Lawyers say business court prevents delays, cuts litigation expenses
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One of the biggest frustrations for lawyers is preparing for a complicated civil trial only to see it get bumped at the last minute for a criminal case, which takes higher priority in the judicial system.
A civil trial may not get back on the docket for a year and may increase expenses for litigants.
However, the Iowa Businees Specialty Court may provide a solution, with quicker resolutions, less continuances and less costs.
David Dutton, a lawyer with Dutton, Braun, Staack and Hellman in Waterloo, said taking some of his cases through Iowa’s business court has prevented delays and saved money for the clients.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of the business court,” Dutton said this past week. “These are large, very complicated civil transactions and theories of law, and they require a judge with some expertise.”
Richard Fry, with Shutterworth and Ingersoll in Cedar Rapids, said he had a Linn County case on the docket that had less continuances and the case was handled well. It was resolved fairly quickly in just over three months.
Feedback from other lawyers across the state who have gone through the specialty court, a pilot program that started in 2013, echo Dutton’s comments and favor the court being a permanent addition.
According to the second-year evaluation conducted in July 2015, lawyers believe the business judges understand the complexities of their cases and are able to efficiently move the cases through the system with less continuances and less costs. They also like the fact there is only one judge who follows the case through to trial, with a separate settlement judge designated if needed.
Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady said in January during his annual State of the Judiciary address that the business court added value and service to the court system and the judicial branch was making it a permanent court.
The idea of a business specialty court was first proposed in a March 2012 report by the Iowa Civil Justice Task Force. A three-year pilot program began accepting cases in May of the following year.
An annual evaluation report “to monitor the progress and assess the effectiveness of this pilot program” was part of the recommendation.
The primary goals of the program, as spelled out in the second evaluation released in July 2015, were noble enough: “to move complex litigation through the court system more expeditiously and with lower costs for the litigants and the court system.”
Overall, the program has received positive reviews.
Last month Justice Daryl Hecht, who served as chairman for the Iowa Civil Justice Reform Task Force, said there won’t be any immediate changes to the court from the pilot program but there could be adjustments down the line.
“The responses have be favorable and has proved to be valuable to the system,” Hecht said. “We didn’t know how many would opt-in. There’s no sound way to predict but I think it’s been a good start.”
For now, the business court will remain a voluntary option for cases that have claims of at least $200,000 and involve certain types of litigation, such as technology licensing agreement, breach of contract, commercial class action, trade secrets, antitrust, tort claims between business entities.
Hecht said the three business court judges — Annette Scieszinski of the 8th District, Michael Huppert of the 5th District and John Telleen of the 7th District — have been able to manage the 27 cases that have transferred into the court.
Of those cases, 13 have been resolved, either by verdict or settlement, and 14 are pending, according to court records. Of the ones resolved, nine were settled without trial and one had a jury verdict.
Telleen noted the cases seem to be resolved more quickly going through this docket, but ultimately it’s up to the parties how quickly they move.
The average time from being assigned on the docket to settlement or verdict is nearly nine months, according to the evaluation. There was one case out of Linn County that was resolved within less than four months.
In the evaluation, Huppert pointed out the routine assignment of a settlement judge to each case has helped with efficiency. The settlement judge also is free of charge for the parties — if they were on the regular docket, they would have to go outside and pay a mediator.
A case in point
Telleen said the judges are encouraged to experiment or try out new processes to help improve efficiency. Scieszinski, for example, is presiding over a Wapello County trial this month that has called for some creative case management and is just a sampling of the complex litigation in the specialty court.
The case has many plaintiffs who are suing a confined animal facilities operation, JBS Pork, formerly Cargill, over nuisance issues — bad or toxic hog odor. As residents near the operation, they claim the odor has interfered with their “enjoyment of life” and their property.
To make the evidence manageable and easier for the jury to understand, the judge chose to use a “bellwether” approach, which allows a representative of all the plaintiffs, nine people of four households in this case, to go forward with a trial against one of the operators or owners being sued.
Bellwether cases generally have several plaintiffs claiming similar or common facts or theory of other cases, and the outcome in this trial will inform the remaining plaintiffs of what to expect if they go to trial. It also may allow resolution for them without the cost of trial, Scieszinski explained.
Scieszinski said this is just the first in a series of nuisance lawsuits that have been filed in business court against hog operations in Southeast Iowa, and she hopes came up with a good solution for all parties.