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Trial Court Blanket Ruling

Courts Cannot Reconsider Final Orders—But What Is a “Final” Order?

Tim Kowal     July 20, 2022

On the topic of judgment enforcement, the new rule announced in Coastline JX Holdings LLC v. Bennett (D4d3 Jul. 7, 2022, No. G059552) --- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, 2022 WL 2527118 is that a judgment-debtor’s profit-sharing plan is exempt from levy under both ERISA and California law, because profit-sharing plans are non-assignable.

And on the topic of civil procedure, while a trial court lacks jurisdiction to reconsider a “final” order, that does not apply to interim rulings whose deadline to appeal has not yet expired. So the trial court’s reconsideration here was valid.

This clarifies a number of recent cases holding trial courts lacked jurisdiction to entertain motions for reconsideration.

Coastline involved a March 12, 2020 order to turn over a profit-sharing plan to the levying officer. Three months later in June, the debtor moved for reconsideration, arguing his individual retirement account and profit-sharing plan were non-assignable and thus exempt from levy under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA; 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.).

The court denied the motion, but in July it entered a minute order stating the court “potentially reconsiders its ruling” concerning the profit-sharing plan. The court issued a tentative ruling granting reconsideration in August, and then actually granting on September 21.

An untimely motion for reconsideration does not affect the trial court’s inherent authority to reconsider:

On appeal, Coastline first argued that the debtor’s motion for reconsideration, filed three months after the March 2020 order, was untimely. Code of Civil Procedure section 1008 requires the motion to be filed within 10 days. Three months was way too late.

That’s true, the Court of Appeal acknowledged. But according to the Supreme Court, an untimely motion for reconsideration “do[es] not limit the court's ability, on its own motion, to reconsider its prior interim orders so it may correct its own errors.” (Le Francois v. Goel (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1094, 1107 (Le Francois).)

Ok, but if nothing prevents a trial court from considering a late motion for reconsideration, doesn’t that lay waste to the statutory 10-day window? Perhaps, but the Supreme Court was clear on this as well in Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri, Inc. v. Superior Court (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1233, 1249 (Brown)): “it should not matter whether the “judge has an unprovoked flash of understanding in the middle of the night” [citation] or acts in response to a party's suggestion.” (Le Francois, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1108; see, e.g., In re Marriage of Barthold (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 1301, 1308 [although motion for reconsideration that is unsupported by new legal authority or new evidence violates § 1008, such a motion may inspire the trial court to reconsider its previous decision on its own motion].)”

The trial court could reconsider the judgment-enforcement order because it was interim and not final, and the time to appeal had not yet expired (but this was a subtle call):

Coastline then argued that the trial court had no jurisdiction to reconsider its order because it was final. On this, Coastline had some solid authority. (See here.)

But the court disagreed. First, the postjudgment order was an interim order, not a final order akin to a judgment. For this, the court cited the Supreme Court,s Le Francois decision again, noting its distinction that ‘... final orders ... present quite different concerns’ from interim orders.”

The other facet of Coastline’s argument was a little different. Coastline noted that, even if the March 2020 postjudgment order was merely interim, by late September when the trial court issued its reconsideration ruling, more than six months had passed. And so the time to appeal from the March 2020 order had expired. So that made the March 2020 order final and beyond the trial court’s jurisdiction to reconsider, right?

On this score, the court accepted Coastline’s major premise, but rejected the minor. The court pointed to the trial court’s July minute order: “We construe the language of the court's July 6, 2020 minute order that it “potentially reconsiders its ruling with respect to distribution of $60,000 from the profit-sharing plan” (italics added) as the court then commencing the reconsideration process and informing the parties that, after it completed that process, it might reverse (potentially) the relevant portion of the March 2020 Order.” The court noted that the trial court ordered further briefing and set a further hearing.

Here is how the court concluded:

“As the trial court in July 2020 commenced its reconsideration of the PSP portion of the March 2020 Order on its own motion well before the August 26 deadline for filing an appeal from that order, the trial court had jurisdiction to proceed. In any event, the court clearly had reconsidered the March 2020 Order by the August 10 hearing as evidenced by the court announcing its tentative ruling reconsidering the status of the PSP as automatically exempt from levy. As both the trial court's announcement of its intent to reconsider the March 2020 Order and its tentative ruling reversing the part of that order as to whether the PSP might be levied upon occurred before the deadline for filing an appeal from the March 2020 Order, we do not need to address the extent to which a trial court has inherent authority to reconsider an order after the time to appeal that order has passed.”

Comment:

Something seems odd about this reasoning. Jurisdictional rules ordinarily cannot be extended except by statute. But here, the court held that the time in which the trial court could reconsider the order was extended when the trial court indicated it would “potentially” reconsider it. After that point, the Court of Appeal does not suggest how long this “potential reconsideration” period might last. This seems to leave nothing of the jurisdictional time limit for the trial court’s period to reconsider the order.

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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