PRICE V. ZHANG, 2022 OK 95

Opinion:Price v. Zhang, 2022 OK 95
Subject Matter:Civil Procedure
Date Decided:November 22, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Carter County; Judge Baldwin
Route to this Court:Plaintiff filed a motion for new trial arguing that he was denied due process because he was not given adequate notice of the hearing which resulted in the trial court’s dismissal of his lawsuit. The trial court denied the motion for new trial, and the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Facts:Plaintiff filed a lawsuit on April 1, 2016, alleging that wife’s death was the result of medical negligence/wrongful death. On February 27, 2019, Defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute. They argued that the Plaintiff had been deposed over a year before, on February 20, 2018, which was the last activity in the case. Plaintiff filed a Response to the Motion to Dismiss on March 15, 2019.

On May 14, 2019, the trial court filed a “NOTICE” which set the matter for “Annual Disposition Docket on 6-2-19 at 10:00.” A scheduling order filed on June 24, 2019, set a pretrial conference for October 7, 2019, at 1:30 p.m. with notation that the trial date would be set on the November docket.

A joint motion to extend discovery filed on October 7, 2019, was the last docket entry until nine months later, on July 22, 2020, when the trial court filed an order of dismissal without prejudice. It stated that the pretrial conference was scheduled for July 13, 2020, at 1:30 p.m., but that Plaintiff’s counsel did not appear. Instead, another attorney attended the pretrial conference on behalf of Plaintiff’s counsel, but the court limited the substitute counsel’s participation in the proceeding.

On August 5, 2020, the plaintiff filed a Motion for New Trial. In it, Plaintiff’s counsel explained, among other things, that: on March 16, 2020, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued an order in response to the COVID outbreak which ordered district courts to suspend jury trials and reschedule other hearings, etc., for thirty days, which was eventually extended to July 31, 2020.  On July 10, 2020, the plaintiff’s counsel received an email from defendant’s counsel that stated that he had been advised by the trial court’s bailiff that the cause was set for pretrial conference on July 13, 2020, at 1:30 p.m. On September 14, 2020 the Court of Civil Appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal.
Standard of Review:The Court granted certiorari to address the balance between a trial court’s attempt to dispose of a stagnant case and a litigant’s right to due process.
Analysis:The Court recognized that when due process due process is implicated in a proceeding, the fundamental requirement of due process of the opportunity to be heard in a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner must be satisfied. Trial courts are required to manage their docket effectively and reliably. Flandermeyer v. Bonner, 2006 OK 87. This case taught that a delicate balance is required between a trial court’s expeditious control and a disposition of its docket and meeting minimum due process requirements of its litigants.

The Court further noted that fundamental fairness must be afforded within a framework of orderly procedure and that fairness includes giving notice of certain judicial events which alter legally cognizable rights. Brooks v. Baltz, 2000 OK 73. Failure to give notice of a hearing for the adjudication of rights falls short of the minimum standards of due process. Therefore, due process requires full and adequate notice to be given for hearings which could alter legally cognizable rights. Failure to give such notice must be waived.

The Court has also noted that when the hearing taking place marked a dispositive event which could terminate the litigation, due process required actual notice either by personal service or mail. Heiman v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 1991 OK 22. Taking all of these cases into consideration and applying them to the facts of the case, the Court noticed that the trial court docket did not indicate that a pretrial conference had been scheduled. Plaintiff’s attorney only received notice from opposing counsel three days before the hearing. Because Plaintiff’s attorney sent a substitute to the hearing, Plaintiff did not waive notice. The Court determined that the trial court did not meet the standards of due process by giving proper notice of the pretrial conference.
Outcome:Court of Civil Appeals Opinion Vacated; Trial Court Order Vacated and Cause Remanded.
Vote:5-4. Concur: Kane, V.C.J., Kauger (author), Edmondson, Gurich, Rowe, JJ. Dissent: Darby, C.J., Winchester, Combs, Kuehn, JJ.
Other:Although this case was narrowly reversed and remanded by a split court, the dissenting justices did not file their own dissenting opinions to clarify on what grounds they disagreed with the majority.