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November 3, 2010

Ahanchian v. Xenon Pictures, Inc. 624 F.3d 1253 (9th Cir. 2010)

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The Ninth Circuit holds a party who promptly seeks relief from an unusually abrupt filing deadline is entitled to relief for excusable neglect.  The Court was critical of opposing counsel who refused a reasonable request to stipulate to an extension.

Ahanchian filed a complaint against Sam Maccarone and others for copyright infringement, breach of an implied contract, and unfair competition.  Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the last possible date, supported by roughly 1,000 pages of exhibits and declarations.  Ahanchian’s opposition was due eight days later, after a three day weekend.  Ahanchian’s counsel was scheduled to travel out of state during this time to fulfill a previously-scheduled commitment.

Defense counsel refused to stipulate to a continuance of the hearing date for the motion and opposed Ahanchian’s ex-parte application for an extension arguing that Ahanchian had failed to demonstrate good cause.  The district court denied the application.  Ahanchian ultimately filed his opposition to the summary judgment motion three days late and also filed an ex parte application seeking permission to make the late filing, which defense counsel also opposed.

The district court granted defendants’ summary judgment motion and denied the ex-parte application, concluding Ahanchian had simply failed to file timely oppositions.

The Ninth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion.  The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit extensions of time, and should be applied to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of disputes.  Requests for extensions of time made before the applicable deadline has passed should normally be granted in the absence of bad faith or prejudice to the adverse party.

Ahanchian showed good cause because he faced an exceptionally constrained deadline resulting from the peculiar dictates of local rules.  In addition, the deadline followed a three day weekend.  Ahanchian’s time to respond was cut to five business days.  There was no record of Ahanchian’s counsel’s bad faith or of prejudice to defendants.  Ahanchian’s counsel acted conscientiously by promptly seeking extensions of time and had previously granted extensions when requested.

The court applied an incorrect standard in denying the second ex-parte request.  Rule 60(b) provides that a court “may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding” on the basis of “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.” A finding of “excusable neglect,” is based on a four-factor equitable test, examining: (1) the danger of prejudice to the opposing party; (2) the length of the delay and its potential impact on the proceedings; (3) the reason for the delay; and (4) whether the movant acted in good faith.  In balancing these factors the court may not apply per se rules, that is, any rigid legal rule against late filings attributable to any particular type of negligence.

The district court did not apply the balancing test, and instead based its decision solely on the third factor, whether the reason for the delay could establish excusable neglect.  This was compounded when the court concluded that a calendaring error is the type of inadvertent mistake not entitled to relief – a per se rule.

The Ninth Circuit decided that Ahanchian’s delay was the result of excusable neglect.  Rule 60(b) is remedial in nature and must be liberally applied.  All four factors favored Ahanchian.  The defendants would not have been prejudiced by a week’s delay in the filing of the opposition and a concomitant week extension to file a reply.  The requested delay was a mere three days and would not have affected the hearing date or the trial date.
While a calendaring mistake caused by the failure to apply a clear local rule may be a weak justification for an attorney’s delay, there was precedent that held the identical mistake excusable neglect.

There was no indication that Ahanchian’s failure to file the opposition on time was the result of bad faith.  His counsel had no history of missing deadlines or disobeying the district court’s orders.

The Ninth Circuit criticized defense counsel’s lack of professional courtesy and hardball tactics designed to avoid resolution of the merits of this case.  Defense counsel took knowing advantage of the constrained response time, refused to stipulate to an extension of time, and opposed Ahanchian’s ex-parte requests.  Such uncompromising behavior is inconsistent with general principles of professional conduct, and also undermines the truth-seeking function of our adversarial system.  For the system to function attorneys must treat each other with a high degree of civility and respect.  Where there is no indication of bad faith, prejudice, or undue delay, attorneys should not oppose reasonable requests for extensions of time brought by their adversaries.

Comment: Prompt and conscientious requests for extensions should normally be honored by the court.  Counsel’s refusal to stipulate to a reasonable request for an extension so that a matter may be heard on the merits, may ultimately

 

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