February 1, 2019
Plans underway to improve Civil Division efficiency
By Bryan Neft
Eighteen years ago, my friend and predecessor, Amy Greer, wrote a President’s Message entitled, Local Court Litigator’s Lament, in the Nov. 10, 2001, Lawyers Journal. In it, she posited that the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas ought to move from a master calendar system to an individual calendar system. That piece was both lauded by members of the bar who sought a streamlined trial court system and criticized by members of the civil division bench who had just spent the previous five years working hard to eliminate the backlog of cases that plagued the court.
Fast forward to the 2019: we still live under a master calendar system, and the civil division in many ways is the maze that it has always been. I still rely on my Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Civil Practice Manual (PBI) – which I refer to as the “Book of Brilliant Things” – to understand what should be presented to the motions judge, or the special motions judge, or the calendar control judge. Do I have to file something with Tony Bagnatto? And how do I explain this maze to my paralegal, who just wants me to leave her alone? Fortunately, gone are the days when I had to see Scotty Sullivan. I either had too many cover sheets or not enough cover sheets. “Bring me three more copies of the face sheet, and I’ll file it for you,” Scotty used to say. If it wasn’t that, it was “why did you bring me all of these copies of the face sheet?” Nothing I did was correct, even if it was. But, I’ve learned to live with the system, understanding in many ways that there is a method to the madness. And many of the judges that I appear in front of frequently know that I am not afraid to say if things should be done differently. I think (hope) that they take my constructive criticism in the spirit intended – to improve the process.
Last year, though, a couple of things happened that led me to speculate that larger change might be coming. The first was the Superior Court’s decision in Trigg v. Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, 187 A.3d 1013 (Pa. Super. 2018) in which the Superior Court refused to give deference to the court’s ruling on a juror challenge for cause when a judge hadn’t been present for the voir dire. The other was a report prepared by a joint committee comprised of members of the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Western Pennsylvania and the ACBA’s Civil Litigation Section concerning jury selection. The joint committee issued a report calling on the court to begin having a judge conduct the voir dire process. I thought that these two events could be the impetus for a move to an individual calendar system.
So, what better way to test my theory than to have a conversation with Administrative Judge Christine Ward. She quickly put to rest any idea that Allegheny County would ever have a true individual calendar system like the one that exists in federal court. And it is due, primarily, to the numbers: there are nearly 20,000 cases open each year and nine commissioned judges.
But, Judge Ward assures me that she has big plans to make the civil division more efficient and accessible. She realizes that not everyone can buy a copy of the Book of Brilliant Things (I get mine free because I am one of the authors). First, there is already a long list of cases that are eligible for individual dockets (see the information in the boxes that accompany this article on pages 3 and 6 *See text below). For those that don’t fall into one of those categories, Judge Ward always will entertain a motion to assign a case to a judge.
The court also is developing a Pathways or Early Intervention program based on recommendations Judge Ward received from the National Center of State Courts. That program would allow cases to be fixed on one of three tracks depending on their complexity. The court would hold a case-management conference and establish a case-management order with a discovery cutoff, deadlines for pretrial filings and a presumptive trial date.
In addition, she and Judge Alan Hertzberg are in the process of developing a housing court to handle all landlord-tenant and residential leased housing violation cases because there is a real correlation between eviction proceedings and habitability of the leased premises. Judge Ward also said she wants to install a help desk in the office of court records so that litigants and lawyers can get answers on how to navigate the system.
Alas, as Mick Jagger once sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” Having a judge oversee the jury voir dire is problematic. The court isn’t able to have judges participate in every voir dire. The court is encouraging most parties to engage in voir dire without a judge as usual. If the parties insist on a judge, the case may have to ride the trial list, be moved to a different date or trial term to accommodate the request or – on occasion – simply may be sent to pick on the day it is listed without a judge.
So, for those hoping for a complete revamp of the civil division to allow for individual calendar dockets, it’s not happening. But, on the other hand, we are seeing some of the largest structural changes in the division in some time. As I am fond of saying … baby steps.
To talk about these issues further, please contact ACBA President Bryan Neft at 412-325-3317 or BNeft@spilmanlaw.com
*CASES ASSIGNED TO INDIVIDUAL DOCKETS:
Abandoned & Blighted Property, Conservator at Act 135 – Walko
Allegheny County Beverage Tax – Colville
Asbestos – Connolly, Klein, Walko
Class Actions – Colville, Ward
Complex and Commerce – Colville, Ignelzi, Ward
Construction – Hertzberg
Election Law – James
Eminent Domain – Della Vecchia
Housing Agency Appeals – Hertzberg
Local Agency Appeals (Statutory Appeals) – Assigned by Calendar Control Judge
Miscellaneous (Declaratory Judgment, Equity, Mandamus, Partition, Quiet Title, Quo Warranto) – Assigned by Calendar Control Judge
Mortgage Conciliation – McVay
Office of Open Records/Right to Know Appeals – O’Brien
Pa. Liquor Control Board – Colville
Prisoner Rights – Hertzberg, Initial Screenings to Ignelzi
School District – Walko
Structured Settlement Approvals – Ward
Toxic Substances – Colville
Water Exoneration Hearing Board Appeals – Colville
Zoning – James
MOTIONS AND OTHER ASSIGNMENTS:
Administrative – Ward
Calendar Control – Hertzberg
General Motions – Rotates
Motions (name changes, petitions, title transfer) – Rotates
Special Motions – Colville
Special Name Changes – Ward