California Supreme Court Bolsters Enforcement of Jury Trial Waivers

California Supreme Court Bolsters Enforcement of Jury Trial Waivers

The case of TriCoast Builders, Inc. v. Fonnegra raised a question about the adjudication of requests for relief from jury waiver under California Code of Civil Procedure § 631(g) and whether a trial court always grants relief from a jury waiver if proceeding with a jury wouldn’t cause hardship to other parties or to the trial court.

The California Constitution provides that all civil litigants have the right to trial by jury, but they may waive that right in a manner prescribed by statute. Section 631 sets forth various acts and omissions that constitute jury waiver, including failing to make a timely jury demand and failing to timely deposit a jury fee under statutory requirements. Waiver doesn’t categorically foreclose trial by jury; a litigant that has waived jury trial may seek relief from the waiver. The trial court has discretion whether to grant relief, on such terms as may be just.

Background

The question here stems from litigation between a general building contractor (TriCoast) and a homeowner (Fonnegra). Fonnegra hired the company to do repairs on his house after it was damaged by a fire. Unhappy with the quality of their work, he terminated the contract and hired another contractor. TriCoast sued Fonnegra for damages and to enforce a mechanics lien.

The pretrial proceedings in the case took four years, during which Fonnegra demanded a jury trial. TriCoast didn’t ask for a jury or post fees and thus waived its right to a jury trial. TriCoast nonetheless prepared for a jury trial because of Fonnegra's demand. The case was set for a jury trial to begin in September 2019. The judge ordered a jury trial, but a few days later, Fonnegra told the court that he was “willing to waive a jury.”

TriCoast immediately objected, stating that it was “going to post fees today for a jury trial. We're not waiving. We prepared for a jury trial, we‘d like a jury trial.” Fonnegra responded that TriCoast had already waived its jury right by failing to timely post fees. The trial court agreed. Though TriCoast had offered to post fees that day, the court concluded this offer to post fees came too late, “[s]o it's going to be a court trial.”

The trial court denied TriCoast’s request for relief from jury waiver, explaining, “When the fees haven't been paid, and you haven't paid them, the party that did pay them has waived the jury trial, so that's it.” In its order denying relief, the trial court simply noted it had denied TriCoast's oral request for relief, “find[ing] that Plaintiff[,] not having paid jury fees, has waived trial by jury.”

The trial court noted that TriCoast could challenge the ruling by filing a petition for an extraordinary writ if it wished, but TriCoast didn’t do so. Instead, both sides and the judge went ahead with a bench trial. After a seven-day trial, the court ruled in favor of Fonnegra.

TriCoast filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the court abused its discretion by denying its request for relief from waiver of its jury right. The trial court denied the motion, again citing TriCoast's failure to timely pay jury fees.

What Happened on Appeal?

TriCoast appealed, arguing that the trial court committed reversible error when it denied TriCoast's motion for relief from waiver of a jury trial. The Court of Appeal rejected TriCoast's argument in a divided decision. The majority began by faulting TriCoast for challenging the trial court's denial of relief only after the bench trial had already concluded and judgment was rendered, rather than seeking interlocutory review of that denial by filing a petition for writ of mandate. Having raised the issue by way of post-judgment appeal, the majority concluded that TriCoast was required to establish prejudice resulting from the bench trial, which it couldn’t do.

The majority held, that TriCoast wasn’t entitled to reversal of the judgment on appeal, even if it could show that the trial court had abused its discretion in denying TriCoast's request for relief from waiver. TriCoast appealed.

What Did the Supreme Court Decide?

Associate Supreme Court Justice Leondra R. Kruger wrote in her opinion that under the California Constitution, “[t]rial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all” in civil as well as criminal cases. But like most constitutional rights, the right to a jury trial can be waived. In criminal cases, waiver requires “the consent of both parties expressed in open court by the defendant and the defendant's counsel.” In civil cases, by contrast, the right may be waived “by the consent of the parties expressed as prescribed by statute.”

The issue involved the nature of a court's discretion to allow a jury trial under § 631(g) notwithstanding a party‘s waiver of the jury right. TriCoast doesn’t dispute that it waived its jury right, but it argued that the trial court erred when it refused to allow it to proceed with the jury trial that Fonnegra demanded, then waived on the day of trial. In cases of inadvertent waiver, it’s an abuse of discretion to deny relief from jury waiver in the absence of any showing that proceeding with a jury trial would have harmed the other side, TriCoast asserted.

The Supreme Court agreed with Fonnegra that § 631(g) doesn’t limit a trial court's discretion in the manner TriCoast suggests. The text doesn’t state that a court must grant relief from waiver in the absence of a showing of hardship. Rather, it says only that the court may grant relief “in its discretion upon just terms.” This open-ended grant of discretion doesn’t direct courts to narrow their focus to any single factor. Rather, the Supreme Court said that it suggests that courts should consider all factors relevant to whether granting relief in the particular situation before them would be “just.”

Justice Kruger explained that the primary consideration is indeed whether granting relief from waiver would result in any hardship to other parties or to the court, such as delay in rescheduling the trial for a jury or inconvenience to witnesses. But courts have also regularly considered other factors, the judge said, including the following:

  • The timeliness of the request;
  • Whether the requester is willing to comply with applicable requirements for payment of jury fees; and
  • The reasons supporting the request.

Stated as a general rule, when § 631 was first enacted, the sole bases for finding waiver of the civil jury right were nonappearance at trial and express consent to waiver. Over the last century, however, the statutory bases for finding jury waiver have expanded well beyond what we would ordinarily term “waiver” of a constitutional right, to encompass noncompliance with various procedural requirements for making jury demands, including requirements to post jury fees at the correct time or in the correct amount. This expansion has increased the possibility that the jury right, though otherwise timely invoked, might nonetheless be lost through mere technical statutory error—what courts have sometimes loosely described as an “inadvertent” waiver.

Justice Kruger explained that § 631(g) alleviates the harshness of this result by allowing courts to forgive a party's technical noncompliance when the party has fulfilled the core objective of the statute, which is to give timely notice that a jury is demanded. At least in the absence of countervailing factors, courts have generally granted such forgiveness where to do so would not result in hardship. This is much the same approach courts take in other instances involving technical noncompliance with statutory requirements. It is also consistent with the courts' general policy of resolving doubts about section 631 waiver “‘in favor of according to a litigant a jury trial,’” in keeping with the constitutional guarantee.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal in this case, which held that the trial court wasn’t required to grant TriCoast's request for relief from waiver once it was established that no harm would result from proceeding with a jury trial. The Court of Appeal was correct that the trial court can consider other factors aside from hardship to the opposing party when it is deciding whether to exercise its discretion to grant relief from a jury trial waiver. But the Supreme Court didn’t decide whether the trial court properly exercised its discretion. Because TriCoast raised the issue for the first time on appeal of the trial court's judgment, it must show it was prejudiced by the trial court's denial of its request for relief from waiver. Because TriCoast didn’t make that showing, reversal of the judgment wasn’t warranted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeal was affirmed. TriCoast Builders, Inc. v. Fonnegra (California Supreme Court, 2/26/24).

Bottom Line

California employers should note that waiver of the right to a jury trial can be conclusive if the party seeking reversal of the waiver can’t demonstrate it caused prejudice to the other party. As a result of TriCoast, it will be harder for a party to persuade a court to allow it to renege on its waiver of a jury trial in a civil case. This case may benefit employers as it increases the likelihood that employees who validly waive their right to a jury trial will be bound by that decision, even if they subsequently attempt to avoid it. On the other hand, for employers who initially don’t claim a jury trial because the employee has demanded a jury, their waiver may be enforced against them—as was the situation with TriCoast—if the opposition changes their mind.

In effect, TriCoast places a heavy burden of demonstrating prejudice occurred by the waiver of a jury trial on the appellant. Moreover, the case shows that relief from a jury waiver is not guaranteed at the trial court level.

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