Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Order Granting New Trial Subject to Mandamus Review

Murasko v. Loo (HSC March 7, 2011)

Background. The Muraskos filed a petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and injunction against their neighbors, the Curells. District Court Judge Loo reviewed the petition, granted the TRO, and set a hearing to determine a longer injunction. The Curells, appearing pro se, filed a response denying the allegations. At the hearing, the parties presented evidence, Judge Loo granted the petition, and ordered a three year injunction to take effect August 10. On August 12, the Curells, now with counsel, filed a motion for an extension of time in order to file "post-verdict motions." Counsel for the Curells explained in the motion that he had been retained on August 5, and was unable to file any motions because he would be on vacation from August 11 through August 18. Counsel wanted to extend the time to Sept. 1. The district court granted the motion.

On Sept. 1, the Curells filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to District Court Rules of Civil Procedure (DCRCP) Rule 59. The Muraskos argued that new trial was not permissible because DCRCP Rule 6(b) prohibited Judge Loo from extending the time for moving for a new trial. At a hearing on the motion, Judge Loo rejected the Muraskos' argument, granted the Curells' motion, and ordered a new trial. The new trial was taken off the calendar when the Muraskos petitioned the HSC for mandamus review.

Writs of Mandamus. A writ of mandamus "is an extraordinary remedy that will not issue unless the petitioner demonstrates a clear and indisputable right to relief and a lack of alternative means to redress adequately the alleged wrong or obtain the requested action." Kema v. Gaddis, 91 Hawai'i 200, 204, 982 P.2d 334, 338 (1999). These writs are not supposed to "supersede the legal discretionary authority of the lower court, nor are they meant to serve as legal remedies in lieu of normal appellate procedures." Id.

Review of a Lower Court's Granting of a new Trial Allow a writ of Mandamus. The HSC, in determining whether granting a new trial warranted review of a writ of mandamus, turned to Moore's Federal Practice.

In general, an order granting a new trial is interlocutory and destroys the finality of the judgment; as such an order granting a new trial is not an appealable order . . . . In such a case, neither party ordinarily may appeal until after a final judgment is entered on retrial. However, on occasion courts have treated the grant of a new trial as a final appealable order when the court's authority to issue the new trial order is challenged. Because this line of authority undermines the concept of finality, however, the better view is that appellate review should be available, if at all, through an extraordinary writ, if the losing party does not wish to wait for the subsequent entry of a final judgment. An extraordinary writ enables the appellate court to review orders granting a new trial that are not appealable.

12 Moore's Federal Practice, § 59.50 at 133-34. The HSC adopted Professor Moore's "better view" and held that although the order granting a new trial is not immediately appealable because it is not a final order, it may be reviewed in an original proceeding for a writ of mandamus.

Moore's View: More Review, less Trials. This case has increased the HSC's docket to include immediate review of any and all orders granting a new trial. Moore's approach is a practical and sensible one. Rather than go through the expense, time, and hardship of yet another trial (there's a reason why they are called trials in the first place), wading through the post-trial motions, and appealing from the final judgment, parties can directly petition to the HSC to determine whether a new trial is warranted.

The District Court's Procedural Oddities. First off, the DCRCP do not apply to "actions for relief from harassment pursuant to" HRS § 604-10.5. DCRCP Rule 81(a)(4). But, when "a civil proceeding is not governed by the [DCRCP] . . . [t]he court may designate and order that any one or more of the [rules] shall be applicable in such case." Rules of the District Court (RDC) Rule 31(a)(5). When the district court makes a RDC Rule 31 designation, it "should expressly state so for the record." Chang v. Berc, 101 Hawai'i 167, 170 n. 4, 64 P.3d 948, 951 n. 4 (2003).

Here, the HSC held that the DCRCP was inapplicable to the Muraskos' action. However, the district court implicitly invoked RDC Rule 31 by granting the Curells' motion for an extension of time in order to file post-verdict motions pursuant to DCRCP Rules 59 and 60. According to the HSC, that meant that Judge Loo granted the new trial based on DCRCP Rule 59 and not based on her inherent authority.

DCRCP Rules are Mandatory: No Extensions Allowed. "A motion for new trial shall be served not later than 10 days after the entry of the judgment." DCRCP Rule 59(b). When these rules require that an act be done within a specified time, "the court for cause shown may at any time in its discretion . . . order the period enlarged if request therefore made before the expiration of the period originally prescribed . . .; but it may not extend the time for taking any action under Rule . . . 59(b)[.]" DCRCP Rule 6(b). The HSC held that there being no exceptions for the 10-day rule in DCRCP Rule 59(b), the time to file a motion for a new trial cannot be extended by the district court. Thus, the Curells' motion for a new trial was untimely filed and should not have been granted. The HSC granted the petition for writ of mandamus and reinstated the Aug. 10 injunction.

What if the DCRCP Wasn't Invoked? The HSC held that the district court implicitly invoked RCD Rule 31, in granting the motion to extend time. That meant that the DCRCP applied. In doing so, the HSC declined to address the Curells' argument that the district court had an inherent power to extend the deadline. But what if the rule hadn't been applied? Would the district court have the inherent power to extend the deadline? This raises another question: the deadline for what? A motion for new trial pursuant to the DCRCP? That would be a tautology. So for that argument to work, the district court would have to have the inherent power to not only extend a deadline but to review and grant a new trial without invoking the DCRCP. Perhaps it does. But it seems awfully strange since the DCRCP has a set of rules for this particular motion. Who knows what strange procedures will emerge from the district court?