California Supreme Court Clarifies Five-Year Requirement To Bring Cases To Trial
LGC Staff
Mon February 29, 2016
5:32 AM UTC
(Revised June 5, 2024)

By Danica Brustkern

In the new case of Gaines v. Fidelity National Title Insurance, the California Supreme Court clarified what constitutes a "complete stay" for purposes of tolling Code of Civil Procedure section 583.310's five-year limit to bring a case to trial.  The Court ruled that a stay of the proceedings to allow the parties to engage in mediation was not a "complete stay" of the action and, therefore, did not toll section 583.310’s requirement that an action "be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant."

The case stemmed from the sale of the plaintiff's home after she and her husband missed multiple mortgage payments.  The plaintiff alleged that the defendants deceived her into selling the home to the defendants.  After the plaintiff failed to bring the case to trial within five years of filing, the defendants moved to dismiss the case, and the trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the plaintiff relied on subdivisions (b) and (c) of section 583.310, which provide that the five-year statutory timeframe is tolled during periods of time where “[p]rosecution or trial of the action was stayed or enjoined or [b]ringing the action to trial, for any other reason, was impossible, impracticable, or futile.”  The plaintiff argued that various delays in the course of pretrial proceedings satisfied the foregoing exceptions, including the 120-day period where the trial court stayed the action, vacated the trial date, and ordered mediation.

In evaluating the plaintiff’s arguments, the Court first analyzed whether the stay was a "complete" stay of the action that would toll the statute, or a mere "partial" stay.  To be a "complete" stay, it must "freeze a proceeding for an indefinite period, until the occurrence of an event that is usually extrinsic to the litigation and beyond the plaintiff‘s control," such as waiting for the resolution of a related appeal.  In this case, the trial court’s order directed the parties to respond to previously served and outstanding discovery and mediate, both of which were events related to the litigation that moved the case "forward."  Thus, despite the fact that the order also vacated the parties’ trial date, the stay was not "complete" and did not toll the five-year timeframe.

Second, the Court considered whether the five-year statute could be tolled on the basis of the exception for periods of time where it is “impossible, impracticable, or futile to bring the action to trial.”  Whether it is impossible to bring an action to trial during a given period of time depends on the unique facts of each situation, and the Court noted it would not toll the statute during mere "period[s] of time during which the plaintiff does not have it within his power to bring the case to trial."

Section 538.310’s time limits, the Court explained, already contemplate the reality that getting to trial is a lengthy, multi-step process.  Instead, the exception is meant to address events outside the plaintiff’s control and extrinsic to the litigation that prevent the parties from "moving the case toward trial" and "deprive the plaintiff of a substantial portion of the five-year" period of time. Here, because the parties participated in mediation on their own accord, the Court felt any resulting delay in moving toward trial was within the parties’ control, not due to outside forces. Thus, the time spent in mediation did not warrant tolling the statute.

This case demonstrates the strict application of the five-year limitation on bringing actions to trial, and the limited instances in which a "stay" will toll the deadline.  It is significant because several jurisdictions in California, most notably the complex division of the Los Angeles Superior Court, known as Central Civil West, frequently impose partial stays on cases to coordinate discovery or facilitate mediation.  Under this precedent, such partial stays likely will not toll the five-year limit, and parties should conservatively work under the theory that such a stay will not toll the timeframes of section 583.310.

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