Category Archives: Courts & Judges

3 Ways To Make Your Brief Read Better On An iPad

24toys-articleLargeThanks to some of my Michigan colleagues, I learned today for the first time that a growing number of appellate court justices are reading briefs on an iPad. I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m out of touch. (I feel like Dr. Evil, on Austin Powers, when he demands the government pay him only $1 million.)

Fortunately for me, and for you, Daniel Sockwell, writing in the Columbia Business Law Review, is not so out of touch. In a piece entitled “Writing a Brief for the iPad Judge,” he offers some really useful advice for writing an appellate brief if you know your judge may end up reading it on an iPad. How would you know? By asking the clerk, of course.

Here are 3 of Sockwell’s tips:

1. Use Fewer FootnotesSockwell writes that “[o]ne of the advantages of reading on an iPad is that judges can adjust the screen view, zooming in and focusing on the current passage.” Unfortunately, this advantage is “lost if footnotes require the reader (judge) to constantly scroll to the bottom of the page for citations or substantive material.” Sockwell feels this compounds the risk that the judge or her clerk might not bother to read the footnotes at all.

2. Choose Your Font With Care. Sockwell notes that, while “the effective resolution of an iPad [is] closer to print,” there is a risk that “some of the best print fonts can become jagged or difficult to read at screen resolutions.” What should you do? Unfortunately, Sockwell leaves us wondering, though he does point us in the direction of an entire book on the subject of fonts (the perfect gift for that typography nut in your life). I started to do some of my own online research to find out what kind of fonts read best on iPads, but I came up short. I’m going to go with the plan to use a simple font rather than anything really creative. If someone has some clearer suggestion, maybe they could leave a comment.

3. Go With “Scientific,” Rather than Traditional Legal Hierarchical Headings. We typically use traditional hierarchical headings in briefs that are printed (e.g., Part I, Section A, Subsection 1, etc.). This method apparently doesn’t work well for documents read on an iPad, because it’s easy to lose track of which “Section A” one’s looking at. Instead, Sockwell urges brief writers to adopt the scientific hierarchical headings (e.g., Part 1, Section 1.1, Subsection 1.1.1, etc.).

Sockwell includes one more point: be sure to adhere to local rules, even if it means making a stylistic sacrifice. While double spacing of lines might look horrible on an iPad, it may be required by the local rules, at least until rules are universally updated to reflect the reality that more and more judges are reading briefs on iPads.


The Bygone Era of “Junk Science”

620-best-television-comedy-tv-show-ever-sanford-son.imgcache.rev1352136944844I remind myself that only a fraction of readers will be familiar with that cultural chestnut, Sanford and Son. You might ask: what’s worse, 70s era sitcoms built upon dismal racial stereotypes, or our present preoccupation with reality television showing us, in ever higher definition, how awful we really are? I digress, however; that’s a topic for a different blog.

Instead, let’s discuss “junk science.” In the majority of cases tried before a jury, the parties will desire to present the testimony of an expert in some field, such as injury or disease causation, standard of care or mental capacity. Of course, the opposition will want, if possible, to preclude this evidence. Popular techniques to preclude the evidence involve arguing either (1) that the expert is not really an expert at all; and/or (2) his opinion is not scientific–and thus likely to mislead the jury.

In 1993, in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the United States Supreme Court held for the first time that, to be admissible, scientific evidence must be both scientifically valid and properly applicable to the facts at issue in the case.  The key here is scientific validity. To put this in historical context, the prevailing standard before Daubert derived from Frye v. United States. Under the Frye standard, expert opinion based on a scientific technique was only admissible where the technique was generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community. This was also termed the “general acceptance” standard.

In theory, the Daubert Court was interested in weeding out “junk science,” though it used the term “absurd and irrational pseudoscientific assertions.” Later, in Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, which extended the Daubert holding, Justice Scalia, in his concurring opinion, wrote that that a trial judge has “discretion to choose among reasonable means of excluding expertise that is fausse and science that is junky.” Don’t call me fausse.

What is this “junk”? Justice Stevens gave one illustration, in General Electric Co. v. Joiner. He said:

“An example of ‘junk science’ that should be excluded under Daubert as too unreliable would be the testimony of a phrenologist who would purport to prove a defendant’s future dangerousness based on the contours of the defendant’s skull.” 522 U.S. 136, 153, n.6 (1997) (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

Oh, if only this worked! Alas, it would probably be about as accurate as the use of Penile plethysmography to convict sex offenders. This marginally invasive (I’m sure) test measures blood flow to a defendant’s penis to determine the level of sexual arousal as he is exposed to sexually suggestive content. That truly is “junk” science. (I couldn’t resist.) I can only assume the test, its use, or both, were conjured by someone who really liked Burgess’ Clockwork Orange.

0811868656Because I’m in a particularly philosophical mood, I’ll point out that one era’s “junk” is another era’s treasure. See, e.g., Copernican Revolution, Newtonian physics, Einsteinian Relativism, quantum mechanics, Mendelian inheritance. This phenomenon is known as a paradigm shift. Picture the egg dripping from Justice Stevens’ face when, in 2056, the last brain-researcher finally concedes that comparison of the contours of an individual’s skull is in fact the very best way to predict his propensity to inflict future harm.

In 2000, Federal Rule of Evidence 702 was amended in response to the line of cases starting with Daubert and culminating with Kumho. That rule now limits the testimony of an expert as follows:

“A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.”

Interestingly, many federal courts have resisted applying Daubert and the amended FRE 702. A sweeping article by George Mason University Law Professor David Bernstein, pointed out that, fantastically, many judges were either unaware of the amendment to one of the most important rules of evidence (really?) or they deliberately ignored it.  See, Bernstein, “The Misbegotten Judicial Resistance To The Daubert Revolution,” 89 Notre Dame Law Review 27, 50 (2013).


When Should You Hire Local Counsel?

889900Being lawyers, many of us suffer from the tendency to believe we can service all of our clients needs, whatever they are and wherever they take us. I think part of the reason is that, as professionals, we naturally like to control everything, and the thought of relinquishing any little bit of control causes anxiety. I suspect another reason has to do with a worry that other lawyers are direct competitors, even if their practices differ geographically or in terms of subject matter.

I hesitate to suggest that we’re worried the other lawyer will do a better job for our client (though they might), but it’s scary to think another firm, even if hired as a partner in a particular case or project, will take the opportunity to aggressively pursue our client, to take it/them away from us permanently.

Yet another concern could arise from a fear that, if we involve another professional and they do a less-than-stellar job or overcharge our client, or both, it will reflect poorly on us. It surely will, on some level, at least if we are involved in selecting and/or hiring the associated professional.

On a purely rational level, we know these concerns shouldn’t prevent us from doing what’s best for our clients. If that means hiring a tax specialist because a deal or case raises issues outside our skill set, it’s generally a no-brainer decision. Similarly, if I’m a litigator licensed only in California and I’m handling a case in, say, Nevada, which requires the involvement of a lawyer who is both licensed and venued in Nevada, even if I am admitted pro hac vice, I won’t let my poaching fears prevent me from doing the right thing.

But what about a borderline case. For example, I most often practice in the Los Angeles area. I know the courts, the procedures and many of the judges in LA, Orange County, Ventura, Santa Barbara (because I actually live in SB), Riverside and San Bernardino. If I am assigned to handle a case in Bakersfield, or Fresno, or even San Diego, should I be thinking about hiring local counsel in those venues?

I want to suggest the answer is yes, I should at least think about whether it makes sense to involve a local counsel in any case that I’m planning to handle that is as far away as Bakersfield is from LA, even if, after I think about it, I conclude it is unnecessary. In other words, it is an issue that should be spotted and resolved just like any other.

I recognize this doesn’t really advance the ball, because it doesn’t provide any guidance when one should, not only consider hiring a local lawyer, but actually do it. Here are some thoughts on this bigger question.

1. Hire local counsel when you have reason to believe you will be “home-towned.” What does this mean? I see “home-towned” as any instance in which your client could suffer prejudice from the fact you are foreign to the jurisdiction. This is not always readily apparent, and could require some impression gathering from colleagues or acquaintances. I’ve long heard, for example, that judges and juries in San Diego do not receive Los Angeles lawyers well. I could speculate forever on the genesis of this (assuming it is true), but I’ve heard it over and over.

Now, this does not mean I think it’s necessary to hire a local San Diego lawyer or firm  every time I have a case pending there. Rather, it is more likely that I would only hire someone local if my case was clearly headed to trial, or if there was some unusual issue that made me think my client would benefit at all from having someone local there with or instead of me. The possible scenarios are endless. It’s a judgment call.

2. Hire local counsel when you’re in a venue that has strange or unfamiliar procedural rules. In California, we are required to comply with the California Code of Civil Procedure, the California Rules of Court, the Local Rules of the county and, often, the judge’s own rules. And we hope none of these conflict. Sometimes we encounter a county or judge with some bizarro rules about how things must be filed or served, or both. I can tell you there is nothing more comforting than being able to pick up the phone and talk to someone who regularly appears in the particular court, before the particular judge.

3. Hire local counsel when it’s otherwise a good idea and you can hire someone whom your judge knows and respects. This can be particularly important if your opposition knows the judge well.

4. Hire local counsel when you expect the entire jury will speak with an accent you don’t have. I’ll admit to occasionally having Southern Drawl Envy. You know what I mean if you’ve ever had to speak at a conference and follow some smooth-talking  storyteller from South Carolina or Georgia or someplace. It can be humbling to realize how utterly ordinary we sound.

5. Hire local counsel when there’s a reason to think some past event or news will cause your client to suffer geographical prejudice. Did your client just shutter a factory in the town where you’re about to start trial, putting hundreds or thousands out of work? You’re going to need to deal with that, and a local perspective will be valuable.

One final word. The verb “hire” as used here doesn’t mean your client needs to break the bank with yet another full-time billing machine. Often, it will suffice to have the local counsel merely available for consultation purposes, or to help pick the jury, or participate in a particular hearing.  The additional investment should be minimal and could pay dividends.


Want To Lose Your Trial? Be Late And Keep A Jury Waiting

gytrrThe ABA Journal reported on Friday that a Pennsylvania judge held a lawyer in contempt and increased the bond for his client when they were late for a jury trial. “We were all here at 9 a.m. for a jury trial and the defense table was empty,” said the judge, who had dismissed the prospects not long before the two arrived. “We wasted a jury panel.” The lawyer later claimed that personal problems kept him up late and the hotel failed to give him a wake-up call.

Readers can receive this in many ways. Some will say, good for the judge, he did the right thing. Others will think it’s over the top and the judge was out of line. After all, everyone has been late at one time or another. Is contempt and a $1,000 fine (which the judge ordered later) really appropriate?

I don’t know. I suspect if I was the judge the outcome would have depended on whether I was particularly irritable that morning. Not very even-handed, I know. But whether a lawyer is held in contempt for being late, or simply slapped on the wrist, the lesson we should learn from this particular Pennsylvania judge is the same: don’t be late for a jury trial. Ever. Period.

I’ll confess I’m sometimes challenged when it comes to getting somewhere on time. I make this confession so you won’t mistake me for someone who is self-righteous about his meticulous habits. But there are two events for which I take great pains to be on time. One is to catch an airplane and the other is for trial.

It’s been my experience that most judges presiding over a jury trial tend to put the interests and needs of those serving jury duty at or above his/her own. If you are before one of these judges, the quickest way to earn the judge’s scorn is to keep an impaneled jury waiting. (It doesn’t help that, when you keep the jury waiting, you’re also keeping His/Her Honor waiting as well.) In case it’s not obvious: the judge’s scorn often translates to the jury’s scorn, which you don’t want.

My mentor has always had a rule that the hotel where he stays and sets up his war room during trial must be the very closest possible hotel to the courthouse. It doesn’t matter if this is a den of filth, replete with vermin and cockroaches. He knows when he’s in trial he’s at war. There’s no time to be tied up in one of those unpredictable traffic jams. If you know you can walk to the courthouse in a reasonable amount of time, rain or shine, it’s one less thing to worry about. Worry = wasted mental energy, and mental energy is precious during trial.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Berks County, Pennsylvania Judge Stephen B. Lieberman. But leave my name out of it.


Useful Tips From A Recent Bench-Bar Conference

4c013d050381f202e20e6a7067004b8dBecause I pay attention to analytics, I know that my most popular posts are those in which I have passed on advice or comments from a judge or judge’s clerk. People apparently find and read my blog because they want to get some inside scoop from the bench, as opposed to my witty, original repartee. Best not quit my day job, I guess.

At any rate, a talented Michigan appellate specialist I know attended a recent appellate bench-bar conference and brought back some wise comments from the judges and court staff, “of which,” as Bob Marley sings, “I’ll share with you.”

1.  When Briefing the Facts.

When briefing the facts, don’t misrepresent the facts or get too argumentative. Eliminate most adjectives in the statement of facts section. Also be wary of including too many facts and dates. Dates that aren’t relevant to the issues to be decided by the appellate court are distracting and tiresome. Also bear in mind that the appellate court rarely needs to know the entire procedural history.

2. When Briefing the Law.

Briefing the law requires honesty. Do not mischaracterize the law generally or the holding or import of a particular case. Strive for economy; view the page limit as an outer limit, not a goal to reach. Another problem specific to appellate briefing is the tendency to raise too many issues. Judges complain that lawyers often fail to recognize and identify the appropriate standard of review. Judges should be treated as “generalists” who may need a primer on the law in the area and a tutorial on the industry involved. Bear in mind the “ABCs” of good brief writing: Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity. Do not attack opposing counsel in the brief.

3. When Arguing Before An Appellate Court.

The judges cited “reading from a prepared text” as among the most common errors in oral argument. Treat the argument as an opportunity for both the lawyers and the judge(s) to be educated. Do not fail to answer the questions the judge(s) actually asked. Be sensitive to “cues” from the bench as to what a judge believes the real or dispositive issue to be. Do not attack opposing counsel in oral argument. If you are lucky enough to be arguing before a state or the US Supreme Court, be prepared to answer the question, “What rule are you asking us to establish?”

There. Now go kick some appellate ass.


Could The Five Year Rule Become Relevant Again In California?

trfftAs I grow older, I become increasingly familiar with the feeling of “dating” myself by admitting to TV shows I watched, music I liked, or even sports I played (remember Dodgeball?).  I date myself as a California litigator when I reminisce about the “Five Year Rule.” The Rule wasn’t repealed. It’s still part of the California Code of Civil Procedure. Section 583.310 provides: “An action shall be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant.” Section 583.360(a) says: “An action shall be dismissed by the court on its own motion or on motion of the defendant, after notice to the parties, if the action is not brought to trial within the time prescribed in this article.” (All emphases added.)

The statute sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I remember being a new defense lawyer in the early 1990s opposing motions to exempt a case from the Five Year Rule for some reason or another. I was awed by the relative calm with which plaintiff lawyers argued these motions, on the very eve of expiration, as though they had nothing at all to worry about. I knew that I would be an absolute wreck if I thought there was even the smallest chance my client’s case would be dismissed. But, I never had a case get dismissed for failure to start trial in five years. It seemed like the statute had more bark than bite.

The Five Year rule never went anywhere. Instead, the California courts changed, rendering the Rule completely irrelevant. Around my third or fourth year, the state courts initiated the Delay Reduction Act, or “fast track” rules. When the fast track rules (majority of cases to be tried within one year) were first implemented, I remember judges were really difficult if you wanted to exempt a particular case from the fast track. God forbid a case might legitimately take 18 months or, gasp, 2 years to be ready for trial. Certain judges were so committed to the new rules that they would set a trial date within 12 months even if it fell on Christmas eve or interfered with someone’s wedding or honeymoon. I suppose it seemed particularly draconian because I hadn’t yet realized that, regardless when they’re set, most civil cases never actually start trial.

While it’s mostly dinosaurs like me who remember the Five Year Rule, it now seems that, with the massive changes to California’s courts occasioned by the budget crisis, the Rule could become relevant again. If we do see a resurgence of motions to dismiss under the Five Year Rule, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • The parties can stipulate, either in writing or orally in open court, to extend the time for trial to occur. (CCP §583.330)
  • The time is calculated to exclude time during which the court lacked jurisdiction, or prosecution of the trial was stayed or enjoined, or getting the case to trial was impossible, impracticable or futile. (CCP §583.340)
  • Courts have significant discretion in their application of the §583.340 exceptions. See, Bruns v. E-Commerce Exchange, Inc., 51 Cal.App.4th 717 (2011).

However, even armed with dicta from Bruns, lawyers representing plaintiffs must be able to show they’ve been diligent in moving the case along. Otherwise, mandatory dismissal is technically possible.


When Judges Play Games To Protect The Record Against Appeal

ghtrEver found yourself in that situation where you are not only losing an argument or motion, but it seems mysteriously like the judge is bent on preventing you from making a decent record of your position?

In Litigation, the wise Professor McElhaney identifies games judges commonly play with attorneys in the interest of preventing them from making a record which can be used to challenge the ruling on appeal. He writes, “If [the judge] can force lawyers to waive objections or forget to make offers of proof . . . it will improve [the judge's] batting average with the court of appeals.” (p.294) Here are a few such games:

1. Cutting off, under the guise of preventing speaking objections, any argument or objection.

2. Refusing to permit offers of proof at the time an objection is sustained; requiring counsel to wait until the next recess or next day of trial, when they’re likely to forget.

3. Insisting that exhibits be offered and admitted only at the end of the entire trial. This “forces lawyers to waive most of their evidentiary objections about exhibits. At the end of trial they are thinking about their final arguments, not about foundations or rulings.” (p.295)

4. Making “weasel” rulings on evidentiary objections: “I’ll let it in for what it’s worth.”

5. Making noncommittal rulings. “I’ve heard enough, let’s proceed.” Or, “All right, I understand your positions; let’s move along.” These aren’t rulings and, regardless what happens next (i.e., the objected-to question is answered and/or the jury hears the evidence), it will be all but impossible for an appellate court to identify an error, since the judge shirked her responsibility to make a ruling.

Recognizing your judge is playing one of these games will help you to maintain your resolve to make an effective record. Oh, and if you’re in a California state court, be sure to order and pay for that court reporter, otherwise you’re not going to be making a “record” at all.


Sound Strategies For Litigating In A Crumbling Court System

86282430_b8b63c3d76_zThis originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

At the risk of ridiculous understatement, all is not well in the California state court system. Last week it was reported that, over the last five years, about $1.2 billion has been taken away from our state judiciary, leading to the closure of 164 courtrooms and roughly 2,000 layoffs. In Los Angeles courts, the situation is just going to get worse. Another round of cuts are slated for June, meaning 25 percent fewer courtrooms, and the 16,000 pending personal injury cases will be divided among just three judges.

For those of us who cannot just “pack it in,” but must continue to ply our trade in this challenging environment, the question becomes how to effectively cope with these developments. The most natural response would be to choose a different forum. But federal district court is only an option when it is an option. And, while binding arbitration gives clients the chance to have their disputes heard where, when and by whom they chose, I argue this is rarely a reasonable alternative for at least two reasons. First, arbitration costs an arm and a leg, and these costs are frequently borne at the outset by just one party — usually the defendant. Second, putting one’s fate in the hands of a single decision-maker, with no possibility for review, is a bold step not to be taken lightly.

So, assuming federal court and arbitration are not viable alternatives, what can litigators do? Here are some suggestions:

Take control. The days of state court judges with the time or inclination to micromanage a case are behind us. This creates both a burden and an opportunity. If it furthers your client’s interests to take the helm and control the course of the litigation (and it usually does) and you package your plan in a way that is easy for the judge to adopt, it is possible to gain a tactical advantage.

Consider the Case Management Conference, which is often the first chance to meet the judge. Increasingly, it may be your only time with the judge before trial. Make the most of it. I’m not suggesting judges will begin to show interest in those vanilla Case Management Statement forms. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come to the conference prepared to get something done. Have an agenda and be specific. Want staggered expert disclosure deadlines? Raise it at the conference. Already having problems getting the other side to agree to deposition dates? Ask the judge to schedule them, making the dates part of the minute order. Many judges will appreciate having at least one attorney in the case who is awake at the wheel and ready to advance the ball. You will both curry favor with your judge and advance your client’s interests.

Look for early exit opportunities. This isn’t new or revolutionary. But fewer available courtrooms means it will take longer for your client’s case to reach trial. There was a period when judges aimed to push cases through within a year. This just isn’t going to be viable going forward. If an early exit by summary judgment or settlement is a possibility, pursue it earlier and save your clients the inevitable costs of languishing. Perhaps formulate a reasonable estimate of how early a summary judgment motion could be heard and reserve the hearing date right away. If you don’t, you may learn (as I did) that the court can’t hear your motion until about a week before your trial date (if then), which pretty much defeats the purpose of seeking summary judgment.

Be proactive in simplifying the case. Historically, it was not uncommon for a plaintiff to pursue every theory and keep every party initially sued in the case until the bitter end. This is not an indictment, but an observation. While ancillary theories are ultimately abandoned and unnecessary parties inevitably dismissed, the truth is they probably didn’t belong in the case to begin with and should have been omitted or “cut loose” much sooner. Simplifying the case sooner is not only the right thing to do; it will help reduce the judicial logjam.

Learn to meet and confer. We know the rules of civil procedure require us to demonstrate a good faith effort to meet and confer with opponents before filing discovery motions. Regardless whether we took that obligation seriously in the past, there is no question we must be sincere in our efforts to informally resolve discovery disputes now, since we’re unlikely to get rapid, if any, relief through judicial intervention. Meeting and conferring means earnestly trying to solve a problem, not just posturing.

Manage client expectations. Clients may have wildly different expectations about how a case will progress toward trial. To the extent these expectations may be unreasonable, based on another venue or a different era, take steps to ensure they are in line with the current environment. It is our court system, and not your practice, that is in crisis. Make sure your clients understand this.

Keep abreast. One major complaint cited in a recent Law360 article was the situation of showing up for a firm trial date only to learn it has been continued for weeks or months. We all know how disruptive trial preparation can be, not only for businesses, but also for individual clients. Contacting the clerk as a trial date approaches can often (though not always) yield information that helps reduce the surprise and attendant costs when the trial has been continued.

Is a court action really necessary? Pre-suit settlement has always been an option, but not always one taken seriously by lawyers or their clients. The current judicial budget crisis should change that. Not only will it take longer to get a case to trial, but the costs of getting there — from rising routine filing fees to optional, party-funded court reporters — are rapidly increasing. Where parties might have historically elected to proceed straight to litigation solely to enhance bargaining power or demonstrate resolve, it makes much more sense in the current environment for every party to thoroughly explore settlement before filing a complaint or refusing to further negotiate.

It is not inconceivable that more state general fund money will be allocated to the judiciary to alleviate the courtroom closures and staff layoffs. Until then, however, it falls on practitioners to do what we can to protect our clients during this challenging time. Hopefully these suggestions will help.


Will Plaintiffs Choose Federal Over California’s Broken State Courts?

kjuhLaw360 reported Wednesday that budget cuts are crippling the California state court system. Not that this is really news. Between court closures, job cuts, “no-host” court reporters, furloughs, getting regular, reasonable and reliable access to justice has become very difficult in California state court. And, it’s only anticipated to get worse. The article suggests that, in June, the Los Angeles Superior Court will experience a reduction to 25% fewer courtrooms. Apparently “all of the 16,000 personal injury cases are going to be divided among three judges.”

Really? How can any judge manage a docket of over 5,000 cases?

“Experts,” the article says, believe that plaintiffs will increasingly resort (gasp!) to filing their cases in federal district court. I know this is possible with employment actions where there are both state and federal remedies. But will this become a more appealing alternative to filing in state court and waiting as the case winds through that crumbling court system? I’m not so sure.

I’ve encountered a lot of practitioners on the plaintiff side who will do almost anything to stay out of federal court. I’m not suggesting that this is because these lawyers can’t, by putting in the effort, get up to speed and comply with the stringent federal procedural requirements. It’s more circular. Lawyers who have historically shied away from a federal practice seem less comfortable with the Federal Rules of Evidence or Civil Procedure, which leads them to choose state court, which perpetuates their discomfort with the federal rules and procedures, and on and on, ad infinitum. Could the clogged California state system get so bad that these lawyers overcome this bias against federal court?

There are at least two other reasons I don’t expect plaintiffs to rush into the federal courthouse. First, unanimous agreement among the jurors is required for a verdict in federal court. (FRCP 48) In California state court, only 9 of 12, or three-quarters of the jury, must agree to reach a verdict for the plaintiff. (CCP §613) This means a lot of wiggle room in the state system and absolutely no wiggle room in the federal system.

As I’ve noted, there’s also the question of where jurors are drawn from. In the Los Angeles Superior Court, the jurors will come from Los Angeles county, and typically a smaller judicial district closer to the courthouse. Thus, a case in the Santa Monica courthouse will get jurors with different socioeconomic, ethnic and educational backgrounds from a case pending in the downtown LA courthouse. The federal district courts, however, draw from the entire Northern, Southern, Eastern or Central districts, each of which is a broader conglomeration of separate communities. On the defense side, we often believe this tends to dull the anti-corporate bias which might be prevalent in any one community.

Finally, I cannot attest to the accuracy of this premise–but it has been my experience with federal district court judges that they at least seem more conservative and less pro-plaintiff. At the very least, they pay closer attention to the procedural rules and have less tolerance for blatantly sloppy lawyering. While I can’t control much once a case or issue is in the hands of a judge or jury, I can ABSOLUTELY control whether the lawyering is sloppy. Not everyone is so eager to please.

So, while I’m confident the crisis in the California state court system will have repercussions and practice-changing consequences (such as reserving a date for summary judgment when you answer the complaint!), I’m not inclined to think there will be any kind of stampede to the federal courthouse. Just a hunch.


Knowing Where Your Jurors Come From (Literally And Figuratively)

ploIt is no exaggeration to say that I learn something (or many things) from every mediation or settlement conference I attend. I recently traveled to Fresno to attend a settlement conference before a talented and hard-working USDC magistrate judge. During the conference he made a point that had escaped me before, but hopefully never will again.

First some background. This was an employment discrimination case in which the plaintiff alleged harassment, retaliation and constructive discharge, which would require her to prove that her working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would literally have had no choice but to quit.

Early in the settlement conference, the judge met briefly with the lawyers and parties altogether. He employed an interesting, but effective approach. He spent a bit of time talking about the parties’ respective cases, focusing on each side’s weaknesses. After a few minutes of this, he said “here’s where I see the range,” and proceeded to give us a bracket.* The bottom of the bracket was well above where my client, the defendant, was prepared to negotiate so early in the settlement conference. However, the top of the bracket was well below where we knew (from prior discussions with her counsel) plaintiff was interested in beginning negotiations. Thus, both sides were equally unhappy. The judge concluded this introductory session by excusing us to meet separately with our clients. If both parties were interested in negotiating within the judge’s bracket, we should return after lunch and continue the settlement conference. If either party was not willing to begin in the bracket, we were instructed to so advise the judge’s clerk and we would be excused for the day.

What I liked about this approach was how it cut through a lot of preliminary posturing. While I would not recommend it for a paid mediator, it was effective coming from a USDC magistrate judge. Both parties reluctantly agreed to negotiate within the bracket and, several hours later, we settled the case.

One of the things the judge pointed out when he was apprising plaintiff and her lawyer of weaknesses he perceived in her case related to where the jury venire would be drawn from if we did not settle. Had the case been pending in state court, jurors would have been drawn solely from Fresno county, which apparently enjoys a healthy mixture of middle and lower middle class jurors owing to a university and, if not thriving, at least sustaining local agriculture-based economy.

But, because we were in the Eastern District federal court, our jurors would be drawn, not only from Fresno county, but also from several surrounding counties. The judge pointed out that jurors from many of these surrounding counties will have been struggling financially since before the recession. Jobs are scarce. Many of these jurors, the judge said, will not be particularly sympathetic to the notion that any person who was lucky enough to have a job would voluntarily chose to leave, regardless how bad the conditions were.

Whether this hit home for plaintiff or her lawyer I don’t know. But I thought it was a pretty powerful point. Forum shopping is nothing new and our opponent had unsuccessfully fought pretty hard against our removal of the case from state to federal court. But, if you find you’re in a venue in which the jurors are not going to easily receive your client’s theory or conduct, it’s important to factor this into your strategy and presentation.

How do you figure out if you’re up against this kind of “region bias” on any particular issue? I had spent some time looking at census statistics for Fresno, thinking I was gaining some understanding about our potential jurors, completely overlooking the fact that a district court draws from outside the county. There’s your answer, though. Find out definitively where jurors for your courthouse will be drawn from and analyze that entire region. A better approach, though, might be to retain local counsel (always a good idea, in my view, if the case warrants the cost and you can find reliable local counsel).

Whatever you do, it’s critical to find out where your jurors will hail from, and be perceptive to possible “region bias” issues that could impact your client’s success at trial.

*Of his “throw out a bracket” approach the judge said he would normally never “just put a number out there,” but he was pressed for time that day, as he had meetings and a hearing he had to fit in around our settlement conference. Ironically, throwing out the bracket was probably the most intelligent thing the judge did all day.


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