Court of Appeal Clarifies that Mandatory Relief Under CCP Section 473(b) Applies Only to Defaults, Default Judgments and Dismissals

In Shayan v. Spine Care and Orthopedic Physicians (Jan. 9, 2020, B293857), the Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Eight (Los Angeles), clarified that a motion for relief under the mandatory provision of Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b) (“section 473(b)”), applies only to defaults, default judgments, and dismissals—not just any attorney error.

In Shayan, the plaintiff filed an interpleader action to resolve claims about a disputed sum of money. Two claimants and the defendants had notice of the trial date but failed to appear. The court conducted the trial, adjudicated the case on the merits, and entered judgment. The claimants, represented by new counsel, moved for relief under the mandatory provision of section 473(b) arguing that the trial court should interpret the statute broadly to include failure to appear for trial. The trial court denied their motion because the trial on the merits had not been a default, default judgment or a dismissal.

On appeal, the court determined that the plain language of the statute is controlling and unambiguous—the mandatory provision of section 473(b) applies only in the limited circumstances of defaults, default judgments and dismissals. “When lawyers make mistakes, they try to turn to subdivision (b) of section 473 for relief. This subdivision offers two kinds of relief. One is discretionary. The other is mandatory.” Under the mandatory provision, “the court shall . . . vacate any (1) resulting default entered by the clerk against his or her client, and which will result in entry of a default judgment, or (2) resulting default judgment or dismissal entered against his or her client, unless the court finds that the default or dismissal was not in fact caused by the attorney’s mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 473, subd. (b).) The appellate court refused to apply a more sweeping application to expand the wording about defaults, default judgments and dismissals to all “analogous” situations despite older cases supporting such a broad interpretation. The Court of Appeal joined more recent decisions, including The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993, and limited application of the statute “as the Legislature wrote it.” The appellate court concluded that the “Legislature can amend it if the coverage is wrong.”

For further background on section 473(b), see three prior Haight Alerts on this subject [click to read]: Attorney’s Erroneous Conclusion that Limitations Period Had Not Expired Was Not Grounds For Relief Under C.C.P. § 473(b) (February 20, 2019); Attorney Submitting CCP 473(b) Declaration Not Obligated To State Reasons For “Mistake, Inadvertence, Surprise or Excusable Neglect” (February 4, 2016); and Relief From Dismissal Under Mandatory “Attorney-Fault” Provision of CCP 473(b) Granted Despite Absence of Evidence that Attorney’s Neglect Was Excusable (February 19, 2016).

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January 22, 2020