the trial court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants. On February 11, 1999, after several weeks of trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding GTE liable for $790,000 in damages to Palmer on her claims of gender harassment in the workplace and false imprisonment.

On February 24, 1999, judgment was entered. On February 26, 1999, Palmer's attorney mailed to GTE's counsel a photocopy of the file-stamped and dated judgment. GTE's counsel and the courtroom clerk then told Palmer's attorney that serving a photocopy of the conformed judgment did not comply with section 664.5, which requires that a document entitled "notice of entry of judgment" be prepared, served, and filed in the trial court along with proof of its service. In response, Palmer's counsel on March 10, 1999, filed in the trial court a document entitled "notice of entry of judgment," to which were attached a copy of the judgment, a proof of the earlier service by mail on February 26 of the conformed copy of the judgment, and a proof of service by mail on March 9 of the notice of entry of judgment.

On March 24,1999, 26 days after Palmer had served GTE with a copy of the conformed judgment, GTE moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and filed notice of its intention to move for a new trial. On May 3, 1999, 66 days after Palmer served the copy of the conformed judgment, the trial court made its rulings. On Palmer's claim of gender harassment in the workplace, the court granted GTE's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and, if its order were to be vacated or set aside on appeal, the court alternatively ordered a new trial on that claim. On Palmer's claim of false imprisonment, the court denied GTE's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, but it ordered a new trial on that claim unless Palmer consented to having the $175,000 awarded on that claim reduced to $35,000.

Palmer moved to strike these orders because GTE had not filed its moving papers within the 15-day jurisdictional window after the date of "service ... by any party of written notice of entry of judgment" (§ 659), and because the trial court had not ruled on the motions within the 60-day jurisdictional period after such service (§ 660). The trial court denied Palmer's motion.

On July 1, 1999, Palmer filed a notice of appeal from the order granting a new trial on the false imprisonment claim and granting judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the gender harassment claim. On July 20, GTE filed its notice of appeal from the judgment and from the order denying GTE's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the claim of false imprisonment.

On appeal, Palmer argued that GTE's motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict were untimely, and therefore the trial court's order granting those motions was void, having been made after the trial court's jurisdiction had lapsed. The Court of Appeal agreed. Citing sections 659 and 660, it concluded that the time limits for bringing and ruling on these posttrial motions are triggered by serving "written notice of entry of judgment." (§§ 659, subd. 2, 660.)

The Court of Appeal rejected GTE's contention that to start the time frames for these posttrial motions the serving party must not only serve written notice of entry of judgment, as required by sections 629, 659, and 660, but must also comply with additional requirements set out in section 664.5. Section 664.5 provides that "the party submitting an order or judgment for entry shall prepare and mail a copy of the notice of entry of judgment to all parties" and "shall file with the court the original notice of entry of judgment together with the proof of service." (§ 664.5, subd. (a).) GTE argued below, as it does here, that these posttrial motion time frames begin only when, in addition to serving written notice that judgment has been entered, the party giving notice files in the trial court an original notice of entry of judgment document, accompanied by proof of its service. Rejecting that view, the Court of Appeal concluded that a written notice of entry of judgment served by a party need not be served pursuant to section 664.5 to start the statutory 15-day period (§ 659) for a party to move for a new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or to start the 60-day period (§ 660) for the court to rule on the motions.

Thus, the Court of Appeal held that GTE had not timely moved for a new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, rendering void the trial court's order granting those two motions. Because the filing of the two motions did not extend the time to appeal, however, the Court of Appeal found plaintiff Palmer's notice of appeal to be untimely, having been filed more than 60 days after she served GTE with "a document entitled `notice of entry' of judgment." (Cal. Rules of Court, former rule 2(a)(2).) GTE's cross-appeal was timely, but the Court of Appeal concluded there was substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict in favor of Palmer on her claims of false imprisonment and gender harassment in the workplace, and thus upheld the judgment.

We granted GTE's petition for review because of disagreement in the Courts of Appeal on what constitutes service of notice of entry of judgment sufficient to trigger the statutory deadlines for bringing and determining motions for a new trial and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

II

Defendant GTE frames the question before us this way: "What act commences the jurisdictional time frame for filing and deciding posttrial motions" when the clerk of the court does not mail notice of entry of judgment to the parties? To answer that question, we must consider the interplay between section 664.5, which describes mailing notice of entry of judgment, and sections 629, 659, and 660, which govern the filing of posttrial motions for a new trial and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Section 664.5 provides: "In any contested action or special proceeding ... the party submitting an order or judgment for entry shall prepare and mail a copy of the notice of entry of judgment to all parties who have appeared ... and shall file with the court the original notice of entry of judgment together with the proof of service by mail." (§ 664.5, subd. (a).) Citing that language, GTE argues that the jurisdictional time for filing and ruling on motions for a new trial or for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is triggered only by serving a document entitled "notice of entry of judgment," and filing in the trial court the original document and proof of its service. We disagree.

A. The Statutory Scheme

A motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (§ 629) or a notice of intention to move for a new trial (§ 659) may be filed with the court clerk and served on each adverse party "[b]efore the entry of judgment." (§ 659, subd. 1.) Otherwise, they must be brought by the earliest of three deadlines: (1) within 15 days of "the date of mailing notice of entry of judgment by the clerk of the court pursuant to Section 664.5"; (2) within 15 days of service on the moving party "by any party of written notice of entry of judgment"; or (3) "within 180 days after the entry of judgment." (§§ 629, 659, subd. 2.) The 60 days during which the trial court has jurisdiction to rule on such a motion is similarly linked to the clerk's mailing or a party's service of written notice of entry of judgment.3 Neither section 659 nor section 660 expressly requires the party serving notice either to prepare a separate document entitled "notice of entry of judgment" or to file any document.

In construing a statute, our role is limited to ascertaining the Legislature's intent so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. (Hunt v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 984, 1000, 90 Cal.Rptr.2d 236, 987 P.2d 705; People v. Gardeley (1996) 14 Cal.4th 605, 621, 59 Cal.Rptr.2d 356, 927 P.2d 713.) We look first to the words of the statute because they are the most reliable indicator of legislative intent. (In re J.W. (2002) 29 Cal.4th 200, 209, 126 Cal. Rptr.2d 897, 57 P.3d 363.) If the statutory language on its...

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