Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ammendola appointed to countywide McGinnis vacancy

The Illinois Supreme Court today appointed Loop attorney Marina E. Ammendola to the countywide vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Sheila McGinnis.

Ammendola's appointment is effective February 27 and will terminate on December 3, 2018. Ammendola has been licensed in Illinois since 1989. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. Ammendola made the Chicago newspapers at the turn of the century when she represented Ald. Ed Burke and his wife, now-Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, in the "Baby T" custody case. Before setting up her own practice in 2001, Ammendola worked for Patricia C. Bobb & Associates.

Reforming civil discovery – Part 2 – preserve the civil justice system by adopting zero-based discovery

There seems to be a misunderstanding among lawyers generally and courts in particular that, unless forced to do so, a lawyer in a civil case will never disclose a single scrap of information.

And yet we know that we don’t behave that way. Judges didn’t behave that way when they were in practice either (just ask one).

And we also know that most—the overwhelming majority of—civil cases are disposed of without trial.

And, finally, we also know that this happens even though a great many cases are settled without suit ever being filed.

Cases settle without suit because lots of information is voluntarily disclosed. Plaintiffs’ attorneys carefully gather together their clients’ medical records and lost-time records and helpful scene photographs and bundle them together in a ‘package’ designed to make the adjuster requisition adequate authority. The damning documents are carefully arranged and an explanatory letter is sent in an effort to make the other party to the contract realize the consequence of his or her breach. It doesn’t take a 213(f)(3) disclosure schedule to get the property owner to share the engineering report that clearly shows that the concrete was improperly mixed and that this caused the damage to the structure. These disclosures are willingly made in order to resolve cases at the earliest possible opportunity.

In other words, we really are very eager to disclose information that helps us... it’s just information that might hurt our cause that we try to keep hidden. (Human nature again.)

But, especially in our hyper-connected, over-sharing age, a lot of stuff that clients might not want to reveal, if they thought about it, is already ‘out’ before their lawyers are brought ‘in.’

Even if some damaging stuff sometimes remains buried during pre-suit investigation, cases don’t typically arrive in court without both sides already knowing quite a bit, good and bad, about the controversy.

Why does it automatically make sense to recreate all the information obtained or exchanged pre-suit?

In a great many cases—especially in our hyper-connected, over-sharing world—a lot of information damaging to our opponent is already known by third parties. Military Strategy 101 teaches that a good flanking maneuver is less costly than a frontal assault on a fortified position. Why do lawyers spend so much time, and so much client money, making frontal assaults on their opponents, demanding that they reveal damaging stuff that could be far more easily obtained from others?

The concept of “complete” or “full” discovery may sound appealing to law school professors, but the costs attendant thereto has made our civil court system too expensive a forum for too many – and, yet, there’s no viable alternative available. (Arbitration? Don’t get me started: Discovery is corrupting arbitration practice, too, and where one side is purchasing the arbitrator, as is now the case in mega-company vs. consumer arbitration, just exactly how fair can that system be?)

What we should do instead is abandon the idea of automatic discovery and move to a zero-based discovery system. This is not as inconsistent with our existing rules as you might initially think. Consider, for example, Supreme Court Rule 218(a), which already provides that “the following shall be considered” at an initial case management conference:
(1) the nature, issues, and complexity of the case;

(2) the simplification of the issues;

(3) amendments to the pleadings;

(4) the possibility of obtaining admissions of fact and of documents which will avoid unnecessary proof;

(5) limitations on discovery including:
(i) the number and duration of depositions which may be taken;

(ii) the area of expertise and the number of expert witnesses who may be called; and

(iii) deadlines for the disclosure of witnesses and the completion of written discovery and depositions;
(6) the possibility of settlement and scheduling of a settlement conference;

(7) the advisability of alternative dispute resolution;

(8) the date on which the case should be ready for trial;

(9) the advisability of holding subsequent case management conferences; and

(10) any other matters which may aid in the disposition of the action including but not limited to issues involving electronically stored information and preservation.”
Rules 218(a)(4), (5), and (10) specifically invite a trial court’s early and direct involvement in discovery issues. But rather than asking whether ‘form’ interrogatories have been unthinkingly propounded, or whether the depositions of all parties have been scheduled, whether needed or not, I suggest that we ask courts to presume that no discovery whatsoever is necessary in any case. I call this ‘zero-based discovery.’

With zero-based discovery the burden would be imposed on any party who wants it to persuade the court as to what discovery is necessary, and why. The court becomes the gatekeeper, tasked with evaluating whether the requested discovery is really necessary to get a case ready for trial – or positioned for settlement – or whether the discovery being sought is instead intended as a means to wear down or harass the other side. The court’s active involvement at this juncture should stop a ‘fishing expedition’ before it leaves port. The court’s control of the conduct of discovery from the outset would protect the uninsured or underfunded party against the use of discovery by a well-funded opponent as a means to bleed and bludgeon it into an unfair settlement or, worse, default or nonsuit.

With a zero-based discovery, human nature works with the system, instead of against it: When the judge becomes obliged to ‘deal’ with discovery issues, he or she, consistent with his or her understandable disdain for discovery issues, will want to minimize discovery, to focus it to just that which is essential.

The new assumption would be that, without a court-specified and court-monitored discovery schedule, carefully tailored to meet the specific needs of each case, a case would be ready for trial just as soon as issue was joined. This would not prevent the parties from attempting to resolve their differences, either with the court’s assistance in a pre-trial, or through mediation (again, as Rule 218(a) already provides). But, without unfettered, automatic discovery, the cost of litigation would be reduced, perhaps drastically, bringing the court system—and the services of lawyers—once again within the reach of middle class people and small businesses. That alone might curb the surge in pro se litigation.

Meanwhile, equally well-funded parties could still try and discover each other to death (if equally well-financed parties are determined to wage a discovery war of attrition, the wise trial judge will gladly let them). But the civil court system can still be preserved as a viable dispute resolution forum for the rest of us.

To be continued.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reforming civil discovery – Part 1 – the problem of human nature

First in a series.

“Discovery is intended to be a mechanism for the ascertainment of truth, for the purpose of promoting either a fair settlement or a fair trial.” Ostendorf v. International Harvester Co., 89 Ill.2d 273, 282, 433 N.E.2d 253, 257 (1982). “[D]iscovery is supposed to enable counsel to decide in advance of trial not only what the evidence is likely to be but what legal issues can credibly be argued.” Lubbers v. Norfolk & Western R. Co., 105 Ill.2d 201, 213, 473 N.E.2d 955, 961 (1984).

That’s what discovery in a civil case is intended to be.

Discovery is not supposed to be “a tactical game,” a game played to “impede and harass” an opponent. Williams v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., 83 Ill.2d 559, 566, 416 N.E.2d 252, 256 (1981).

But, too often, that’s just what discovery is: A game, a gauntlet, a trial by ordeal. It is too often used to prevent consideration of the merits of a case. It is deployed to wear down, subdue, bleed, and even bankrupt an opponent. Especially where the parties are not equally well-funded: Big business vs. small businessperson, for example, or well-insured or well-financed defendant vs. plaintiff (read: plaintiff’s attorney) with shallow pockets. Or where the defendant is uninsured.

How can this happen?

Two words: Human nature.

In the very next sentence after the Illinois Supreme Court warned, in Williams v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., that discovery should not be a tactical game, the court itself created the playing field: “Discovery is intended as, and should be, a cooperative undertaking by counsel and the parties, conducted largely without court intervention, for the purpose of ascertaining the merits of the case and thus promoting either a fair settlement or a fair trial.” (83 Ill.2d at 566, emphasis mine.)

With the lower courts instructed to refrain from routine intervention in discovery, whatever the Supreme Court’s intent, it was inevitable that abuses would flourish: Discovery bullies, like every other kind of bully, are all too willing to take every advantage when assured they can act without fear of ‘intervention.’

Not that trial courts needed much persuasion to refrain from intervention. Judges (understandably) don’t want to be burdened with discovery issues. It’s just human nature: Judges didn’t like discovery when they were mere practitioners.

Nor should this be surprising: No sane person likes discovery. Junior lawyers dream of becoming senior lawyers so they can fob discovery compliance off on the next cohort of fresh-faced associates, just as this unsavory task was dumped on them by their elders. That’s also human nature.

Senior partners may like the billable hours accumulated by their minions in the relentless pursuit (or avoidance) of discovery compliance, but none of them would willingly pitch in and review documents. That’s human nature, too.

Besides, no sane client would ever pay the senior partner’s hourly rate for tasks that the greenest associate might handle (or even a robot). Clients don’t just hate paying for discovery, they hate being bothered by it. What lawyer hasn’t had a client whine why am I paying you if I have to look for all this stuff myself? (With clients whose defense costs are being fronted by liability insurers the whining is sometimes even worse: Why do I have to do all this stuff? What did I buy insurance for anyway?)

So it’s just human nature that clients, and all the lawyers who can, will avoid discovery whenever they can (and, sometimes, even when they shouldn’t). Equally in accord with human nature, the courts are entirely willing to adopt an attitude of benign neglect (you lawyers should work this out amongst yourselves).

This creates opportunities for the Eddie and Edwina Haskells of the world. (I always hesitate to use cultural references from my TV-saturated childhood but, in rummaging around the Intertubes preparing this piece, I came across a 2011 article on the Psychology Today website, by Dr. Ronald E. Riggio, entitled, “Bullies and the Eddie Haskell Effect,” and subtitled, “Why workplace bullies often don’t get caught.” So I guess the reference is still well enough understood.) Mrs. Cleaver usually saw through Eddie’s smarmy and unctuous horse manure, but not always right away. Sometimes Wallace and Theodore, er, Wally and the Beaver, would wind up in hot water first. Comedy ensued.

Like June Cleaver, judges may eventually see through the Eddie or Edwina Haskells who are abusing discovery (and their opponents) in the cases before them – but not always before costs are inflated out of proportion with the value of the case.

Litigation is about persuasion. Persuasion involves more than the lawyer’s careful case citations or passionate speeches. A jury trial, you may have heard, is a proceeding in which 12 strangers decide which party has the best lawyer. There’s a kernel of truth in that old piece of corn: First and foremost, persuasion involves the lawyer trying to show the court that she is the reasonable one, that he is trustworthy, that they are credible. The lawyer who loses credibility with the court may find that all the great case citations and flowery language in the world can’t save the client’s cause. Once again, that’s human nature.

Anyone who has ever played a team sport, or had a kid in a team sport, has learned (often the hard way) that the umpire or referee doesn’t always see (or recognize) the provocation that gives rise to the retaliation. But the retaliation is almost always seen, and penalized. That’s human nature, too.

A court may not immediately recognize that the motion to compel is unfair or unjust because the underlying discovery requests are irrelevant, overbroad, overly burdensome, and/or grossly disproportionate to the dispute in question. In fact, this would be unlikely because, after all, the parties are supposed to work this stuff out without judicial intervention. Therefore—human nature being what it is—the party seeking the court’s assistance in enforcing discovery, in apparent compliance with the rules, particularly Rule 201(k), especially when represented by an Edward Haskell, Esq., will, at least at first, command the court’s sympathy. And the aggrieved respondent, whose credibility with the court is diminished just by being on the receiving end of such a motion, can squander what credibility he or she has left with too shrill or outraged a response. This, too, is human nature.

A proper civil discovery system should not work against human nature (or, at best, in spite of human nature).

More on this tomorrow.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Rule 23 in the news this week -- and an illustration of the 'be careful what you ask for' rule

It had to be coincidence, right?

Justice Michael Hyman's partial concurrence and dissent in Snow & Ice, Inc. v. MPR Management, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, was front page news in Wednesday evening's Law Bulletin. In my email Wednesday afternoon was an update from the Appellate Lawyers Association. Both concerned suggested changes to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23.

The ALA chose Wednesday to report that the Supreme Court had "voted during its November 2016 Term to make no changes to" Rule 23 at this time.

The ALA, Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association had written a joint letter back in 2014 to then-Chief Justice Rita B. Garman proposing that Rule 23 orders be citable as persuasive authority. (Currently, Rule 23(e)(1) provides that Rule 23 orders are "not precedential and may not be cited by any party except to support contentions of double jeopardy, res judicata, collateral estoppel or law of the case.")

The Supreme Court chose not to act on the 2014 request but, according to the ALA, "invited the Associations to undertake a comprehensive review and 'consider whether there is continued value to distinguishing between published and nonpublished dispositions since they are all available electronically and no longer bound in paper form.'"

Joined by representatives of the Executive Committee of the Illinois Judges Association, the ALA, CBA and ISBA set up a Special Committee on Rule 23 and, this past August, "submitted a revised proposed amendment to Rule 23 that would permit the citation of Rule 23 orders issued after the amendment would take effect as persuasive authority." But the Court again said no.

Currently, the majority of a panel deciding a case determines whether a case will be disposed of by a published opinion or under Rule 23. In Snow & Ice, Inc., Justice Hyman advocates for what he calls "the one justice rule": "in cases with a dissent or special concurrence, the preference of a single justice, rather than a majority of the panel, [should be] sufficient to publish the decision as an opinion" 2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, ¶28.

Hyman notes, 2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, ¶¶51-52, that the First, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits of the U.S. Courts of Appeal have a publication rule in place similar to the one he suggests, as do state courts in Alabama, Arizona, California, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Texas.

Illinois used to be on this list, too. My research over the past couple of days leads me to believe that the 'panel majority' rule came into effect in 1994. I am virtually certain that, in 1991, the filing of a dissent automatically made what had been a Rule 23 order into a published opinion.

I choose not to name the case here, but let me explain the facts.

Plaintiff discharged her lawyer at some point after filing suit. I don't know why. New counsel was engaged and ready to take the case over, but the first attorney was unwilling to relinquish the file until there was an agreement reached on a division of fees and costs.

This is a bad idea of many levels, not least of which is the fact that the fee can not be properly allocated at such an early stage: The first attorney is entitled to a quantum meruit recovery but, until the case was resolved, no one could fairly say how much or how little the first attorney contributed to the eventual result. The second attorney should have tendered the first attorney's costs and promised to protect the first attorney's lien rights and the first attorney should have handed over the file.

I don't know whether the failure to respond to defendant's initial written discovery requests prompted the dismissal of the first attorney or whether the first attorney refused to answer the discovery because he'd been discharged. I do know, however, that the discovery went unanswered for roughly six months. A sanctions motion was eventually filed. About five months after the motion was filed (11 months after the discovery was served), Attorney #1 withdrew and Attorney #2 entered an appearance. About a month after that the sanctions motion was granted. In the published opinion, the Appellate Court said the sanctions motion was granted ex parte, but the motion had been pending, at that point, for roughly six months and presumably both attorneys, the one who withdrew while the motion was pending, and the one who appeared while the motion was pending, knew or should have known about the pending hearing date. In this case, therefore, I believe ex parte merely means that no one showed up to oppose the entry of the dismissal.

Three more months dragged by before Attorney #2 decided to do something about the dismissal.

A §2-1401 petition was filed, with supporting affidavits. Section 2-1401, then and now, requires that a §2-1401 "petition must be supported by affidavit or other appropriate showing as to matters not of record." The affidavits are necessary to establish a party's due diligence; a §2-1401 can not be granted unless the movant can show due diligence and a meritorious claim (or defense).

In this case, though, the affidavits were defective. They were stricken. An amended §2-1401 petition was then filed, supported by different affidavits. The published opinion does not so state but, as I recall, the second set of affidavits were not only deficient technically, they contradicted the first set of affidavits factually, setting up the always-awkward question of were you lying then or are you lying now?

The trial court agreed, and struck the affidavits once again -- stating expressly that the attorneys were negligent and not diligent -- but, this time, the trial court granted the petition.

I don't remember with certainty when I got involved in the case. It wasn't mine from the beginning. I know I was involved in the appeal. I may have gotten involved at the §2-1401 stage, but my memory, over 25 years later, is fuzzy. I do remember roping in a new associate to work on the appeal with me. After all, I told her, this case presented a typical bar exam question and she was much closer to the bar exam than I was. (When I took the bar, §2-1401 was called §72, but it was basically the same statute, and the affidavit and due diligence requirements were unchanged.)

You probably saw where this was going long since: The Appellate Court affirmed, in what was initially a Rule 23 order, on the basis of "fairness." Both the trial court and the Appellate Court were reluctant to punish the plaintiff because her attorneys could not "cooperate."

There was no associate assisting me on the petition for rehearing. I was almost certainly a tad intemperate. I'm sure I brought up the standard-bar-exam-question angle.

My screed caught the attention of one of the panelists---but only one---and she filed a dissent agreeing that it was error to grant a §2-1401 petition without supporting affidavits and where due diligence was not established. The filing of that dissent, under Rule 23 as it existed in 1991, caused the order, which would otherwise have never been heard from again, to automatically become an opinion. My temper tantrum caused an unfortunate result to become a knot in the otherwise smooth fabric of §2-1401 precedent. I got snarky thank-you notes from more than one plaintiff's attorney when that case hit the advance sheets. I remember one note said, You lowered my malpractice premiums with this case. Thanks!

Be careful what you ask for indeed.

At some point the nice insurance company that was paying our fees decided it would be best to move on. I don't know if this was before or after the PLA (which was denied) but it was certainly before the Motion for Leave to File Instanter a Motion for Reconsideration of the Denial of the Petition for Leave to Appeal that I filed anyway, missing a good part of our Christmas party that year, eating my time instead of whatever meal the others were having.

(And, of course, this motion, too, was denied -- although, ironically, several years later, also at Christmastime, I drew on my experience in drafting that awkwardly named motion to draft another such motion in another case which was actually granted.)

I'm no fan of Rule 23. I used to say, with some bitterness, that all my appellate victories were buried in Rule 23 orders -- and all my losses were in published opinions. But (a) this is not true and (b) with the passage of time, I've come to realize that it's the result that counts, not whether a disposition is published. And, besides, there have been a few occasions, over the years, when I was glad for the cloak of Rule 23. Anybody who's done this kind of work can recount instances of making good arguments in not-so-good cases.

But the problem with Rule 23 probably lies in its application, not so much in the concept. Despite the experience recounted above, I'm inclined to agree with Justice Hyman's suggested "one justice rule" for publication. And there was one other point that Justice Hyman made about a circumstance where Rule 23 should not apply (2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, ¶38), namely, "reaffirming a rule of law's viability despite its age."

Justice Hyman illustrated this principle by positing an opinion written in 1977 that plainly states a rule of law. The rule hasn't changed in 40 years and, therefore, according to Rule 23, a new case expressing that rule need not be published. "But," suggests Justice Hyman, "a 2017 opinion restating that rule, and analyzing a modern factual scenario, can be helpful to today’s lawyers in understanding the rule’s continued applicability. (And reassure lawyers that they have found the most recent, accurate statement of the law.)" (2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, ¶38.) To this, I would add that a reaffirmation of long-standing principles now and again would also provide comfort to trial judges increasingly skittish about relying on non-public domain authority....