January 8th, 2019

Judges to U.S. on Shutdown: ‘Pound Sand’

What, you may wonder, happens to suits against the federal government when the money spigot closes? And if you have a suit against the U.S. — say a Federal Tort Claims Act action — what should you do?

Good questions. Glad you asked.

Many courts have simply issued stays of all civil cases. Civil ones aren’t as urgent as criminal cases, as no one has their liberty in jeopardy.

But you know what? At least two judges in civil actions have now told the Department of Justice to go pound sand. One in West Virginia and one in Puerto Rico.

In the Puerto Rican case, a judge called the government request for a stay “laughable.” As per the Bloomberg article:

In a ruling denying the government request, U.S. District Judge William G. Young said lapses in federal appropriations, like the current one triggered by President Donald Trump’s demand for funding for a border wall with Mexico, aren’t a government “policy” that could theoretically justify staying such a lawsuit.

“Let us talk plain — they are simply an abdication by the president and the Congress (which could override a presidential veto) of the duty to govern responsibly to the end that all the laws may be faithfully executed,” Young said in the Jan. 2 ruling in San Juan. “Nor does such a lapse in any way excuse this court from exercising its own constitutional functions.”

Young…sarcastically compared the situation to a major corporation that “for whatever reason” decided not to pay its attorneys involved in pending litigation and instructed them not to interact with the court.

“Then the corporation says to the court, ‘We greatly regret any disruptions caused to the court and to other litigants, but please stay all proceedings until we get our act together.’ This does not constitute ‘good cause’ for any stay,” Young wrote. “In fact, it is laughable.”

Lawyers hate it when the judge calls your arguments “laughable.” There was no justification, in Judge Young’s view, for treating a plaintiff and defendant differently when it comes to moving a case forward. An excuse that doesn’t work for the plaintiff won’t work for a defendant.

In the West Virginia action, one judge issued an order granting a stay for all civil cases affected by the shutdown. But another judge said, nope, no way, not in my courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin issued a general order Jan. 2 exempting civil cases assigned to him from the federal shutdown.

So what happens if you have an action against the federal government? We’re not talking about immigration cases or police department consent orders or the census. We’re talking nuts and bolts basic cases of the type that don’t find their way into the news.

My suggestion? If a case is ready for suit, file that suit. Push the case forward. Take advantage of the fact that the defendant might not have a lawyer right now due to its own malfeasance.

Can you imagine starting a suit and the government failing to answer? A default. An automatic win for the plaintiff. Move straight forward to an assessment of damages.

Will a judge allow the default to go forward? It seems like it will depend on the judge. Some have clearly told the government to pound sand while others are cutting it slack.

But the argument by both Judges Goodwin and Young is compelling: The plaintiff in a civil suit against the U.S. would not get the benefit of a stay because the lawyers ran out of money, so the U.S. shouldn’t either.

 

December 29th, 2018

Google Maps Comes to New York – and other legislative stuff

People love to yell and scream about those damn politicians, don’t they? Well, since fair is fair, then they should get a solid pat on the back for getting stuff right, shouldn’t they?

New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Friday that allows satellite-mapping services, such as Google Maps, to be admitted into evidence at trial. It was passed in the waning days of the last legislative session ending in June, and the Cuomo just inked it.

I know, that’s a little thing, isn’t it? Especially since federal courts are already doing it.

But it’s one of those little things that oils the wheels of justice so that they creak along just a little bit more efficiently.

The bill summary is here:

“Allows judicial notice of an image, map, location, distance, calculation, or other information taken from a web mapping service, a global satellite imaging site, or an internet mapping tool, when requested by a party to the action, subject to a rebuttable presumption.”

And, of course, there isn’t anything even remotely partisan about it. It just makes it a little bit easier to move things along when you stand in the well of the courtroom.

Last year, for those that remember back that far, there had been several new laws regarding civil justice that improved things in New York, including a terrific change in Supplementary Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist (SUM) insurance, a change in the statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases to add a date of discovery rule for cancer cases, and a modest change in the venue law.

With the both legislative houses now in the hands of one party due to the Blue Wave that swept the country as backlash to Trump there is the opportunity for more progress (and yes, more mischief).

Maybe we will finally see the Grieving Families Act pass for the families of wrongful death victims?

Perhaps we can finally stop the judicially-created law that allows defense lawyers to interview a plaintiff’s doctors — off the record and without plaintiff’s counsel even being notified.

Maybe we will see some anti-SLAPP legislation?

(Hey, maybe, maybe we will even see my pet project, Eric’s Law, move forward to wipe out some of the last vestiges of the idiotic ad damnum clause?)

I’ll be watching, as the coming session has the opportunity to be one of he most significant in many, many years.

 

December 20th, 2018

Trump and the Presidential Veto

Photo credit Evan Vucci / AP

[Cross-posted from Above the Law]

On Thursday morning Donald Trump threatened to veto all legislation over his wall. No such Trump veto will happen. Ever. On any bill.

I don’t get into the realm of political punditry often as it’s not what I do — I usually confine political comments to those issues that deal with tort “reform” — but today we make an exception because this goes, in essence, to all bills sent to the president.

We start this short analysis with the observation that Trump hasn’t vetoed a single bill. He’s the first president since James Garfield to act that way, and Garfield was only in office six and a half months before being shot dead.

Before that was Millard Fillmore who left office in 1853, who also served a partial term as he took office upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Taylor didn’t veto anything, but was in office only 16 months. Before that was William Henry Harrison, who died a month into office.

The last president to go a full term without a veto? John Quincy Adams, our sixth president who left office in 1829.

And a few more simple observations: First, Trump loves signing things and makes a big show of displaying his signature, even for executive orders.

Second, he campaigned as a “deal maker.” It matters not one whit if you agree or not, or think he’s good or not. This is the persona he wants the world to believe.

And now, with the House of Representative turning to Democratic control, any bill that passes both the House and Senate that is in any way contentious will be the result of bipartisan compromise. A deal.

So if Congress passes a bill — even one that’s a complete anathema to his other policies — he will sign it and claim “credit.” Even if he had nothing to do with its negotiation.

Envision, for a moment, a bipartisan compromise bill on immigration. Imagine it chock full of things Trump claims to hate and campaigned against.

Will he sign it? No, the contents of the bill don’t matter. Because more important than the contents is that he would be able to claim “credit” for something, even if he campaigned against it. ‘Look at me, the deal maker.’

Will Trump supporters have a feeling of betrayal — one of the most powerful human emotions? Possibly. But that’s a column for another day. Trump’s first instinct has always been to look inward as to what was good for him today.

Why write about this now? Because every so often you will see Republican Senators claim that they won’t pass a bill because the president won’t sign it. Don’t believe it. It’s a diversion.

Trump will sign anything.

 

December 18th, 2018

A Lawyer Falls on His Sword

Photo by Saul Loeb – Pool/Getty Images)

You don’t see me writing about criminal law here for good reason — it’s not what I do. But something happened during the sentencing hearing for General Michael Flynn today that deserves mention.

As many know, he was showing up to be sentenced for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians and with regard to statements he made about his involvement as an agent for Turkey. Given that he was Trump’s National Security Advisor, and he was compromised, this was obviously a big thing.

But during the sentencing, press reports were that Judge Emmet G. Sullivan was, shall, we say, a bit irritated. To say the least. He called Flynn’s conduct “a very serious offense” and said he was not hiding his “disgust” at what Mr. Flynn had done. At one point he asked prosecutors if they had considered charging him with treason.

A small part of that anger may have been due to the fact that, prior to the sentence, Flynn’s lawyers suggested he might  have been set up, or duped, by the FBI.

And this is the reason that I write on this subject — because it has nothing to do with criminal law but about the relationship between attorneys and clients in general:

At the hearing, Judge Sullivan brought the subject up, making sure that Flynn distanced himself from the comments of his lawyers and fully acknowledged that he knew he wasn’t supposed to be lying to the FBI, even if they didn’t tell him he was the subject of an investigation.

Who’s idea was it to vacillate a bit on the reason Flynn got busted? to suggest that, perhaps, he was somehow entrapped? Lawyer or client? Beats me. But at the hearing it didn’t matter to the lawyer.

At the hearing, to spare his client, Flynn attorney Rob Kelner said his client shouldn’t be punished for the conduct of his attorneys. He fell on his sword; he threw himself under the bus; he bit the bullet. No matter the metaphor you choose, the lawyer owned the problem and told the court the bucks stops with him.

Because that’s what a good lawyer is supposed to do.

 

December 11th, 2018

Defending Al Sharpton’s Daughter

Papa Sharpton and Daughter Sharpton

On the one hand, I hate to refer to Al Sharpton’s daughter, Dominique Sharpton, as “Sharpton’s Daughter” as she has an identity all her own. We all do.

On the other hand, nobody would be writing about her $95K settlement for her trip and fall case if her name was Jane Jones. The headlines below occurred because she is not only the daughter of someone famous, but a famous person many love to pillory.  You’ll notice that it is Papa Sharpton whose name appears in the headlines.

This trip and fall occurred on New York City streets, and it was the City that was the defendant.

I saw the headline in the Post first, then looked around to see what others were writing. Here are a few:

Al Sharpton’s daughter gets $95K settlement for sprained ankle (NY Post)

Al Sharpton’s Daughter Bags $95,000 Settlement for Sprained Ankle (Breitbart)

Al Sharpton’s Daughter Sprains Ankle ‘Real Bad’ On NYC Street, Scores $95,000 In Settlement (Sarah Palin)

Then a few tweets about that sprained ankle. You can find plenty, but this is a sample from “Sheriff” David Clarke:

Now I smelled something about the headlines. And that’s because I’ve litigated plenty against the City of New York and know that it doesn’t give up the taxpayer coin easily. And if the City could make a point by knocking down a high-ish profile case, it would.

So I logged into the court system and pulled up a document to see about that “sprained ankle.” It took all of two minutes to find what I needed. Here’s a bill of particulars that outlines the injuries.

It turns out that the “sprained ankle” was actually ankle surgery (along with a number of torn tendons and ligaments). Now I know that confusing a sprain with surgery isn’t the kind of mistake that I would make, or any of my readers would make, or any family, friend, or random stranger would make.

To make that “mistake” one needs an agenda to distort the news. The Post story had a single line about the surgery buried in the story, but oddly omitted that from the headline. 

Neither Breitbart nor Palin — who picked up the story from the local source that being the NY Post — could be bothered with mentioning the surgery. A 95K settlement over a sprained ankle is far more likely to generate outrage and clicks than a story where ankle surgery was needed. Surgery, you might rightly guess, didn’t fit their agenda.

This was not a one-off error for the NY Post, by the way. I covered this case back in 2015 when the Post ran a headline about Kid Sharpton missing a court conference for this matter — a conference that no client ever, ever goes to. It’s a scheduling conference that the lawyers handle. Yet there was the yellow journalism headline, trying to make something out of, quite literally, nothing.

And both stories were written by their regular courthouse reporter Julia Marsh, who certainly knows better after handling the beat for so many years. It’s not like she doesn’t know how to pull documents off the easy-to-use New York State electronic filing system.

This was, near as I can tell, a run-of-the-mill case of the City of New York neglecting its streets and someone inevitably getting hurt while crossing one. When you’re looking out for cars, pedestrians, dogs, bikes, scooters and other distractions, both dynamic and static, it’s easy to miss a pothole. The nature of the distractions may well affect the way a jury apportions liability between plaintiff and defendant.

This 90-second video, for instance, helps to show how a very small, but unexpected, defect will cause huge numbers of people to trip.

To settle this case, as with any other, the City would have done a simple analysis trying to figure out the “value” of the injuries, factored in the extent of their defect and adjusted downward for the plaintiff sharing part of the blame. They would also factor in how a plaintiff appeared — was she a nun or a convicted criminal?  And they might, as they no doubt did here, adjust further downward if the plaintiff said dumb things on social media. 

The only thing noteworthy to the suit was that some tabloids could figure out a way to create outrage by distorting what happened.