In a case where plaintiff sued his realtor over the sale of his house, the plaintiff’s lawyer failed to comply with local court rules on the manner of submission of his trial documents. For this, the trial court imposed a rather harsh penalty: It deemed the plaintiff’s right to jury trial waived. The court then conducted a bench trial, and after the plaintiff put on his case, granted defendants’ motion for judgment under California Code of Civil Procedure §631.8, holding that plaintiff failed to present evidence sufficient for a verdict in his favor.

Plaintiff appealed, and the court held that the jury waiver could not stand. While Code of Civil Procedure §575.2 permits trial courts to “impose . . . penalties” for violation of local rules, the deprivation of a jury trial was not a permissible penalty. This is because the California Constitution provides that in civil matters the “inviolate right” of trial by jury “may be waived by the consent of the parties expressed as prescribed by statute.” The statute governing civil jury waivers is Code of Civil Procedure §631, subdivision (f), which lists the grounds permitting waiver of jury trials– and caselaw holds that these grounds are exclusive. Because failing to submit trial documents in the manner required by local rule is not among this exclusive list, the court went beyond its authority in imposing the waiver.

But hold on. What’s wrong with this picture? The court held that plaintiff lacked sufficient evidence to support a verdict in his favor– a circumstance that would cause him to lose any type of trial, judge or jury. So why bother to reverse the trial court’s decision?

Because a 19th Century California Supreme Court case says so. In re Estate of Robinson, 106 Cal. 493, 496 (1895) held that a jury trial cannot be waived by parties’ “failure to present evidence sufficient to secure a judgment in their favor.” And so the Court of Appeal ruled that, consistent with this authority it would be “inappropriate to look to the record of a court trial conducted in excess of the trial court’s jurisdiction as post hoc justification for an earlier, erroneous decision to deny a party a jury trial.”