Hubbing along

A look at the personal injury hub courts and how to use them effectively

Samantha P. Jessner
2014 July

If you had a court appearance in a general-jurisdiction personal-injury case about a year ago, you may remember being notified that your case had been transferred to a department in the 90s in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse downtown. You may also recall that as you walked down the hallway on the west side of the sixth floor, the walls were papered over with page after page of calendars for Departments 91, 92, and 93 listing in excess of 75 matters on each 8:30 calendar. You probably also remember standing in a line that snaked outside of each courtroom at least 50 lawyers deep. A judge may have appeared for a few minutes to attempt to explain what was going on and how these changes would affect your case. Finally, you most likely left with two standing orders, one general and one for a Final Status Conference (“FSC”); and three dates, an FSC date, a trial date, and an order to show cause re dismissal date; along with a good deal of frustration about how your case was going to be handled.

In contrast, if you walk down the same hallway today, there are no longer pages and pages of calendars affixed to the wall. You may see a few lawyers, but nowhere near the queues you saw a year ago. In other words, compared to the barely organized chaos of a year ago, the atmosphere of the Personal Injury Hub on the sixth floor of the courthouse reflects relative calm.

This article will discuss how the PI Hub has changed during its first year in existence, what lawyers are doing right in the PI Hub courts, and areas where attorneys can improve.

Implementation of the personal-injury hub

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a “hub” is “the central and most active part or place.” Certainly, the first several months that the PI Hub was in existence were consistent with this definition. However, the court’s definition of a hub is slightly different. “Hubbing,” yes, like “antique-ing” is a made-up word, which is on its way to becoming part of the court zeitgeist. In court parlance, it has come to mean aggregating cases of a certain type in one courthouse or several courthouses.

The Los Angeles Superior Court created hubs in response to unprecedented budget cuts. In order to continue to keep the civil doors open, the court determined that savings could be achieved by aggregating certain types of cases in one or several courthouses, including general- jurisdiction personal-injury cases, limited jurisdiction cases (collection and non-collection), unlawful detainer cases, traffic cases, and small-claims cases. With regard to general-jurisdiction personal-injury cases, based on an informal study of case-management data, the court determined that approximately 82 percent of such cases involve four appearances or fewer, even including the FSC and trial, between the filing of the complaint through resolution of the action. By centralizing the pretrial component of all general-jurisdiction PI cases, the court believed that it could significantly reduce the staff and resources it was using to adjudicate these cases countywide.

As a result, the court aggregated about 16,000 personal-injury cases into three (now four, see discussion below) courtrooms downtown. The court designed a uniform set of procedures applicable to each of the PI Hub courtrooms which are memoralized in the two general orders. And the PI Hub was born!

Computer reservation system and motion dates

Many of us are familiar with “Open Table” as a means of securing a dinner reservation. Consistent with the goal of reducing staff workload and achieving cost savings, the Los Angeles Superior Court developed a computer reservation system in the PI Hub which parties must use to secure a hearing date for a motion. The Open Table of motion scheduling, if you will. We fondly refer to this system as CRS, or “Chris.”

Obviously, the idea of obtaining a motion date through the Internet is hardly revolutionary in this day and age. Indeed, it is consistent with the many technological innovations the court will implement over the next several years. For purposes of CRS, motions are divided into three categories – heavy, medium, or light – based on the amount of work required by the court to prepare the motion for hearing. Using input from the judges and research attorneys assigned to the PI Hub, the court determined how many motions of each type the judges and research attorneys could handle daily. Each court hears motions every day of the week at 1:30 p.m.

While CRS provides an easy way to reserve a motion, the reality is that motions are so numerous that it can be difficult to obtain an early hearing date. Before January 2014, if a party wanted to schedule a hearing on a heavy motion (e.g., a motion for summary judgment or a demurrer), the only available hearing dates were more than a year away and long after the trial date. The court realized fairly quickly that it needed to address this issue.

Part of the reason that it was so difficult to obtain hearing dates for motions was that attorneys, aware of the difficulty, would schedule hearings out of an abundance of caution, regardless of whether a decision to file the motion had been made. In addition, some attorneys reserved multiple hearing dates for the same motion. If the matter or case was later resolved, attorneys often did not cancel the hearing date(s). So the court needed to find a way to minimize reserved, but unused, hearing dates and reservations made primarily to save a date before the decision was made to file a motion. To that end, in January 2014 the court began to require that filing fees be paid at the time that a reservation is made rather than when the motion is actually filed, which in some cases is months later. In addition, the court made the fee nonrefundable.

In addition, and in direct response to the lack of availability of hearing dates, in January 2014 the court added a fourth PI Hub court, Department 97. The addition of the fourth court created five additional hearing days each week.

As a result of these two changes, it appears that it is now somewhat easier to get a timely hearing date. As of the writing of this article, in two of the PI Hub courtrooms, hearing dates on heavy motions were available within about six months. In the other two courtrooms, hearing dates on heavy motions were available within about eight months. While the wait is still not ideal, it is a substantial improvement.

Just as the court identified the problem regarding obtaining hearing dates and has implemented changes to address the problem, attorneys must give thought to how the bar can help. One answer involves three simple words: meet and confer. As Judge Daniel J. Buckley, the Supervising Judge of the Civil Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court, often suggests, have a beer (or an equally attractive non-alcoholic beverage) with opposing counsel early in the case (see page 24). Establish a relationship at the outset of a case where you and opposing counsel keep open lines of communication and attempt to resolve issues in a professional manner without court involvement.

The benefit of attorneys talking to each other in an attempt to obviate the need to file motions is reflected in the local rules of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Local Rule 7-3 requires attorneys to contact opposing counsel “to discuss thoroughly, preferably in person, the substance” of a contemplated motion and any potential resolution prior to the filing of the motion. There is no doubt that if attorneys in the personal injury arena discussed issues related to motions prior to filing them, the number of motions could be greatly reduced.

For example, the court reviews and decides many motions to strike punitive damages in cases involving accidents caused by a driver allegedly under the influence of alcohol. The court has received stipulations from prominent personal injury law firms in Los Angeles whereby the attorneys agree that a punitive-damages allegation can be withdrawn without prejudice at the pleading stage, and if facts are developed through the discovery process to support a prayer for punitive damages, the plaintiff may seek leave to amend the complaint to add a prayer for punitive damages. This type of stipulation eliminates several rounds of motions at the pleading stage. It also reflects a meaningful discussion on the part of counsel about whether punitive damages are supported by the facts that are known at the outset of the case.

A Los Angeles County Bar Association Litigation Section working group regarding litigation efficiency assembled with the assistance of Judge Buckley is in the process of developing a list of best practices for the court and attorneys to mutually realize efficiencies in litigation. The working group will propose that bar associations promote standard stipulations to encourage voluntary amendments in lieu of demurrers, and to strike certain claims without prejudice and make those stipulations available on the bar association’s Web site.

It would also be beneficial if attorneys kept in mind how our computer reservation system was designed. On a daily basis, the PI Hub courts receive ex parte applications requesting orders to shorten time for filing and hearing of a motion because counsel cannot get a hearing date that is before the trial date or some other significant date. If you are attempting to calendar a motion on CRS and you see that a particular day has no reservation slots available for the type of motion you are seeking to have heard, that means that the court cannot accommodate any additional motions that fall into that category on that day. In other words, the court cannot shorten time to accommodate a motion on a day that is already full. Therefore, the likely ruling on an ex parte application seeking to shorten time will be a continuance of the trial date to accommodate a hearing on a regularly-noticed motion.

The PI judges and research attorneys are working diligently to keep up with the roughly 10 to 15 motions heard in each courtroom every day (in addition to the other work the judges do). There are simply not enough hours in the day to add motions to already full days. The parties should make a meaningful effort to meet-and-confer and agree to continue dates, including trial dates, to accommodate motions. Assuming diligence on the part of the moving party, stipulating to continue dates for a short time in order to allow motions to be heard is reasonable.

Informal discovery conferences

Pursuant to the General Order, the parties must participate in an Informal Discovery Conference (“IDC”) before a motion to compel further responses will be heard. Some attorneys labor under the misapprehension that an IDC is necessary before the motion is filed. That is incorrect. (See General Order, ¶ 12.) To allow time for an IDC at least 16 days before the motion hearing, the motion date should be calendared at least 60 days after the reservation for the date is made. (Ibid.) That way, neither party has to devote resources to a motion until after the IDC, and only if the IDC is unsuccessful in resolving the discovery issues.

IDCs are intended to provide an environment where the attorneys can speak informally with the judge about discovery issues, and the judge can assist the attorneys in resolving the issues. The attorneys, in turn, will most likely leave with some understanding of which way the judge is leaning on an issue, although the judge will not make any rulings during the IDC. Some of the PI Hub judges have blank stipulations available to memorialize agreements that are reached during the IDC. As we all know, motions to compel further responses are very labor-intensive both for attorneys and for the court. As a result, while IDCs can be time-consuming, every minute that attorneys spend attempting to resolve issues with the aim of avoiding a hearing on a motion to compel further responses is a minute that is well spent.

There are a few things attorneys can do to maximize the benefit of IDCs. As a preliminary matter, an attorney with decision-making authority must attend the IDC, either the lead trial counsel or another attorney who has full authority to make binding agreements regarding discovery disputes. (See General Order, ¶10.) It is not a good use of anyone’s time to attempt to resolve discovery issues if one of the attorneys must go back to the office to get approval for any agreement.

In addition, attorneys should come with a willingness to discuss the issues and resolve them. Generally, if one or both of the attorneys have already had to file a motion to compel further responses or an opposition, they are dug in a bit more when they attend an IDC. We are scheduling IDCs a couple of months out, and attorneys are encouraged to behave reasonably and agree to extend deadlines so that they can continue to meet-and-confer and have time to participate in an IDC before devoting resources to a labor-intensive motion that likely will not be necessary. (See General Order, ¶10.)

When attorneys participate in the IDC process with an open mind and a dedication to resolving issues short of a motion, IDCs are often successful in resolving discovery issues. If the work inherent in preparing or opposing a motion to compel further responses can be avoided, that is good for the clients and the attorneys, and makes for a very happy judge.

Motion practice

With each PI Hub courtroom carrying a docket of approximately 5,300 cases, it goes without saying that the volume of motions is high. That being the case, it is imperative that the attorneys follow the applicable procedural rules. Many of them are designed to enable judges to absorb copious amounts of information in an efficient manner.

Tabs are a wonderful thing. The California Rules of Court (hearafter CRC) require them. (See CRC 3.110(f).) Unfortunately, many motions are filed without tabs. As small a thing as it may seem, a lengthy motion is much easier to read and absorb when the exhibits are separated by a tab. A judge who is reading a motion that is tabbed is a happy judge. A judge who is forced to comb through volumes of material to find a particular exhibit because it is not tabbed is an unhappy judge. Please include tabs. Otherwise, you may get a call from the court asking you to provide a copy with tabs, which may delay the hearing on your motion. Fax filings present a particular challenge because they do not include tabs. I offer the following piece of advice: if you fax file a document that is supported by exhibits that should be tabbed, provide a courtesy copy with tabs to the court as soon as possible.

The rules governing summary judgment and summary adjudication motions set forth in CRC 3.1350, et seq., detail the required form of the motion and accompanying pleadings and evidence. Once again, these procedural rules were designed, in part, to make it easier to absorb copious amounts of information. If your pleadings do not comply with these requirements, you run the risk of having your motion continued to allow you to comply with the requirements or of not having arguments or evidence considered.

CRC 3.116(c) requires that a party mark a deposition transcript that is filed in support of a pleading “in a manner that calls attention to the testimony.” Given the amount of work the PI Hub judges perform, the importance of following this rule cannot be overstated. Get that highlighter pen out and highlight away, or add brackets or underline. Whatever method you employ to call attention to testimony should be vigorously and rigorously followed. If you want to ensure that a judge has read and considered all of the evidence that you have submitted in support of your motion, it will benefit you and your client to follow the applicable procedural rules.

Final status conference

While the four judges in the PI Hub do not preside over trials, we do conduct final status conferences. FSCs are calendared eight court days before trial at 10:00 a.m. and are governed by the Second Amended General Order – Final Status Conference, Personal Injury Courts (Effective January 6, 2014). Essentially, the attorneys are required to prepare a joint Trial Readiness Binder that includes (1) motions in limine; (2) a Joint Statement to be read to the Jury; (3) a Joint Witness List; (4) a List of Proposed Jury Instructions (both joint and contested); (4) Jury Instructions; (5) a Joint Verdict Form; and (6) a Joint Exhibit List. The Trial Readiness Binder containing all of these jointly prepared documents and an exhibit book must be provided to the court at the FSC for inspection.

The most common mistake attorneys make in this area is failing to meet-and-confer in advance of the FSC and prepare joint documents. The court realizes that attorneys are very busy, and the requirement of joint documents adds a layer of complication and added time. However, consider this your second opportunity to have a beer with opposing counsel. (Hopefully, at this stage of the case, you will have had many other opportunities to enjoy a libation together. By no means is the court suggesting that attorneys need to consume alcoholic beverages in their efforts to meet-and-confer; a cup of coffee will indeed suffice.)

The court is pleased to see that over the last year, attorneys have become better versed in the requirements set forth in the FSC General Order and more often jointly prepare and file trial readiness documents. There are two requirements that often continue to elude counsel, however. The first is the requirement that the joint witness list contain not two, but three columns – one with a time estimate for direct examination, one with a time estimate for cross-examination, and one with a time estimate for redirect examination. (See FSC General Order, ¶2(D).) More often than not, attorneys do not include the third column. The second common omission is a column on the exhibit list setting forth any objections to admission of any of the exhibits. (See FSC General Order, ¶2(H).)

With a master calendar system for assigning personal-injury cases (as well as unlawful detainer and limited jurisdiction cases) to approximately 30 trial courts, trial readiness is particularly important. For example, if a trial court delays a trial to finalize jury instructions with the attorneys, it will be unavailable to handle other parties who report to Department 1 completely ready to commence trial. Attorneys’ continued compliance with the FSC General Order will ensure that trials get assigned to a trial court on the day of trial and the smooth running of the PI Hub/master calendar trial court structure that is in place.

Conclusion

The good news is that life in the PI Hub has settled down. The PI Hub judges are grateful to the bar for bearing with the court as we responded to budget cuts and implemented this innovation. We also appreciate your patience as we have attempted to identify problems and address them. While there is probably no true measure of success that is applicable to this model, almost all PI cases have been assigned to trial courts for trial on the day of trial.

Many of us remember that years ago we were assigned a beeper and were “on the beeper” for months and even years waiting for a trial court. Many feared that the PI Hub would result in a similar delay in getting a trial court, along with the attendant uncertainty. That has not been the case.

The Los Angeles Superior Court responded to the drastic budget cuts by thinking outside the box with the PI Hub. We encourage lawyers to employ the same kind of innovative thinking in working with each other to reach agreements that streamline litigation, move a case toward resolution, and minimize involvement on the part of the court. When you sit down with opposing counsel for the “Buckley beer,” please raise a glass to the accomplishments of the PI Hub courts and the attorneys who practice in the hub.

Samantha P. Jessner Samantha P. Jessner

Hon. Samantha P. Jessner is a judge in the Civil Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court and a Vice-Chair of the Court’s Technology Committee, chaired by Assistant Presiding Judge Daniel J. Buckley.

Hubbing along

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