District Court to Require Dispute Resolution Effort

By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Staff Reporter

The U.S. District Court Central District of California plans to introduce a pilot program that could result in as many as 2,000 cases being removed from the 21 federal judges in Los Angeles.

The Central District, which handles about 15,000 cases a year throughout the 7-county region, is short six judges and consequently over-run with litigation.

The program, designed to move cases through more quickly and limit judges' workloads, would require certain types of cases to be automatically sent to a settlement officer, typically an attorney instead of a judge.

"The motivation was to expand the use of (settlement officers) because it had been getting good feedback," said U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow, chairwoman of the Civil Justice Reform Act and Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee, which created the program.

"To the extent that cases are assigned to settlement officers as opposed to magistrate judges, that does free up judicial resources, and we do have a crisis in judicial resources. Our caseload has increased 50 to 60 percent in the last five years," she said.

Local attorneys and bar associations had until Jan. 7 to submit their opinions, which have not yet been reviewed. Program organizers are relatively confident the program will be approved by the court and could be in place in as early as three to four months, said Sherri Carter, district court executive for the Central District.

The pilot program will affect five judges, reducing caseloads by about 400 a year. But if the program gets implemented district-wide, with a full complement of 27 judges, it could cut the number of cases by as many as 2,160, Carter said.

Morrow's committee has been considering methods of reducing loads for two years. "We've discussed it as something to do, but the heavy caseload and our six vacancies made it become more important to do an alternative to what we're doing now," Carter said.

Voluntary options in place

The Central District already requires parties to first attempt resolution through some type of alternative dispute resolution, or ADR, before going to trial.

Parties may now opt for one of four forms of ADR: A retired judge could act as a mediator or arbitrator; a trial judge or magistrate might be assigned to resolve the dispute; a judge unfamiliar with the case but who has been selected to hear settlement presentations in specific specializations might be chosen; or a settlement officer, typically an attorney from a specialized area, could hear the case.

Under the pilot program, cases where the amount in dispute is under $250,000 would be shuttled directly to a settlement officer.

Most affected by the program would be motor vehicle and product liability personal injury suits, as well as medical malpractice. It also covers some contract disputes and civil rights employment cases.

Carter said these types of cases were targeted for ADR because they have the best chances for early settlement.

In requiring settlement officers to assume the load in dispute resolution, the court has tapped the least used of the four options now available to litigants, a point Morrow attributed to the desire to have a judge or magistrate oversee the process.

Personal injury attorneys said that might present a problem in some cases.

"Judges have a perspective in terms of their personal experience as to what juries do with cases, and that may have an impact on whether one side or the other will settle," said Barry Novack, a Los Angeles attorney who represented several people injured at local theme parks. "In those cases where the client, on one side or the other, feels they want their day in court, having a judge involved, whether retired or another judge, has an added benefit."

Question of preference

In addition, many self-insured business owners may feel threatened by having a lawyer who often comes from the plaintiffs' side of the industry handle the dispute, he said.

Cynthia Greer-Bailey, president of the L.A. chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution, a nonprofit that conducts mediations, said a mandatory program may not be as beneficial as having the parties choose their options.

"Private mediation has a much higher settlement rate than the mandatory mediation process, because if someone elects to go through mediation, usually they have a vested interest in wanting that case to settle," she said. "Fifty percent settle through a court-mandated system, and probably maybe 85 percent would settle through a private mediator."

Still, program organizers anticipate that introducing more attorneys and litigants to the option of a settlement officer could encourage more widespread use of the program. ADR is an increasingly popular avenue for most cases anyway, and the majority of federal districts have already implemented mandatory referrals by case type or judge request, Morrow said.

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