Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Shalabi v. Fontana (Cal. Ct. App. - May 22, 2019)

Rarely do you see the Court of Appeal refuse to following a controlling decision from the California Supreme Court that's directly on point and that has no intervening precedent to undercut it.

Yet it happens today.

Sure, the Court of Appeal doesn't expressly say it's refusing to follow controlling precedent.  But trust me.  That's exactly what it's doing.

Don't get me wrong.  I totally understand why the Court of Appeal is doing what it does.  Because the California Supreme Court;s holding was definitely wrong.  So I get why you'd want to ignore it.

Still.  We do have thing thing called vertical precedent.  So it's pretty bold to do what the Court of Appeal does today.

The issue is whether the statute of limitations has expired.  It's a lawsuit brought by someone who was a minor at the time of the incident, so that statute only starts running on his 18th birthday.  He turned 18 on December 3, 2011.  He filed suit exactly two years later, on December 3, 2013.  Is that timely?  (The statute of limitations for this action is two years.)

The Court of Appeal says:  Yes.  You've got two years, and you filed on the last day.  You're good to go.

Which, on the merits, is right.

With one small problem.

There's a California Supreme Court case in 1884 that squarely says exactly the opposite.  On identical facts.  Seriously.  The minor there turned 21 (the relevant age at the time) on April 11, 1876, and filed suit exactly five years (the relevant limitations period) later, on April 11, 1881.  You can't get more on all fours than that.  Yet the California Supreme Court held -- unanimously, no less -- that the suit was time-barred.  On the theory -- expressed concisely, in a single paragraph -- that since the minor was no longer a minor "on the first minute" of his birthday, filing on his birthday (presumably after 12:01 a.m.) was outside the limitations period.

Just like in today's case.

There's no way to get around that 1884 opinion.  (It's Ganal v. Soher, but I can't find a publicly available link; sorry).  It's the same case.  If it's right, today's opinion by the Court of Appeal is wrong.

The Court of Appeal has an answer, of course.  It says that the relevant principle -- and it's right on this -- comes from Section 12 of the California Civil Procedure Code, which says that in calculating time, you exclude the first day, but include the last.  Which makes filing on the exact day of your birthday timely.

True.  That's indeed what it says.

But Section 12 has existed, unchanged, since 1872.  The same was true in 1884.  Yet that case came out the other way.  Both cases cannot be right.  They cannot be reconciled.

The Court of Appeal insists that since the 1884 case didn't expressly talk about Section 12, it's okay to ignore it, since cases don't stand for propositions they don't discuss.  But that seems fairly weak tea to me, at least for cases that (like here) are squarely on all fours, and on identical facts.  I mean, it's also true that the plaintiff's first name in the 1884 case was Henry, whereas the plaintiff's first name here is Luis.  Distinction without a difference.  Cases that are irreconcilable remain so.

Indeed, if you were desperate to distinguish the two cases, there seems to me a better way to go than the way the Court of Appeal went anyway.  In the 1884 case, there was an express statute (Section 26 of the Civil Code) that said that you calculate dates "from the first minute of the day on which persons are born to the same minute of the corresponding day completing the period of minority."  But it appears that this statue was repealed by the Legislature in 1993.  So if you're really desperate to say that relevant authority has changed, I might be inclined to rely on that -- since the 1884 holding was indeed expressly based on that statute, so it's repeal seems fairly relevant.  And stronger, IMHO, than saying that you can ignore an on-point holding of the California Supreme Court because they forgot to mention a statute (Section 12) that existed both then and now.

But, again, I'm sympathetic.  The Court of Appeal is right.  This case is not, in fact, time-barred.  Just as the case in 1884 was not, in fact, time-barred.  Regardless of what the California Supreme Court said back then.

It's just that the Court of Appeal isn't technically allowed to say so.  Precedent and all.

In the end, here's what should happen.  The California Supreme Court should grant review in this case.  On it's own or otherwise.  And, in a quick, short, super easy opinion, overrule the 1884 case.  Wrong then, wrong now.  For the exact reasons the Court of Appeal articulates.

'Cause the California Supreme Court can do that.

And should.