Abuse of Discretion Standard for Review of Evidentiary Objections in Connection with Summary Judgment Rulings

April 23, 2020 Patrick Hammon

Two weeks ago, the Second District attempted to resolve a dispute regarding the standard of review applied to trial court rulings on evidentiary objections made in connection with summary judgment motions in Ducksworth v. Tri-Modal Distribution Servs. (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 7, 2020) No. B294872, 2020 WL 1684189.  In Ducksworth, the trial court overruled the appellant’s hearsay objection, one which was renewed on appeal. 

Recognizing that “[t]here is controversy here,” the Court of Appeal started its analysis with Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512, 535.  In Reid, the Supreme Court approved an “independent review” standard when the trial court “entirely failed to rule” on the evidentiary objections proffered in connection with the underlying summary judgment motion.  As the Ducksworth court observed, however, Reid did not decide the related question of which standard of review should be applied when the trial court has, in fact, ruled on an objection. 

The Second District noted that the “vast majority of courts of appeal since Reid” had applied the “abuse of discretion” standard in this situation.  However, the court acknowledged that at least two courts have disagreed: Pipitone v. Williams (2016) 244 Cal.App.4th 1437 and Alexander v. Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 206.  In Pipitone, the Sixth District interpreted Reid to have the “practical effect” of mandating independent review of evidentiary rulings that were decided on the papers alone.  Id. at 1450-52.  And in Alexander, the Fourth District, though ultimately applying an “abuse of discretion” standard to the evidentiary objections at issue, interpreted Reid as requiring the more deferential standard for certain types of objections (i.e., lack of foundation, speculation, and qualification of experts), while permitting the more exacting “independent review” standard for objections that center on questions of law (like a hearsay objection, which was at issue in Ducksworth).  Id. at 226.

The Ducksworth court rejected the approaches in Pipitone and Alexander, joining the “vast majority” of other courts of appeal and embracing the “abuse of discretion” standard for the hearsay objection at issue.  The Second District explained that law and logic supported its ruling, noting that “evidence law is surpassingly intricate” and “the need for dispatch is pressing.”  And, because a single summary judgment motion may bring with it hundreds of written objections, the “daunting complexity, volume, and pace of th[e] decisionmaking task” meant that the “latitude implied by the abuse-of-discretion standard” makes “great sense” for all evidentiary objections in connection with summary judgment rulings, including ones premised on hearsay.  Applying that standard to the case at bar, the Second District concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in overruling the appellant’s hearsay objection. 

While not a Supreme Court decision, the Ducksworth decision is the first to address, and reject, both Pipitone and Alexander.  Its synthesis of the law and logic behind applying the “abuse of discretion” standard, along with its joinder in the growing chorus of support for the application of that standard, strongly suggests its holding will be the law of the land for the foreseeable future.