What Can Professionals Learn from L.A.'s Legal System?

Laine T. Wagenseller |

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As one of the largest and most diverse urban areas in the US, Los Angeles is undoubtedly one of the most important cities for business. However, the LA business sector is also notorious for complex regulations and a litigious populace that some professionals find stifling. Those who are able to maneuver through L.A.’s labyrinthine legal system can often reap substantial benefits, which is why it’s a subject that’s worth exploring for professionals both in Southern California and various other regions across the globe.

A lawsuit filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court can take as long as two years or more to get to trial. For the plaintiff, this can mean a long delay in resolving the claim. For both parties, it means the expense of two years of attorneys’ fees and litigation costs. Business trial attorneys should always determine early on whether the case is amenable to a motion for summary judgment. If granted a motion for summary judgment, the case will be ended without having to go to trial.

What is a Motion for SummaryJudgment?

A motion for summary judgment does just what it says—provides a judgment without the need for trial. The advantages of this should be obvious: judgment can be obtained much earlier than if the parties had to wait for a trial, and the cost of a motion can be significantly less than a trial. Experienced trial attorneys should always ascertain whether a motion for summary judgment is possible and what it will take to obtain it at the very beginning of the lawsuit.

Motions for summary judgment in Los Angeles and throughout California are governed by California Code of Civil Procedure section 437c. The statute explains that a summary judgment is appropriate when “the action has no merit,” or when “there is no defense to the action or proceeding.”

The Rules Governing Motions for Summary Judgment

Business litigation attorneys who are preparing motions for summary judgment must be very careful to fully comply with all of the requirements set forth in the statute. The plaintiffs’ bar has used their political clout in Sacramento to make it more difficult to get a summary judgment by putting up various roadblocks. Here are some of the rules that apply to a motion for summary judgment:

  • A motion for summary judgment may not be made until after 60 days have elapsed since the appearance of the party against whom the motion is directed, usually the plaintiff.
  • Notice of the motion and all of the supporting papers must be served on all other parties at least 75 days before the hearing date. Remember that this time is extended if the papers are served by mail.
  • The motion must be heard no later than 30 days before trial.

These rules make scheduling an important factor in preparing a summary judgment. The trial attorney must also remember that in the L.A Superior Court hearing dates are often booked far into the future. The attorney should check with the court right away to determine when the court is scheduling summary judgment motions and reserve a date as soon as possible.

Evidence and Separate Statements

A motion for summary judgment is premised on the idea that the facts are undisputed. Disputed facts are dealt with in trial where witnesses can testify, and the trier of facts (either the judge or the jury) can determine who is more credible and what facts are true. In a summary judgment motion, the facts must be set forth by affidavits, declarations, admissions, answers to interrogatories, depositions and matters subject to judicial notice. The attorney must prepare a separate statement which includes a concise list of all of the material facts along with a reference to one of the above sources of that fact. A motion which fails to comply with this requirement may be denied on this ground alone.

The attorney opposing the motion will then respond to the separate statement, indicating whether the opposing party agrees or disputes the moving party’s facts. The opposition must also submit affidavits, declarations and other sources of evidence. The opponent’s separate statement should also include any additional facts which bear on the motion. Both parties should make sure that the affidavits and declarations are based on personal knowledge and that the affiant or declarant is competent to testify. All the rules of evidence apply. Attorneys should pay special attention to making sure that proper foundation is laid for facts set forth in declarations.

Opposing a Motion for Summary Judgment

Oppositions to a motion for summary judgment are due 14 days before the hearing and reply briefs are due no less than five days before the hearing.

Because motions for summary judgment are premised on the idea that the material facts are undisputed, an attorney opposing the motion should make sure to prepare evidentiary objections to the affidavits, declarations and other sources where appropriate. Any evidentiary objections not made at the hearing are deemed waived. It used to be true that an attorney would have to make sure to ask the judge to rule on all of the evidentiary objections—something that the judge was often loathe to do. A new bill signed by California Governor Jerry Brown clarifies that a judge need only rule on those objections that are material to the court’s ruling on the motion. All other objections are preserved for appeal.

When will a Motion for Summary Judgment be Granted?

The Code of Civil Procedure states that a motion for summary judgment is granted if all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The court’s ruling is based on the submitted evidence, taking into account the rulings on evidentiary objections. The court can also make inferences “reasonably deducible” from that evidence. In general, if a material fact is disputed, the court may not grant the motion.

Weighing the Evidence

A motion for summary judgment which includes an declaration that is not contradicted should not be denied on the grounds of the declarant’s credibility, but the court does have some discretion where the only proof of a material fact is the declarant as the sole witness (or where the fact is that individual’s state of mind).

Denying the Motion for Summary Judgment

When the court denies a motion for summary judgment because there is a disputed fact, it must issue an order specifying at least one disputed material fact. The order must refer to the evidence. Practically speaking, while the court may issue a tentative decision, the court usually asks the prevailing party to draft a proposed order.

A Continuance for Further Discovery

Sometimes, the opposition will argue that the facts necessary to defeat the motion for summary judgment have not yet been discovered but can be discovered. The opposition will therefore ask for a continuance of the motion. The court can grant the party additional time. It is unclear how often a continuance is needed in light of the 75 day notice period. A party should have all of the time it needs to conduct discovery prior to the opposition deadline (which is only 14 days before the hearing).

A Ruling on a Motion for Summary Judgment is Appealable

Business litigation lawyers who practice in the Los Angeles Superior Court system should make sure to review California Code of Civil Procedure 437c prior to preparing motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment motions can cut short business lawsuits and save both the attorney and client time and money. Clients should always make sure that their business attorney investigates whether a summary judgment is a possibility from the very outset of the lawsuit.

Laine T. Wagenseller is the founder of Wagenseller Law Firm. The firm handles numerous business breach of contract lawsuits in the Los Angeles Superior Court. For more information visit www.wagensellerlaw.com. Mr. Wagenseller can be reached at (213) 286-0371.

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