February 18th, 2021

Rochester Slammed by Judge for Demanding In-Person Hearings

Elliot Shields of the Roth & Roth firm. Photo by Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

The City of Rochester was slammed yesterday by a New York Supreme Court justice for demanding in-person hearings in police brutality cases. And the order was so wide-sweeping that it extended well beyond the police cases at issue to all matters that the City’s Law Department was defending.

The issue arose out of summer protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, as well as Daniel Prude, a Black 41-year-old who died last March 23rd after being physically bound by Rochester police officers. The police department then engaged in brutal crackdowns against the protesters.

Over 100 people filed Notices of Claim against the police department, a required precursor in New York to bringing suit against a municipality. The City, in turn, then gets an opportunity for a hearing where it takes testimony from the claimant. Such hearings, colloquially known as 50-h hearings after the authorizing statute, are akin to a deposition.

But the City of Rochester’s Law Department demanded that each claimant appear in person for those 50-h hearings, rather than doing them virtually by teleconference. As regular readers know, judges in New York from the outset of the pandemic have forced lawyers to take testimony virtually, refusing to allow matters to be stalled until the pandemic was over. Administrative orders from the courts have since followed.

There was no apparent justification for demanding hearings this way.

Notwithstanding these pandemic related changes, hearings had been attempted in an unrelated hearing effort to move the matters. But during one, Municipal Attorney John Campolieto was unwilling, or incapable, of wearing a mask properly, according to the suit that was filed, and it was held in a small room. Campolieto subsequently tested positive for COVID.

The action was brought by the New York City firm of Roth & Roth, which filed 115 claims regarding abuse by the police related to the protests, and was noticed for numerous in-person hearings. (As per my conversation with partner David Roth.) The well-being of their attorneys were likewise at risk in being forced to in-person hearings. This included Roth & Roth associate Elliot Shields, a Rochester native who maintains connections with the City, who had appeared at earlier hearings and depositions with Campolieto.

Bringing suit in their own name against the head of the Law Department, the firm asserted that demanding in-person hearings during an uncontrolled pandemic was “designed to gain a strategic advantage.” And it was being done despite the fact that the City’s Law Department had just had a COVID outbreak.

Justice Ann Marie Taddedo agreed, and wrote in a decision that the City’s conduct was “arbitrary and capricious” in demanding in-person hearings. But Justice Taddedo went well beyond the confines of this case.

The order was exceptionally wide, encompassing not only these police brutality lawsuits, but all 50-h pre-suit hearings by the City, regardless of whether they are related to these police brutality claims or not.

And still worse yet for the Law Department, an apparently furious judge made the order so broad it encompasses all depositions in all cases for which the City of Rochester is a party.

This decision stays in effect until the emergency declared due to the pandemic is lifted.

The Law Department of the City of Rochester has, in my opinion, really screwed the pooch and done an extraordinary disservice to the citizens of Rochester. With this decision, every judge that comes across the City in litigation in any case will severely question the basis of any request they make, far more so than they might ordinarily. I don’t know what kind of reputation Rochester’s City attorneys had before, but it is most surely in the crapper now.

Whoever made this dangerous and bone-headed decision should be fired.

—————- The relevant documents below——

 

February 16th, 2021

A Year of COVID – And 3 Litigation Changes

You know what this is

It’s been a year since I last set foot in a real courthouse. I appeared for jury selection in a Bronx nursing malpractice case in mid-February. Some money was on the table, but I was pushing for better.

But the news. In the news was the virus. It wasn’t here yet. As far as we knew. But it was coming. And when it came it would come hard, and the world was going to be shut down.

It could be days wasted up in the Bronx waiting for a jury room. More days wasted waiting for a judge assignment after that. If I picked that jury, my gut told me I would never make it to verdict. And then what? How long would it be before my client had another chance?

The client approved of settlement, and I beat a hasty retreat from the courthouse.

It was an unseasonably warm day for February in New York, but I put on my regular winter gloves anyway as I rode the subway out of the Yankee Stadium station near the courthouse. No one, after all, was sure exactly how the virus was transmitted. I touched nothing. The virus was novel.

And a few weeks later news helicopters spun over head as my home was in the bulls eye of the first East Coast Containment Zone. The virus, of course, was not contained. (See: Greetings from the Containment Zone)

What did we learn over the past year? A lot. But I’ll only cover changes to the litigation system. ‘Cause that’s what you came for.

Here we go with three critical changes; the first two have already been implemented (will they continue when it’s over?), and the third will relieve the mammoth courthouse backlog caused by the virus. Given that they collectively change the way litigation has been done for the last 200 years, I would call it significant:

Many Courthouse Conferences Waste Time: Anyone that’s been to the high volume parts of New York City’s courts knows this problem. Hundreds of cases may be on a calendar call. Oft times, if you part of this cattle call, you are just given a new date a few months away. Lawyers gotta schlep to the courthouse for this?

If the case is still in discovery, most issues are resolved by counsel in the hallways. If you have a real issue, you wait (and wait, and wait) for a conferences that takes 5 minutes when you get your turn at the bench. But those five minutes might consume an entire morning of travel, waiting, more waiting, discussion and then travel again. It’s been this way since forever. (See: How One Brooklyn Courtroom Wastes $10M per Year)

On March 13th of last year, at the directive of New York’s Chief Administrative Judge, Lawrence K. Marks, virtual conferences were put in motion in order to reduce foot traffic in the courthouse. (See, Will Coronavirus Push New York’s Courts Out of the Colonial Era?)

Lawyers will now often “meet and confer” to iron out discovery issues without conferences. Sadly, it was not habit before because one side of the equation gets paid by the hour. But now only real problems are likely to see a judge or law secretary (virtually).

For routine conferences this has worked very well, and I hope our judiciary continues this pattern after the pandemic is over. (And it will be over one day. I think it will, I think it will, I think it will.)

Put on a suit, spend 10 minutes in front of the computer, and done. No need to blow half a day for minor discovery issues.

Virtual Depositions Work: While some defense lawyers tried to use the pandemic as an excuse to delay (“We need to see the witnesses face to face!”) that door was firmly slammed shut by the courts. Depositions proceeded virtually. (See: New York Judges Order Virtual Depositions Due to COVID-19)

And you know what? They have worked just fine. I’ve heard few complaints from attorneys on either side. And if you want to be in the room with your own client, have at it. But there’s no need for others to be there if they don’t want to for health reasons, or for mere convenience. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to take the deposition of someone in Albany or Buffalo while sitting in my office if I so choose. Pandemic or not.

And if anyone thinks they need to see the reactions of the of the witnesses better, they can always record them. This, of course, is not new. We have had this option for many, many years, but it is very much the exception when done, not the rule.

A bad faith law is needed to move cases: Cases won’t settle without a jury. We knew this before, of course, but it really comes home now. Without the threat of a jury in the box the incentive to settle evaporated for liability insurers, even on clear-cut matters. Worse yet, can now offer even fewer pennies on the dollar if the injured plaintiff was in additional financial distress (and potentially leaning on tax-funded safety net programs to get by).

Insurers have no down side in delay, delay, delay. They just keep the premiums (nicely invested thank you very much) while postponing the benefits. The pandemic is a sweet deal for them, while the victims (and tax-payers) suffer the costs.

And now with the resulting mammoth backlog in the courts due to unresolved cases, and then topped off with cutbacks in the courts due to statewide financial shortfalls (older judges no longer getting certified), there are years of waiting ahead.

But with a good bad faith law, this problem vanishes. Hang the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the insurers and watch their profitable recalcitrance vanish. (See, Why Can’t New York be Like Alabama)

There’s no excuse for New York not having a bad faith law with real teeth, as it has real benefits: Victims get justice, the overwhelmed court budgets get relief, there is less need for tax-payers to fund the costs of the injuries, and the insurance companies merely must do what they were always required to do (but never forced to do).

So there you have it, two very significant changes in the way law has been practiced the last couple hundred years, that we should keep on doing. And one legislative proposal to make the wheels of justice roll efficiently.

The pandemic has caused extraordinary heartbreak in a wide array of areas. We have adapted somewhat to it — and along with you I can’t wait to burn those masks. But some adaptions are worth keeping, and one legislative change is long overdue.

 

December 13th, 2020

Trump Should Be Vaccinated First

According to a new New York Times piece, the Trump White House is claiming first dibs on the new COVID vaccine that is shipping as I type.

Folks are, predictably, outraged. The people who were dismissive of the virus should be last on line, right? The folks who mocked others for wearing masks should be waaaaay in the back. That folks who engaged in superspreader events, as if they were somehow immune, would get the vaccine first is an outrage.

Their antics, after all, have cost the nation dearly. Their followers believed them. They did everything they could do sow distrust of science. As if this was a blue state problem.

300,000 dead. And counting.

But. And you knew there had to be a “but” didn’t you? You saw the caption to this post. Trump should go first.

There are a lot of people distrusting the vaccine at the moment. Why? Well, partly because some wish to ignore science, some say the virus is a hoax and some because they think political pressure from Trump may have rushed a vaccine to the public before it was proven safe.

But widespread vaccination is critical to stop the virus. And you can’t have widespread vaccination without widespread acceptance.

So Trump and his cronies — who have done everything possible to make this situation worse — getting the vaccine sends a message to people: Science is important, the virus is not a hoax and the vaccine is safe.

So Trump should go first, followed by Presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush and Carter. As they have already stated they would.

The outrage about Trump is duly noted. The irony is obvious.

But the safety of the nation is more important. The sooner the virus is under control the sooner we put those masks in the drawer and start going to ballgames, restaurants and back into the homes of our family and friends. Without fear of illness.

 

October 15th, 2020

Cuomo Throws Monkey Wrench into Malpractice Immunity Law

When COVID-19 came to New York, the Legislature moved fast to grant widespread immunity to hospitals and nursing homes for virtually any acts of negligence that occurred, including, obviously, medical malpractice.

Realizing that such immunity was far too broad, the Legislature then pared it back. See, from August 4th, Cuomo Signs Bill Limiting Medical Immunity.

The key element of what will entitle medical practitioners to immunity now is whether they were “impacted” by the pandemic. The relevant time period shift in the law is March 7 to August 3rd. And yes, “impacted” is vague.

When this paring back of immunity occurred, I wrote of what the future would bring for any nursing home or medical malpractice suit brought within the key time period:

Coming soon to lawsuits and motion practice: Arguments that any medical or nursing malpractice case for any reason that occurred between March 7, 2020 and August 3, 2020 should be immune, as defense lawyers scramble to argue a COVID “impacted” hook.

But now Gov. Andrew Cuomo has monkey-wrenched the arguments of malpractice defense lawyers throughout the state.

How did he manage to do that? In an interview with CNN, he said that New York’s hospitals “were never overwhelmed” at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yowza! So hospital lawyers, defending malpractice cases, will obviously all want to claim their hospital or doctor was “impacted.” But the Governor just said the the hospitals “were never overwhelmed.”

Now you can try to parse the differences between those two phrases, but the ultimate answer will no doubt result in intense factual disputes.

This may well mean that attempts for fast victories on motions to dismiss — asserting that based on the pleadings alone there is no cause of action — can be easily shot down.

But will they be dismissed based on lack of evidence, as happens with summary judgment motions? To grant summary judgment there must be an absence of a factual dispute. Because factual determinations are for juries, not judges.

Any thoughts that such dismissals will come easily should now be out aside. Plaintiff’s bringing actions that fall within the applicable time period will be wise to add claims that treatment was not impacted by the pandemic.

And defense lawyers would be wise not to think that some conclusory affidavit from a hospital administrator will easily win them the day. Because I don’t believe they will.

We will be going someplace in discovery that we don’t usually go: Lawyers will now be looking at who else is in the hospital, what kinds of patients they were, how many beds were filled, etc., all in order to prove that care was (not) “impacted” by the pandemic.

An easy example: Patient goes to a New York City hospital for COVID in late June. Patient needs medication for condition. Wrong dosage is given by young intern who just started out on July 1 — instead of 0.5 mg it is 10.0 mg. Was treatment “impacted” by the pandemic?

Hospital argues that patient was only in hospital due to COVID.

Patient’s counsel argues that hospital was not understaffed and rushing around like chickens without heads at the time. There were, in fact, empty beds and staff available as the pandemic in NYC was slowing down.

The Governor just handed a big fat factual dispute to litigants throughout the state who, perhaps, thought the matter would be easily resolved in favor of medical practitioners.

Discovery may well be going where discovery has not gone before.

 

October 14th, 2020

What Does A Pandemic Jury Look Like?

Watergate jury, by John Hart. The original hangs in my office.

Yesterday I wrote about the post-pandemic law office, and depositions and court conferences. Today I shift to jury trials.

On Monday, New York’s Chief Judge put out a statement with lots of good news, including the fact that experimental jury trials have started. For the courts outside of New York City, 70 criminal and civil trial have now been scheduled, and many completed.

And jury trials are to start next week in New York City. As per CJ DiFiore:

In New York City, our current plan is to restart civil jury trials next week, although we are carefully monitoring the COVID metrics in different areas of the City and have not yet finalized decisions on the number or locations of these initial jury trials. You can be sure, however, that we will make responsible decisions based on all of the latest data and public health guidance, and that no jurors, lawyers or witnesses or members of our staff will be asked to report to our courthouses unless we are confident in our ability to protect their health and safety. And every trial that does take place will be conducted in a building that is operated with the full range of safety protocols that have been implemented, tested and refined to protect the hundreds of jurors, lawyers, witnesses and staff who have already safely participated in our jury trial pilot over the last several weeks.

As someone who makes his living in the courtroom well, I’m obviously happy to see jury trials restart. For it is only with a jury in the box that an insurance company will be forced to come to the table in good faith to negotiate.

But. And you knew there had to be a “but,” didn’t you?

What will these jurors look like who appear amid a pandemic? Will they be representative of the general population, so that litigants have a jury of their peers?

Unlikely.

The jury pool as a whole is most likely to be skewed.

We can start with those most vulnerable to COVID-19: The elderly. What percentage of our seniors/retirees, who ordinarily would show up for their civic duty, will say “no way, ain’t gonna do it.” Because virus. This demographic is almost certain to decrease.

How about those with underlying respiratory conditions? You can rest assured more of those will also stay home than would ordinarily show up. And many of these will have conditions exacerbated by poor health care.

Minority populations? Black populations have been especially hard hit, and it would be reasonable to assume that, as a percentage, fewer would want to come into the close confines of a courthouse no matter how much the judiciary says it will be safe. Because potential jurors won’t really know what the lay of the land will look like until they get there.

Mass transit users? Less likely to come to the courthouse while those that can afford private transportion are more likely.

And what of those that think the virus is no big deal? This population, generally conservative, will be more likely to come to the courthouse to serve.

So, in summary, the jury pool in New York City is now likely to decrease the number of seniors, those with respiratory issues, Blacks, and the poor, and conversely more likely to include those who are young, white and conservative.

I’d love to say that I have a solution for this problem. I don’t.

But I’m open to suggestions. And I bet the judiciary is also once they recognize the problem.