A Primer on Short Cause Trials (California Rule of Court 3.735)

underwood-primer-short-cause-trials-300x300The purpose of this article is to explain what a short cause trial is. A short cause case is a civil case where the parties or court estimate the trial will take five hours or less. Because of a short cause trial’s brevity, these types of cases can get priority in the courtroom. These trials can fill time slots between longer, bigger cases so they may be heard earlier. 

Short cause trials are common in family law court but can also arise in property disputes. Short cause trials are frequently used to address smaller legal issues and attorney fees and costs. (In re Marriage of Garcia (2017) 13 Cal.App.5th 1334, 1340–1341.) Just like a long cause trial, it is possible to appeal the judgment granted in a short cause trial. 

However, just because a matter is tried as a short cause case does not mean it is or should be treated as less important by the courts. If an issue is tried too quickly it will be remanded. For example, a 15-minute trial to decide how to split shared property from a 25-year marriage is much too short to decide such complex issues. (In re Marriage of Brantner (1977) 67 Cal.App.3d 416, 422.) Such a trial would be remanded and deemed an abuse of discretion by the trial court who took so little time for the issue. 

How do you request a Short Cause Trial?

California Rules of Court rule 3.735 distinguishes between short and long cause trials and gives special treatment to short cause trials. Because of how limited the short cause trial is, the court on a motion or as stipulated by parties can order a case to be exempt from case management requirements. 

It is possible for parties to move to transfer the case from short cause to the long cause calendar, however this motion can be denied if the court believes a shorter time is adequate. While a party can ask for the court not to declare a mistrial on the day of trial, the court can still deny it. 

A party can specifically ask for a short cause trial. Like in Velez v. Smith, a party asked for an evidentiary short cause trial to bring forth more evidence on an issue. The party wanted to present testimony to show someone was a domestic partner. The court found there was already adequate documentation provided and the party did not need to present additional testimonial evidence. (Velez v. Smith (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 1154, 1160.)

If a short cause case is not completely tried within five hours, the judge can complete the trial or declare a mistrial. If there is a mistrial, the case is treated like a long cause trial and set for a new trial or for a case management conference. If the case goes long and the time was improperly estimated, the judge has discretion to decide whether the short cause trial concludes there or will be changed to a long cause trial to finish hearing testimony cut off by the time limit.

When should a Party Request a Short Cause Trial? 

The court will conduct a case management conference and issue a case management order in civil cases. These orders control the course of action the trial will take as well as set out the information necessary for all parties in the trial. Case management orders can address the trial date and jury trial request. More importantly, they also will designate the matter as a complex case or a short cause case. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 3.722; rule 3.728.)

As these orders are vital in the trial process, diligent counsel will review all case management orders to ensure they are complying with them before the case goes to trial. The court will set an initial case management conference to review the case. In this initial conference the court will review the case comprehensively and decide whether the case will go to trial or go to alternative dispute resolution. This should generally be the first case management event gone by court order in each case, even short cause cases.

Notice of this conference will generally be given no later than 45 days before the conference or in accordance with local rules. Parties and their counsel (if they are represented) must appear in person or remotely. If the court reviews the case and deems an appearance unnecessary it will let the parties know. 

Putting the short cause trial on the short trial calendar is within the discretion of the trial court and is not done by parties. (Williams v. Seymour (1929) 102 Cal.App. 230, 231.) Because it is within discretion of the court this is why reviewing case management orders is crucial for counsel to know when the trial is. If the case management orders are improperly reviewed, a party will not know when to appear and risks a default judgment against them. For example, a case was called as a long cause trial and the plaintiff failed to appear. (Gordon v. Gordon (1956) 145 Cal.App.2d 231, 232.) Because they failed to appear it was transferred to the short cause calendar and heard as a default matter.

What is an Example?

Because of the prevalence of short cause trials in real estate and partition matters, a short cause trial to determine those issues may occur before a long cause partition or property-based action. Property disputes or the need for partition may stem from an issue addressed in a short cause trial like the dissolution of a marriage.

For example, Shawn and Julie are unhappily married and own a house together. They know they can settle their divorce issue in a matter of hours. The court would likely deem this a short cause case. However, dividing up a jointly owned house likely calls for a partition action. In a more complex matter like partition the need for witnesses and many documents come into play it, so it is unlikely the issue would be resolved in a matter of hours. 


The Underwood Law Firm has a team of experienced lawyers who can help resolve your property interest disputes at trial and help you pursue solutions like partition actions. We are here to help.

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