Court of Appeal limits complex litigation court's ability to resolve "threshold issues" as case management tool

"A 'complex case' is an action that requires exceptional judicial management to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on the court or the litigants and to expedite the case, keep costs reasonable, and promote effective decision making by the court, the parties, and counsel." (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 3.400(a).) California's complex litigation pilot project Courts are charged with managing, on average, some of the more complicated civil litigation matters in California. To handle that burden, complex litigation Courts have to balance obligations imposed by rule and statute with the application of creativity in the areas where discretion and flexibility are options. In my experience, particularly in the complex litigation departments in Los Angeles, one way in which complex cases have been managed has been through the early evaluation of pivotal "threshold" legal issues that tend to give direction to such cases.

That case management technique just hit something of a snag.  The Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Five), in Magana Cathcart McCarthy v. CB Richard Ellis, Inc. (May 21, 2009) held, at least on the facts before it, that early determination of "threshold issues" is not a substitute for the summary adjudication procedural requirements:

Without filing a motion for summary judgment or mandatory separate statements of undisputed facts, and for the purpose of creating appellate review of pretrial rulings, the parties to an action in a complex litigation case stipulated that the court would have granted summary judgment based upon its ruling on certain "threshold issues" in favor of the defendant. The stipulation also included a dismissal, without prejudice, of class action allegations.

We disapprove of the unauthorized procedure utilized to create appellate review without compliance with the mandatory requirements of a summary judgment, and reverse. The requirements of a motion for summary judgment and the supporting separate statements of undisputed facts are expressly mandated by statute and court rules. In the absence of such documents, the stipulated judgment cannot stand. The convenience of the parties in a complex litigation case, and their desire to be spared the expense of a summary judgment motion, do not warrant deviation from the procedural requirements of summary judgment applicable to litigants who do not have the benefit of appearing in the complex litigation court. In addition, the stipulated judgment in this case violates an express agreement between the parties and the trial court that rulings on the threshold issues would not be a substitute for a motion for summary judgment that complies with the Code of Civil Procedure. We also conclude there is nothing about this action that warrants an exception to the foregoing rules promulgated by the Legislature and Judicial Council in a case which, in its current posture, involves a potential penalty of $500 and treble damages.

(Slip op., at p. 2.)  The majority opinion (yes, there is a dissent) spends a great deal of time reviewing the obligatory nature of the separate statement and other requirements associated with summary judgment motions or anything purporting to finally resolve matters outside the four corners of the pleadings.  In reading the opinion, I come away with the sense that there is something like contempt for the complex litigation courts, including a suggestion that the issues coming from those courts are no more difficult than those coming up for review out of standard general jurisdiction courts.  I happen to strongly disagree with that apparent sentiment; the complex courts, by virtue of their experience and creativity, make complex cases move more smoothly through the system.

The dissenting opinion is extensive.  It includes its own statement of facts and procedural background.  Part of that extensive workup appears intended to demonstrate that the record was suitable for appellate review.  In the dissent, Justice Mosk first explained why the Trial Court's procedure was permitted:

The parties stipulated to a judgment based on a pronouncement of the law by the trial court that followed legal briefing and argument by the parties. The procedure used, which did not include a demurrer, summary judgment motion, or other dispositive statutory motion, was justified as being a case management tool under the complex litigation program of the Los Angeles County Superior Court (Super. Ct. L.A. County, Local Rules, rules 7.3(h), 7.6; see Cal. Rules of Court, rule 3.400 et seq.; 3.750 et seq.; Gov. Code, § 68612; Code of Civ. Proc., § 575.1).

Although trial courts in complex cases have broad discretion to manage those cases in a manner that promotes efficiency and the conservation of judicial resources (see, e.g., Cal. Rules of Court, rules 3.400 et seq., 3.750 et seq.), that discretion is limited by countervailing interests of litigants and the public. "Reviewing courts have not hesitated to strike down local court rules or policies on the ground they are inconsistent with statute, . . . [¶] A common theme in the appellate decisions invalidating local rules . . . is that a local court has advanced the goals of efficiency and conservation of judicial resources by adopting procedures that deviated from those established by statute, thereby impairing the countervailing interests of litigants as well as the interest of the public in being afforded access to justice, resolution of a controversy on the merits, and a fair proceeding." (Elkins v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1337, 1352-1353.) Deviation from formal procedures may, in many instances, present on appeal a case without an adequate record. Therefore, statutory procedures, such as those governing summary judgment, are designed, inter alia, to provide the appellate court with a factual and analytical framework upon which there can be de novo review.

It is important to recognize that the trial court did not, in effect, depart from established summary judgment procedures because the parties entered into a stipulation in connection with those procedures; "[s]tipulations may be entered into concerning any step of an action." (Bardendregt v. Downing, supra, 175 Cal.App.2d at p. 735.) Moreover, the court did not dispense with any procedure over the objection and to the prejudice of one of the parties. Here, both parties agreed to the procedure employed by the trial court to determine the legal issues, stipulated to the entry of judgment as if it were based on an order granting summary judgment, and agreed that the ensuing judgment was appealable.

(Slip op., Dissent, at pp. 5-6.)  It's an interesting debate.  I come down on the side of permitting the complex courts to manage cases with the flexibility that has proven itself in real cases over and over again.  Despite that, I understand the majority's call for predictability of procedure in any instance where a case is summarily adjudicated.