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Missing piece

Backdoor Stays of Unlawful Detainer Actions Via Quash Motions No Longer Available

Tim Kowal     May 5, 2021

Here is an appellate procedure trick I wish I'd thought of.

Unlawful detainers are designed for speedy adjudication of landlord/tenant disputes. But there was one way a tenant could readily delay the process by several weeks or months (in this particular case, by over two years): by filing a motion to quash the complaint. A motion to quash extends the time to respond to the complaint. And when it's denied, the defendant has a statutory right to file a writ petition. The writ petition effectively stays the UD action.

And this de facto stay is free (except for attorney fees). Compare that to the stay the tenant could try to get after a unlawful-detainer judgment, which, in addition to showing extraordinary harm, requires payment of rent.

But the California Supreme Court now holds that that deal, sweet for the tenant but rather sour for the landlord, is not the law.

The case of Stancil v. Superior Court (San Mateo) (May 3, 2021) S253783, involves the Docktown area of Redwood City. As reported in local news, Docktown hosts a series of berths where residents live in "floating homes." But the city decided to redevelop the area and relocate the Docktown tenants, including Stancil. Tenant Stancil refused to surrender his berth, and the landlord city filed an action for unlawful detainer.

Tenant shot back with a motion to quash, raising a jurisdictional issue (that the port department, not the city, was the proper plaintiff). Tenant argued a prior case, Delta Imports, approved raising this standing issue via a motion to quash. Landlord argued only personal jurisdiction may be raised in a motion to quash, per another case, Borsuk, which disapproved Delta Imports.

The trial court denied tenant's motion, ruling his objection had to be raised via demurrer. Tenant filed a petition for writ of mandate, which was denied. The Supreme Court granted review in March 2019.

The Court rejected tenant's motion to quash, concluding that "Nothing in the statutory language turns a motion to quash into a handy all-purpose tool for taking on the factual support for particular causes of action or the merits of a complaint." In the UD context, a motion to quash may be used only to challenge a defect in the summons, or to challenge personal jurisdiction.

In the future, tenants should not plan on obtaining a de facto stay by filing an improper motion to quash. That clarity, ironically, comes by way of the Court's having given the tenant in Stancil a two-year de facto stay while awaiting its decision. The law works funny that way.

Tim Kowal helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at www.CALPodcast.com, and publishes a newsletter of appellate tips for trial attorneys at www.tvalaw.com/articles. Contact Tim at [email protected] or (714) 641-1232.

Tim Kowal is an appellate specialist certified by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Tim helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at CALpodcast.com, and publishes summaries of cases and appellate tips for trial attorneys. Contact Tim at [email protected] or (949) 676-9989.
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