Public Policy of Deciding Cases on the Merits Weighs in Favor of Granting Continuance Requests Based on Good Cause

In Hamilton v. Orange Cnty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 2017 No. G051773, the California Court of Appeal, Second District, reversed the trial court’s denial of the parties’ stipulation to continue a hearing on a motion for summary judgment and the trial date. The Court of Appeal held that denying the continuance request constituted an abuse of discretion where the request was stipulated to by the parties and where plaintiff showed good cause for a continuance.

In November 2013, plaintiff filed an employment action against the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (the Sheriff) based on gender and race discrimination. The trial was set for January 26, 2015. The Sheriff’s deadline to file and serve a motion for summary judgment was October 13, 2014. The Sheriff moved for summary judgment on October 10, 2014, and secured a hearing date four days after the trial date. The court granted the Sheriff’s ex parte request to continue trial to allow the summary judgment motion to be heard. Trial was continued to March 2, 2015.

Plaintiff timely noticed depositions for the Sheriff’s Person(s) Most Knowledgeable for December 2014. The Sheriff objected to the depositions on several grounds, including unavailability of counsel due to another trial. Plaintiff made several attempts in January 2015 to secure alternative deposition dates to no avail. As plaintiff’s deadline to oppose the summary judgment motion was approaching, the parties stipulated to continue the hearing on defendant’s motion and trial date by two months.

The good cause cited in the requested continuance included: (1) that the parties were working towards settlement, (2) plaintiff noticed, but had not taken, several depositions due to defense counsel’s trial calendar conflict, and (3) the parties sought to conserve costs. The court denied the continuance request. Plaintiff did not file an opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment. The court granted the Motion and entered judgment for defendant. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration/Relief under Code of Civil Procedure Section 473(b). The court denied plaintiff’s Motion. Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling. The appellate court noted that continuance requests on a motion for summary judgment hearing “are to be liberally granted” if it appears from affidavits submitted in opposition that facts essential to oppose the motion exist, but cannot be presented. (Code Civ. Proc. §437c(h).) If a plaintiff cannot make a showing with any such facts, the court may still grant a continuance under the ordinary discretionary standard for continuance requests by showing good cause. (See id.; see also Mahoney v. Southland Mental Health Assocs. Medical Grp. (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 167, 170.)

Although plaintiff failed to provide facts in opposition to the Motion pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure Section 437c(h), plaintiff did make a showing of good cause. Plaintiff was unable to depose witnesses whose declarations had been submitted in support of defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, and said depositions were “obviously essential” to the Motion. The grounds provided by the parties in support of the stipulated continuance request weighed in favor of granting the request. In fact, denying the stipulated continuance request created a “substantial injustice.” Defendant essentially obtained summary judgment by indefinitely postponing depositions. The Court of Appeal stated, “[w]here denial of a continuance would result in manifest injustice . . . the policy disfavoring continuances must give way.”

The result in this case highlights that the strong public policy favoring the determination of cases on the merits outweighs the competing policy favoring judicial efficiency. Engaging in dilatory pretrial tactics and exhibiting a lack a diligence are likely to eclipse any purported good cause supporting a stipulated continuance request. However, a party’s inability to obtain critical discovery, and mutual efforts to settle an action, weigh in favor of granting a stipulated request for continuance.

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February 16, 2017