In this case, we consider the scope of a trial court's power to dismiss an action for noncompliance with local court rules implementing the 1990 Trial Court Delay Reduction Act (Act) (Gov. Code, § 68600 et seq.). We conclude that, under the governing statutes, a court may not impose this sanction if noncompliance is the responsibility of counsel, not of the litigant. Therefore, we affirm the Court of Appeal judgment, which reversed the trial court's dismissal of plaintiff's action.
In April 1993, plaintiff Danny Garcia filed a complaint in the Fresno County Superior Court seeking damages for injuries he received during an altercation at Henry's Cantina, a cocktail lounge in Clovis, California. The complaint alleged claims for personal injury, general negligence, premises liability, and intentional tort, and named, among other defendants, Fern and
On November 1, 1993, the clerk served Nunez with a notice pursuant to former rule 5.6B ordering him to appear at a status hearing on January 19, 1994. Former rule 5.6B directed the trial court to order all parties to attend a status hearing if an at issue memorandum was not filed within 180 days after filing of the complaint. The notice ordered Nunez to comply with former rule 5.7, which required counsel for each represented party to file and serve at least five court days before the status hearing a sworn declaration addressing a number of matters, including counsel's explanation for failing to satisfy the requirements of former rules 5.4 (serving complaint and filing proof of service) and 5.6 (filing at issue memorandum). The notice also ordered Nunez to appear in person unless he was going to be out of the county on the hearing date and he arranged at least 14 days before that date to appear by telephone.
Nunez did not appear at the status hearing on January 19, 1994. Instead, that morning he informed the court he was out of the county in trial, but he did not arrange to appear by telephone. The Honorable Gary R. Kerkorian sanctioned Nunez $50 for failing to appear and $50 for failing to serve and file the required declaration. Judge Kerkorian continued the matter to April 19, 1994, "for hearing on the Court's sua sponte motion to dismiss the entire action." The court's minute order indicated that counsel's appearance would be unnecessary if an at issue memorandum was filed, or a dismissal or judgment was entered.
On January 27, 1994, Judge Kerkorian followed up his order by issuing a notice of motion to dismiss the action, citing in the caption former rule
At the hearing on April 19, Judge Kerkorian sanctioned Nunez $300 for not complying with the court's service and at issue memorandum requirements and $25 for late filing of a declaration explaining his noncompliance. Judge Kerkorian continued the hearing on the dismissal motion to June 21 before the Honorable Dwayne Keyes. He cautioned that, if the case was not at issue by June 21, counsel would "have to show Judge Keyes very good cause why he shouldn't dismiss it." Judge Kerkorian's minute order provided that counsel's appearance would be unnecessary if an at issue memorandum was filed, or a dismissal or judgment was entered.
In May, Nunez sought and obtained permission to serve summons on several defendants by publication. Also in May, several of the other defendants who had already been served, including the Avilas, filed demurrers to Garcia's second amended complaint. On June 17, the Honorable Gary S. Austin sustained the demurrer of one defendant without leave to amend. He sustained the demurrer of the Avilas only in part and granted Garcia leave to amend until July 20.
As scheduled, on June 21, four days after the demurrer hearing, a hearing on the motion to dismiss was held before Judge Keyes. Nunez did not appear at the hearing. Judge Keyes granted the motion and dismissed the case without prejudice. Although the dismissal was without prejudice, the statute of limitations would have barred claims alleged in a new complaint.
Accordingly, after learning of the dismissal, Nunez filed a motion for reconsideration on Garcia's behalf. In support of the motion, Nunez asserted that the dismissal was based on failure to serve the remaining defendants
At the hearing on the reconsideration motion, Nunez asserted that he had not attended the June 21 hearing on the dismissal motion because he believed that Judge Austin's order partially sustaining the demurrer "had obviated [the dismissal] hearing, because he gave me an extension to file a third amended complaint for July 20." Nunez also discussed his efforts to serve the other defendants. Judge Keyes replied: "That does not concern me as much as your cavalier attitude of when you appear in court and when you do not appear in court." Judge Keyes then denied the motion for reconsideration. His order of dismissal states that he based the ruling on "the moving papers, the lack of opposition papers, and the absence of plaintiff's counsel...."
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's ruling, concluding that section 575.2, subdivision (b) (section 575.2(b)), prohibits dismissal as a sanction where noncompliance with local court rules is the fault of counsel, not of the litigant. This section, the court explained, "makes clear the legislative intent that a party's cause of action should not be impaired or destroyed by his or her attorney's procedural mistakes." The court found nothing in the Act rendering section 575.2(b) inapplicable. On the contrary, it concluded that the relevant provision of the Act, Government Code section 68608, subdivision (b) (Government Code section 68608(b)), merely incorporates "the general authority granted to the courts by section 575.2, subdivision (a) to impose sanctions, including the sanction of dismissal. The limitation on that authority, as reflected in [section 575.2(b)], that parties not be punished for counsel's noncompliance with local rules, is not affected by any contrary expression of intent in [Government Code section 68608(b)]."
We then granted review to resolve an apparent conflict between the Court of Appeal's decision and the decision in Intel Corp. v. USAIR, Inc. (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 1559 [279 Cal.Rptr. 569] (Intel). The court in Intel, construing the predecessor of Government Code section 68608(b), concluded that section 575.2(b) does not limit a court's power to dismiss an action as a sanction for counsel's noncompliance with local rules implementing statutory delay reduction programs (fast track rules). (Intel, supra, 228 Cal. App.3d at pp. 1563-1566.)
In 1982, the Legislature gave courts express statutory power to adopt local rules "designed to expedite and facilitate the business of the court." (§ 575.1.) At the same time, it enacted section 575.2, subdivision (a), which permits a court's local rules to prescribe sanctions, including dismissal of an action, for noncompliance with those rules. Section 575.2(b), on which the Court of Appeal relied, provides: "It is the intent of the Legislature that if a failure to comply with these rules is the responsibility of counsel and not of the party, any penalty shall be imposed on counsel and shall not adversely affect the party's cause of action or defense thereto."
Courts have interpreted section 575.2(b) as "sharply limit[ing] penalties in instances of attorney negligence." (State of California ex rel. Public Works Bd. v. Bragg (1986) 183 Cal.App.3d 1018, 1025 [228 Cal.Rptr. 576] (Bragg), original italics.) In Bragg, the court stated that section 575.2(b) creates "an exception to the general rule that the negligence of an attorney is imputed to the client [citations], with the client's only recourse a malpractice action against the negligent attorney. [Citations.]" (Bragg, supra, at p. 1026.) Similarly, in Moyal v. Lanphear (1989) 208 Cal.App.3d 491, 502 [256 Cal.Rptr. 296] (Moyal), the court explained that, in section 575.2(b), "[t]he Legislature has made clear its intent a party's cause of action should not be impaired or destroyed by his or her attorney's procedural mistakes." In Cooks v. Superior Court (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 723, 727 [274 Cal.Rptr. 113], the court construed section 575.2(b) "to proscribe any sanction against an innocent party for local rule violations of counsel and to proscribe sanctions against counsel that adversely affect the party's cause of action or defense thereto." These decisions also hold that a court must invoke section 575.2(b) on its own motion when necessary to protect an innocent party. (Cooks, supra, 224 Cal. App.3d at p. 727; Moyal, supra, 208 Cal. App.3d at p. 502; Bragg, supra, 183 Cal. App.3d at pp. 1028-1029; see also In re Marriage of Colombo (1987) 197 Cal.App.3d 572, 579-580 [242 Cal.Rptr. 100] [following Bragg].)
The Avilas' construction of these provisions violates several rules of statutory interpretation.
Finally, the Avilas' interpretation runs counter to the rule regarding repeal by implication.
To support their interpretation, the Avilas invoke the principle that "specific statutory provisions relating to a particular subject will govern, as against a general provision, in matters concerning that subject." Citing Intel, they assert that, because Government Code section 68608(b) is the more specific statute regarding delay reduction, it "controls over" section 575.2(b). In Intel, the court considered section 575.2(b)'s application to fast track cases in light of Government Code section 68608(b)'s predecessor, Government Code former section 68609, subdivision (d). That section provided in relevant part: "In order to enforce the requirements of an exemplary delay reduction program and orders issued in cases assigned to it, the judges of the program shall have all the powers to impose sanctions authorized by law, including the power to dismiss actions or strike pleadings, if it appears that less severe sanctions would not be effective after taking into account the effect of previous sanctions or previous lack of compliance in the case." (Stats. 1988, ch. 1200, § 1, pp. 4008-4009.) The court held that, notwithstanding section 575.2(b), dismissal for noncompliance with local delay reduction rules was proper, stating: "While [section 575.2(b)] is concerned with penalties for violation of any local rules, the Government Code provision addresses imposition of sanctions for violation of local delay reduction rules. The Government Code provision is clearly more narrowly circumscribed and specific than [section 575.2(b)], and is therefore controlling." (Intel, supra, 228 Cal. App.3d at p. 1565.) The Avilas urge that the same analysis governs interpretation of Government Code section 68608(b).
The Avilas have incorrectly applied this principle of statutory construction. Initially, we question the assertion that Government Code section 68608(b) is the more specific provision. Although that section applies specifically to delay reduction programs, it speaks only generally about a
The Avilas additionally insist that, as a matter of public policy, the power to dismiss actions when counsel violate fast track rules is necessary to further the public's interest in reducing litigation delay. They assert: "[A]ny delay in the resolution of litigation severely undermines the public confidence in the fairness and utility of the judiciary as a public institution since delay in the process reduces the chance that justice will be done and imposes severe hardships on the litigants." To support their assertion, they partially quote the following legislative findings and conclusions that were part of the original Trial Court Delay Reduction Act of 1986 (1986 Act): "(a) The
For two reasons, we reject the Avilas' claim. First, the general policy underlying legislation "cannot supplant the intent of the Legislature as expressed in a particular statute. [Citation.]" (Fuentes v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1976) 16 Cal.3d 1, 8 [128 Cal.Rptr. 673, 547 P.2d 449].) As we have shown, Government Code section 68608(b) expresses a legislative intent to grant trial courts only those sanctioning powers "authorized by law." Government Code section 68607 expresses a legislative intent to require courts, in carrying out their responsibility to eliminate delay, to act "consistent with statute...." Section 575.2(b) expresses a legislative intent that sanctions not affect a party's cause of action if a failure to comply with local rules "is the responsibility of counsel and not of the party...." The Avilas err in relying on the general policy of delay reduction underlying the Act to the exclusion of the language of these statutes.
Second, the Avilas are incorrect in suggesting that either the 1986 Act or the current Act directs that the goal of delay reduction take precedence over all other considerations. On the contrary, in the part of Government Code former section 68601, subdivision (c), that the Avilas have failed to quote, the Legislature recognized "the strong public policy that litigation be disposed of on the merits wherever possible." (See Hocharian v. Superior Court (1981) 28 Cal.3d 714, 724 [170 Cal.Rptr. 790, 621 P.2d 829].) That section provided in full: "Cases filed in California's trial courts should be resolved as expeditiously as possible, consistent with the obligation of the courts to
Finally, we find unpersuasive the Avilas' assertion that an expanded dismissal power regarding fast track rules is necessary to promote calendar control. Courts have numerous other methods for maintaining control of their calendars. Under section 1209, subdivision (a)5, "[d]isobedience of any lawful ... order ... of the court" constitutes contempt. (See In re Young (1995) 9 Cal.4th 1052, 1053 [40 Cal.Rptr.2d 114, 892 P.2d 148].) For each separate act of contempt, the court may impose monetary sanctions or imprisonment. (§§ 1218, subd. (a), 1219.)
In any event, the Avilas' interpretation of Government Code section 68608(b) might result in a proliferation of malpractice suits against counsel that would hinder, rather than promote, calendar control. This possibility was one of the concerns the Senate Committee on the Judiciary cited in recommending that the Legislature adopt section 575.2(b). The committee explained: "While the client would likely have a malpractice cause of action against a lawyer whose misconduct resulted in dismissal or default, that remedy would be counter productive, since it would result in even more complicated litigation, further clogging the courts." (Sen. Com. on Judiciary, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 3784 (1981-1982 Reg. Sess.) as amended Aug. 5, 1982, pp. 3-4.)
As our discussion demonstrates, granting a trial court power to dismiss an action where counsel alone is responsible for noncompliance with local rules would be a significant change in the law. Nothing in either the statutory language or the legislative history of the Act reflects a legislative intent to override section 575.2(b)'s limits on a court's sanctioning powers or to
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is affirmed.
George, C.J., Mosk, J., Kennard, J., Baxter, J., Werdegar, J., and Brown, J., concurred.