Court Reverses Ruling on Terminating Sanctions

A case can be dismissed for failure to respond to discovery. Such a result is known as terminating discovery sanctions. The case outlined below held the statute requiring mandatory relief for a dismissal due to attorney mistake applies to terminating discovery sanctions. This ruling highlights an appellate court’s views on how drastic a remedy these kinds of sanctions are.

In Rodriguez v. Brill (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 715, Rodriguez and Brill filed for divorce. Upon separating, Rodriguez filed this action asserting Brill promised to support her for the rest of her life. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. The second trial commenced and the parties agreed to continue trial to conduct additional discovery.

Brill then sent special interrogatories and requests for production of documents to Rodriguez. Several extensions were granted. Ultimately, Rodriguez did not respond and Brill filed a motion to compel, which was granted. Rodriguez was ordered to provide responses, without objection. Rodriguez did not respond to the order. Brill filed a motion seeking either evidentiary sanctions or dismissal of the action.

Rodriguez then filed an opposition to the motion seeking either evidentiary sanctions or dismissal of the action. The day before the hearing and after normal business hours, Rodriguez served a proposed response to the interrogatories, but failed to provide a response to the request for production of documents.

The trial court granted the motion for dismissal and ordered the complaint stricken as a sanction against Rodriguez. Thereafter, Rodriguez filed a motion for relief from the judgment pursuant to section 473(b) asserting the failure to respond was the result of neglect from her attorney. Rodriguez included a declaration from her attorney acknowledging his negligence. Brill opposed the motion. Rodriguez filed an untimely reply along with verified answers to the special interrogatories and request for production of documents.

The trial court denied Rodriguez’s motion for relief from the judgment. Rodriguez appealed.

Section 473(b) provides for discretionary and mandatory from defaults, judgments, and dismissals. Relief for parties is mandatory where a dismissal is entered as a result of inexcusable neglect by their attorney, and the motion is accompanied by a sworn affidavit regarding the neglect. This provision is mandatory “unless the court finds that the default or dismissal was not in fact caused by the attorney’s mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect.” (§473(b), italics added.)

Brill argued the dismissal as a terminating sanction was not the type of dismissal requiring mandatory relief. The appellate court disagreed. Brill’s motion specifically requested the trial court dismiss Rodriguez’s complaint as a sanction for failing to respond to discovery.

Further, Rodriguez argues the phrase “unless the court finds” requires the court to make an explicit finding about the cause of the dismissal. Brill argued the phrase meant the required finding can be expressed or implied. The court concluded the appellant must demonstrate prejudice.
Because the record was silent on the issue, the court assumed mandatory relief under 473(b) was not available if a client’s negligence or willful misconduct was a contributing cause of the terminating sanction.

The court then looked at Rodriguez’s conduct to determine if her actions were a contributing cause. Brill’s motion did not allege any actions by Rodriguez as a basis for terminating sanctions. For example, Brill raised issues of unauthorized service, lack of verification, objections and disregard of discovery and order. The facts supporting these positions were all actions undertaken by Rodriguez’s attorney. Moreover, Rodriguez’s attorney stopped representing her shortly after the discovery was served. There was no evidence Rodriguez personally received any of the discovery or instructed her attorney to ignore it.

Finally, the court found Rodriguez’s proposed discovery responses substantially complied with section 473(b). The responses were served on defense counsel the day before the hearing on the motion for relief, and unverified responses were lodged with the court.

The Court reversed the order denying Rodriguez’s motion for relief under section 473(b). This is a clear example of the checks and balances available within the judicial system to ensure the ends of justice are served.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Heppenstall graduated from California Western School of Law in 2008. Ms. Heppenstall’s focus is on general liability and personal injury. Contact her at 858.263.4120 or 

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