Bien-venue: Commencing Trust-related Litigation in the Proper County

JurisdictionCalifornia,United States
AuthorBy Bryan L. Phipps, Esq.
Publication year2016
CitationVol. 22 No. 2
BIEN-VENUE: COMMENCING TRUST-RELATED LITIGATION IN THE PROPER COUNTY

By Bryan L. Phipps, Esq.*

I. INTRODUCTION

Determining venue for litigation concerning the internal affairs of a trust is ordinarily straightforward: actions are filed in the county in which the principal place of administration of the trust is located. In most trust-related litigation cases, this is where the analysis ends. For others, though, the analysis must continue.

The petitioner who files an internal-trust proceeding might also try to include trust-related matters that are not internal-trust disputes and thus could be brought as separate petitions under the Probate Code. Alternatively, that petitioner might try to include causes of action or claims that are not governed by the Probate Code at all. In the former case, notwithstanding that the petitioner attempted to bring all trust-related matters with a single pleading before the Probate Court, the parties might find themselves in effect dealing with multiple petitions, each with its own venue rule, a fact the court might consider when determining venue. In the latter case involving non-probate issues, the parties might find themselves faced with multiple causes of action that are governed by venue statutes that are concurrently applicable and contradictory. In such an instance, a determination regarding venue might have to be considered under the mixed action rule. And while the mixed action rule is ordinarily dispositive for disputes of that nature, it is not without exception.

Although no California cases have analyzed the special venue statute for trust proceedings set forth in the Probate Code in the context of the mixed action rule, a strong case can be made that the mixed action rule should be subordinate to the special rule of trust-related venue codified in Probate Code section 17005.

Probate Code section 17005 states that the trust's principal place of administration is the proper venue for most proceedings brought under the Trust Law (i.e., Division 9 of the Probate Code). However, section 17005 invokes the civil rules for matters that the section does not specifically address, and it does not purport to govern venue for matters that fall outside of Division 9. Hence, when confronted with a petition that tries to mix trust matters with claims that are not governed by trust law, counsel might face circumstances in which the rules of venue under the Code of Civil Procedure seem to apply, at least to some of the matters put at issue.1

II. VENUE IN CIVIL ACTIONS GENERALLY

Perhaps the first strategic decision in litigating a case is choosing the court in which to file the action. In making this decision, although jurisdiction is statewide, a plaintiff's choice of county for the trial of the action is fairly limited due to the venue rules that geographically narrow the location of the trial of the action. In general, a defendant's right to have an action tried in the county of his or her residence "is an ancient and valuable right, safeguarded by statute and supported by a long line of decisions."2 This ancient and valuable right is codified in Code of Civil Procedure section 395.3 Here, the "general venue rule" provides that, "except as otherwise provided by law," the superior court in the county where the defendant resides at the commencement of the action is the proper court for the trial of the action.4

III. THE MIXED VENUE RULE

When two inconsistent venue provisions appear to be concurrently applicable in the same case ? most commonly involving the general venue rule and a "special" venue provision ? the special venue provision overrides the general venue rule. This priority results from the statutory construction of the introductory clause to the general venue rule: "Except as otherwise provided by law . . . ."5 In this way, the general venue rule is subordinated and applies only when no other venue provision exists.

The first case to construe the "[e]xcept as otherwise provided by law" clause of Code of Civil Procedure section 395 was Delgado v. Superior Court.6 In this case, the plaintiff initiated legal proceedings against Yolo County, a Sacramento automobile dealership, and an automobile manufacturer for damages resulting from a collision with a Yolo County sheriff's car that left the plaintiff with serious injuries and caused the death of plaintiff's wife.7 The lawsuit was initially filed in Sacramento County where the automobile dealership had its principal place of business (e.g., where the business resides).8

Prior to filing an answer, Yolo County filed a motion to transfer the proceedings to Yolo County under the special venue provision set forth in Code of Civil Procedure section 394.9 In pertinent part, section 394 provides that any action against a county for an injury occurring within the county caused by the alleged negligence of the county or its agents or employees must be tried in such county.10 Importantly, had Yolo County been the sole defendant in the action, it was clear that venue was proper only in Yolo County.11 Similarly, had the automobile dealership been the sole defendant, it was clear that venue was proper only in Sacramento County (the county of "residence" for the automobile dealership).12The issue discussed by the Court of Appeal was whether the general venue rule permitting venue in Sacramento County was subordinate to the special venue provision in section 394 requiring transfer to Yolo County ? making the matter "one of those troublesome 'mixed venue' cases, in which two inconsistent venue provisions appear to be concurrently applicable to the same case."13

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In reaching its decision upholding the trial court's order transferring the proceedings to Yolo County, the Court of Appeal found great significance in the 1970 amendment to Code of Civil Procedure section 395.14 Prior to the 1970 amendment, the introductory phrase of section 395 read, "In all other cases, except as in this section otherwise provided, . . . the county in which defendants, or some of them, reside at the commencement of the action, is the proper county for the trial of the action."15 With this introductory language, the controlling authority at the time held that the general venue rule trumped, or was at least on par with, the special venue provision of section 394.16 The 1970 amendment to Code of Civil Procedure section 395 replaced the introductory language of that section with "[e]xcept as otherwise provided by law . . . the county in which the defendants or some of them reside at the commencement of the action is the proper county for the trial of the action."17 With this change, the court in Delgado held that the new amendment to the general venue rule "is a true subordinating declaration" and that the general venue rule is to be applied only when there is no other applicable venue provision.18

IV. MIXED ACTIONS

While Delgado established a rule for resolving conflicts between contradictory venue provisions applicable to the same cause of action ? that is, mixed venue cases ? Delgado and its progeny19 did not address the scenario where a plaintiff alleges two or more causes of action that are each governed by a different venue statute ? that is, mixed actions. The law regarding venue in mixed actions is well-settled: "When several causes of action are alleged in a complaint, a motion for change of venue must be granted on all causes if defendant is entitled to a change on any one."20 Stated differently, "Where the defendant is entitled to a change of venue as to one cause of action, the entire action is transferred."21 While this result may seem harsh for a plaintiff who, for the purposes of judicial economy, brings multiple causes of action against multiple defendants, the California Supreme Court has stated ? as early as 1889 ? "It is the plaintiff's own doing if the complaint be so drawn. He cannot deprive the defendant of his right to a change of venue by the addition of something to the complaint. If this were not the rule, it would be very easy for a plaintiff to defeat the defendant's right in the matter. All that plaintiff would have to do would be to add another cause of action to his complaint."22

V. A SPECIAL VENUE RULE MAY TRUMP THE MIXED ACTION RULE

Lest the mixed action rule be too easy to apply, it is not without exception. In Brown v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court took up the issue of whether, under certain circumstances, a special venue statute overrides the mixed action rule.23

In Brown, the plaintiffs were employed on a highway construction project in Alameda County. As alleged, the defendants discriminated against and ultimately discharged two plaintiffs because they were black; another plaintiff, the foreman, was discharged because he refused to participate in the defendants' discriminatory practices.24 The plaintiffs filed a complaint in the Alameda County Superior Court seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful discharge, and violation of the plaintiffs' federal civil rights.25 All causes of action were based on the same factual allegations.26

Approximately one year after first filing their complaint but before it had been served, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to add a cause of action under California's Fair Employment and Housing Action ("FEHA") and to delete the federal civil rights claim.27 The addition of the FEHA claim was initiated by a letter that the plaintiffs received from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which informed the plaintiffs of their right to sue under FEHA.28 The FEHA claim was based on the same factual allegations regarding liability and damages as the emotional distress and wrongful discharge claims.29

Prior to answering, the defendants moved to transfer the venue of the action to Sacramento.30 The defendants' request for a change of venue was based on the fact that three individual defendants resided there, the corporate defendants' principal...

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