As I grow older, I become increasingly familiar with the feeling of “dating” myself by admitting to TV shows I watched, music I liked, or even sports I played (remember Dodgeball?). I date myself as a California litigator when I reminisce about the “Five Year Rule.” The Rule wasn’t repealed. It’s still part of the California Code of Civil Procedure. Section 583.310 provides: “An action shall be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant.” Section 583.360(a) says: “An action shall be dismissed by the court on its own motion or on motion of the defendant, after notice to the parties, if the action is not brought to trial within the time prescribed in this article.” (All emphases added.)
The statute sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I remember being a new defense lawyer in the early 1990s opposing motions to exempt a case from the Five Year Rule for some reason or another. I was awed by the relative calm with which plaintiff lawyers argued these motions, on the very eve of expiration, as though they had nothing at all to worry about. I knew that I would be an absolute wreck if I thought there was even the smallest chance my client’s case would be dismissed. But, I never had a case get dismissed for failure to start trial in five years. It seemed like the statute had more bark than bite.
The Five Year rule never went anywhere. Instead, the California courts changed, rendering the Rule completely irrelevant. Around my third or fourth year, the state courts initiated the Delay Reduction Act, or “fast track” rules. When the fast track rules (majority of cases to be tried within one year) were first implemented, I remember judges were really difficult if you wanted to exempt a particular case from the fast track. God forbid a case might legitimately take 18 months or, gasp, 2 years to be ready for trial. Certain judges were so committed to the new rules that they would set a trial date within 12 months even if it fell on Christmas eve or interfered with someone’s wedding or honeymoon. I suppose it seemed particularly draconian because I hadn’t yet realized that, regardless when they’re set, most civil cases never actually start trial.
While it’s mostly dinosaurs like me who remember the Five Year Rule, it now seems that, with the massive changes to California’s courts occasioned by the budget crisis, the Rule could become relevant again. If we do see a resurgence of motions to dismiss under the Five Year Rule, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- The parties can stipulate, either in writing or orally in open court, to extend the time for trial to occur. (CCP §583.330)
- The time is calculated to exclude time during which the court lacked jurisdiction, or prosecution of the trial was stayed or enjoined, or getting the case to trial was impossible, impracticable or futile. (CCP §583.340)
- Courts have significant discretion in their application of the §583.340 exceptions. See, Bruns v. E-Commerce Exchange, Inc., 51 Cal.App.4th 717 (2011).
However, even armed with dicta from Bruns, lawyers representing plaintiffs must be able to show they’ve been diligent in moving the case along. Otherwise, mandatory dismissal is technically possible.