Trellis Blog - Legal Analytics

Motions to Dismiss: A Loosely Defined Power

May 23, 2019, 11:30:00 AM / by Caitlin Davis

The California Code of Civil Procedure presents an elaborate statutory scheme through which a defendant can dismiss an action. Broadly stipulated in section 581(b), these provisions concern the logistics of court proceedings. Has the case been abandoned by the plaintiff? Has either party not appeared at trial? Has a plaintiff failed to amend a successfully demurred complaint? Throughout California this code has brought mixed results over the years.

Graph of Motions to Dismiss Filed by County

We can begin by considering the number of motions to dismiss filed throughout the state. At first glance, these figures appear to replicate the recent trends we observed in the number of motions for summary judgment filed in California. However, these similarities quickly vanish as soon as we configure the number of motions to dismiss as a percentage of total filings. For many counties, the percentage of motions to dismiss has stayed relatively constant since 2006 (Kern County is a notable exception).

Graph of Motions to Dismiss as a Percentage of Total Filings by County

We can see, then, that there have been few changes in the ways defendants have filed motions to dismiss.

But have there been any changes in the ways judges have ruled on them? Let us continue our study of Alameda County. Throughout the county, the percentage of motions to dismiss that have been granted has remained fairly consistent. Aside from two peaks in 2007 and 2014, it appears that a defendant is more likely to have their motion to dismiss denied than granted.

Graph of Motion to Dismiss Outcomes in Alameda County

But there is also another story, one that cannot be told through aggregated data of county-wide trends. There is an important provision in the California Code of Civil Procedure which states that the elements of section 581(b) “shall not be deemed to be an exclusive enumeration of the court’s power to dismiss an action or dismiss a complaint as to a defendant.” That is to say, the California Code of Civil Procedure grants the California Courts a loosely defined power, one that allows them to dismiss actions in situations not covered by its codes.

As such, the scope of a motion to dismiss is, in actuality, much broader. Under a motion to dismiss, the court might be asked to rule on whether or not it has jurisdiction over the subject matter of the complaint. It might be asked to determine whether not a statute of limitations has expired. Or, it might be asked to assess whether or not a complaint lacks a cause of action.

This increase in judicial authority renders it more and more important to collect information about specific judges—about their individual proclivities, their decision-making practices, their unique evidentiary thresholds. What sorts of patterns emerge when we study the rulings of specific judges? We can see that, over the course of his judicial career, the Hon. Evelio M. Grillo has increased the rate at which he has granted motions to dismiss. We can also see that, for the years we have data, the Hon. Kimberly E. Colwell and the Hon. Frank Roesch granted a higher percentage of motions to dismiss during the fourth and the fifth year they presided over this type of filing.

The judicial process is just as important to study as the judicial outcome in a motion to dismiss. Generalized data are not sufficient.

Written by Caitlin Davis

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