Effort to resolve civil cases stalls
By Brian Bowling
Published: Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 9:58 p.m.
An opportunity to more quickly resolve federal civil cases in Western Pennsylvania has drawn only lukewarm interest.
The judge overseeing the program, which is designed to save time and money, said it has only had two takers since starting in September 2012.
“With everything new, it has its growing pains,” said U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon.
Bissoon and five attorneys in private practice plan to meet in December to consider changes to make the program more enticing.
One would loosen the limit on trial time, which is now fixed at three hours for each side.
“We will look at either expanding it or making it more flexible,” she said.
Another would allow limited appeals, letting either side challenge the final judgment but not file appeals challenging the process. Neither side, for example, could file an appeal claiming that the expedited process didn't give them enough time to prepare for trial.
Any changes would have to be approved by the board of judges — all the federal senior and district judges in Western Pennsylvania.
The program is aimed at cases that don't involve complex legal arguments or complicated evidence, and generally take a year to go through federal court. It cuts the time by about half by limiting pre-trial motions, witness depositions and evidence discovery.
Thomas May, who primarily defends companies in employment disputes, said the three-hour limit has been the main sticking point for his clients.
“The primary problem is the length of the trial,” he said. Switching to a two-day cap “would make a lot of sense to me.”
May, who is chairman of the Allegheny County Bar Association's Federal Court Section, said attorneys need to get comfortable with the program.
“We're attorneys,” he said. “We're used to handling cases a certain way.”
The lack of appeals hasn't been a deal-killer because his clients are used to binding arbitration, which also blocks appeals, he said.
Sam Cordes, an attorney who represents workers and former workers in employment disputes, said he has offered to go through the program in several cases.
The employers have always declined because the program eliminates a pretrial motion that asks a judge to throw out all or part of the case.
“Employers like that (motion) because the jury doesn't hear their case,” he said. The six months or so spent on summary judgment motions is a “major fight” and “the defendants rarely like to give it up.”
About 1,400 to 1,500 cases are filed each year that fall within one of the categories of cases eligible for the program, such as contract disputes or employment discrimination claims. How many of those cases fit the other eligibility criteria, such as requiring few witnesses and limited amounts of evidence, is a judgment call on the part of the lawyers and the judge.
Attorneys on both sides of a motor vehicle accident case gave the process high marks.
“We were kind of the guinea pigs,” said Michael Colarusso, the lawyer for a Ross man who sued a Memphis truck driver and his employer over the 2011 crash.
The case was perfect because “there were complicated damages and injuries, but it wasn't complicated as to who was at fault,” he said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan suggested to both sides that they split the case into two parts. They would do the trial on who was at fault with the expedited program and then decide whether to do a more traditional trial to determine damages.
As it turned out, they settled the case before the first trial.
John Pion, an attorney for the defendants, said the process worked well because of Lenihan, who gave them the flexibility to adapt the program to their case.
“It was a very efficient and effective resolution of litigation,” he said. “I would recommend it again to clients.”
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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