The Ninth Circuit today asks the Supreme Court to decide a California procedural issue that arises in limited civil cases, including debt collection actions.  The federal court says “an answer from the California Supreme Court will help simplify litigation procedures in these low value cases, which are responsible for the vast majority of civil filings in California. . . . . It will also provide guidance to California consumers, creditors, and debt collectors and purchasers who litigate thousands of debt collection cases each year.”  The issue is of importance in the Ninth Circuit case — Meza v. Portfolio Recovery Associates, LLC — which concerns whether the defendants misused a litigation procedure and thus violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Under Code of Civil Procedure section 98, a party in a limited civil case can substitute a witness’s declaration for live testimony, but the declaration must, under certain circumstances, include “a current address of the affiant that is within 150 miles of the place of trial, and the affiant [must be] available for service of process at that place for a reasonable period of time, during the 20 days immediately prior to trial.”  In the collection action underlying the Meza case, the debt collector submitted the declaration of a person who lives more than 150 miles from the courthouse, but the declaration included the address of the debt collector’s attorneys, who were authorized to accept service of process on the witness’s behalf.

The question the Ninth Circuit poses is:  “Under § 98(a) of the California Code of Civil Procedure, must the affiant be physically located and personally available for service of process at the address provided in the declaration that is within 150 miles of the place of trial?”  The Court of Appeals says that the only relevant case authority is from the appellate divisions of the California Superior Court, and those decisions are inconsistent.  (The court cites one unpublished opinion that is inconsistent with two published opinions.)

The Supreme Court likely will decide by the end of August — give or take — whether it will answer the Ninth Circuit’s question.  It probably will.

[June 26 update:  the court has docketed the Ninth Circuit’s request.]