Case Submitted – Now What?
The statutory provisions relating to family law matters after trial, but before entry of judgment, are strict. This Legal Guide discusses what options exist after a case has been submitted but before a judgement has been entered, and how to avoid a voidable judgement or order.
Tentative DecisionsCal. Code Civil Proc. Section 632, Cal. Family Code section 2338 and Cal Rules of Ct 3.1590 limits what the court and the parties can do following submission of a matter following trial. After a trial, the court is required only to announce a tentative decision. The court makes this announcement by either an oral statement entered in the minutes, or by a written statement filed with the clerk. (Cal Rules of Ct 3.1590.) If the court elects to proceed by written statement, it may publish sua sponte a statement of decision to serve as its tentative decision, order a party to prepare a statement of decision, or state the written tentative will become the statement of decision. (Ibid.)
Tentative Decision vis-à-vis Statement of DecisionIn the strictest sense, a tentative decision need communicated only the bare essentials for each issue (e.g. The proceeds of any sale shall be paid into a trust account; Items listed on Petitioner’s Exhibit 2 are Petitioner’s separate property.) A statement of decision must explain the factual and legal basis for the court’s decision as to each contested issue. In a statement of decision, the court is required to state ultimate facts supporting its conclusion of law. For example, “In March 1979, the parties entered into an oral agreement to pool their property and treat all property as community property” (See In re Marriage of Garrity and Bishton (1986) 181 Cal. App.3d 675, 686-687.) Evidentiary facts are unnecessary “because findings of ultimate facts necessarily include findings on all intermediate evidentiary facts necessary to sustain them.” (In re Cheryl E. (1984) 161 Cal.App.3d 587, 599.).
A statement of decision may be made orally and read into the record if a trial concluded within one calendar day, or in less than 8 hours over more than one day, or the parties agree; otherwise, a statement of decision must be in writing. (Cal Rules of Ct 3.1590.) If the tentative may be made orally into the record, it may do in whole or part oral and part written. (See Wallis v. PHL Associates, Inc. (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 814 [trial court made oral announcements of its tentative decision on three separate hearing dates.]
Must the Court Issue a Statement of Decision?The court is not required to issue a statement of decision. However, if a party desires a statement of decision the court must issue one. If a request for a statement of decision is made, a party must make such a request within 10 days after the court announces of the court’s tentative decision. (Ibid.) If a trial is concluded within one calendar day, or in less than eight hours over more than one day, a request for a statement of decision must be made prior to the submission of the matter for decision. (Ibid.)
Any request for a statement of decision shall specify the controverted issues as to which the party is requesting a statement of decision. Once a party has made a request for statement of decision, any other party to the case may make proposals as to the content of the statement of decision. (Cal. Code Civil Proc. §632.) If the court states its written tentative will become its statement of decision, a party has 10 days after announcement or service of the written tentative to specify controverted issues to include in the statement of decision or request proposals not included in the tentative decision. (See Rule 3.1590.)
After a statement of decision has been issued, a party has 15 days to serve and file any objection to the court’s proposed statement of decision. A part may object only to the language of the statement of decision, not the Court’s ultimate findings and provide to the court the preferred statement of ultimate facts and/or law. (See Rule 3.1590.)
A tentative decision is not a judgment and is not binding on the court. (Code Civ. Proc., § 664.), Before judgment is entered, the court retains the power to change its findings of fact or conclusions of law until judgment is entered. (Phillips v. Phillips (1953) 41 Cal.2d 869, 874-875.)
Motion for New TrialA new trial is a re-examination of an issue of fact in the same court after a trial and decision by the court. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §656). After submission but before entry of judgment, the court is free to change its findings of fact and conclusion of law. Before entry of judgment, a party can move the court for a new trial shall by a properly noticed motion under Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. Section 659. A party may also move for a new trial after entry of judgment within 15 days of the date of mailing notice of entry of judgment or service of written notice of entry of judgment, or 180 days after entry of judgment, whichever is earliest.
Without a properly noticed motion under Cal. Code of Civil Procedure section 662 the court is without jurisdiction to reopen the case and consider further evidence. Cal. Code of Civil Procedure section 662 specifically authorizes the court to "reopen the case for further proceedings and the introduction of additional evidence …" (Uzyel v. Kadisha (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 866.) However, “A new trial order ‘can be granted only on a ground specified in the motion. [CITATIONS] The right to move for a new trial is a creature of statute and the procedure prescribed by law must be closely followed. (Ehrler, supra, 126 Cal.App.3d at p. 151.) "[s]trict construction of the statute ensures protection of the litigant's rights." [CITATIONS]” (Collins v. Sutter Memorial Hospital (2011) 196 Cal.App.4th 1, 126.)
After a properly noticed motion under Cal Code Civ. Proc. Section 659, the family court may grant a new trial for any of the following reasons if the reason materially affected the substantial rights of a party: 1) Irregularity in the proceedings of the court, or any order of the court or abuse of discretion by which either party was prevented from having a fair trial, 2) Accident or surprise, which ordinary prudence could not have guarded against, 3) Newly discovered evidence, material for the party making the application, which he could not, with reasonable diligence, have discovered and produced at the trial, 4) Excessive or inadequate damages, or 5) insufficiency of the evidence to justify the verdict or other decision, or the verdict or other decision is against law, 6) Error in law, occurring at the trial and excepted to by the party making the application.
Without a properly noticed motion under Cal. Code of Civil Procedure 659, the court is without jurisdiction to hear additional evidence. (Mann v. Superior Court (supra) 53 Cal.App.2d 272, 284.) If the court fails to follow fundamental statutory procedures to reopen a case and consider new evidence the resulting judgment of the court is voidable. (See In re Marriage of Jackson (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 980, 988.)
Void and Voidable Judgement“Jurisdictional errors are of two types. 'Lack of jurisdiction in its most fundamental or strict sense means an entire absence of power to hear or determine the case, an absence of authority over the subject matter or the parties.' [Citation.] When a court lacks jurisdiction in a fundamental sense, an ensuing judgment is void, and 'thus vulnerable to direct or collateral attack at any time.' [Citation.] . . . '[W]hen a statute authorizes [a] prescribed procedure, and the court acts contrary to the authority thus conferred, it has exceeded its jurisdiction.' [Citation.] When a court has fundamental jurisdiction, but acts in excess of its jurisdiction, its act or judgment is merely voidable. (Baron v. Fire Ins. Exchange (2007)154 Cal.App.4th 1184, 65 Cal.Rptr.3d 502; See also In re Marriage of Goddard (2004) 33 Cal.4th 49, 56.
If a court grant a new trial outside of a properly noticed motion under Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. Section 659, the only option is challenging the voidable judgment by motion to vacate, or on appeal. A Writ of mandate before the new trial commences may fail because the appellant cannot demonstrate any harm until after a voidable judgment has been entered.
A judgment void on its face may be set aside at any time. A voidable judgment needs to be challenged directly by motion to vacate the judgment, or on appeal. Failing to do so may precluded from setting aside a voidable judgment by estoppel or other equitable considerations.
ConclusionA party must evaluate whether to ask the court for a written statement of decision stating the court's ultimate factual findings that support its conclusion of law. If a party desires a statement of decision, he or she must make such a request of the court. Once a statement of decision is issue, a party may request proposals not included in the tentative decision, and serve and file any objection to the language of the statement of decision.
A party may move the court for a new trial under Cal Code Civ. Proc. Section 659 if the facts and circumstances warrant. A court may only open the case to hear further evidence after a properly noticed motion for a new trial. Reopening the case to consider further evidence outside of the strict statutory guidelines renders any judgment voidable on appeal.