• There's Rules and There's Rules
  • August 27, 2010 | Author: Gary A. Watt
  • Law Firm: Archer Norris A Professional Law Corporation - Walnut Creek Office
  • On August 9th, the Second District reversed a trial court's dismissal of a personal injury/auto accident case on statute of limitations grounds.  The case has a certain Kafkaesque feel to it. Or perhaps Monopoly's "do not pass go" is a better description.

    In Mito v. Temple Recycling Center Corp. 2010 Cal.App. LEXIS 1372, the plaintiffs faxed their complaint to the superior court clerk on July 24, 2008, a date within the two-year statute of limitations.  But the trial court clerk rejected the filing because plaintiffs failed to include the "Civil Case Cover Sheet Addendum and Statement of Location" required by local court rule.  The filing included the civil case cover sheet required by California Rules of Court, rule 3.220 subdivision (a).  The clerk stamped the submission "Received Fax Filing July 24, 2008."  The next day, the clerk rejected it, faxing a "Notice of Rejection-Fax Filing" back to plaintiffs.

    So on July 28, plaintiffs faxed the same documents again, this time including the local rules cover sheet.  The receipt time printed on top of the superior court copies of the documents showed transmission between 4:16 p.m. and 4:22 p.m. that day.  But the court clerk (probably doing the work the next day), stamped the complaint as filed the following day, July 29, 2008.

    That was one day after the statute of limitations expired.

    Defendants demurred on statute of limitations grounds.  The trial court's tentative ruling sustained the demurrer without leave to amend.  But at the hearing, the trial court granted plaintiffs 60 days to file a motion to amend the filing date nunc pro tunc under rule 2.304, subdivision (d).  When plaintiffs dutifully filed their motion, defendant objected on the grounds that the supporting declaration submitted as to timeliness of the June 28 fax filing should be excluded.  The reason?  Because the declarant-attorney (Ms. Mito) was also one of the plaintiffs, so could not satisfy the "At the time of transmission I was at least 18 years of age and not a party to this legal proceeding" language required of declarants by rule 2.304 subdivision (d).

    So the trial court denied the motion.  Do not pass go.

    The Court of Appeal reversed.  After observing that plaintiffs failed to argue in the trial court that their original June 24, 2008 filing was timely, the appellate court reached that issue anyway.  It did so under the doctrine that an appellate court may decide pure questions of law based on undisputed facts and that the original filings were part of the record.  It then held that rule 3.220 subdivision (c) prohibited the court clerk from rejecting the filing for failure to comply with the local rules.  "So long as a complaint complies with state requirements, the clerk has a ministerial duty to file."  The lower courts retain their right to levy lesser, appropriate sanctions.

    Lessons?  Don't get into car accidents with lawyers?  Don't file anything less than a week before the statute runs?  Preserve issues for appeal by raising them in the trial court?  Even if they weren't raised below, raise them on appeal?  How about check the local rules, not just the California Rules of Court?  After all, the appellate court's "get out of jail free" card was not exactly free.  It has been two years and additional trial and appellate court briefings since that fateful fax filing.

    There's rules and there's rules.