As 2021 comes to an end, we wanted to report on what the Los Angeles County Superior Court has been able to do this year and provide insight into what to expect in 2022.
How did the Civil Division function in 2021?
The court successfully pivoted out of a global pandemic that left us all thinking it would be impossible to keep up with caseloads. We reimagined ourselves in terms of what was possible to meet the needs of litigants and lawyers.
When the year started, judges were determined to keep cases moving forward, notwithstanding virtually insurmountable conditions for jury trials, without the usual tool of firm trial dates, by pushing for resolution in other ways. We promoted bench trials and steered cases towards settlement conferences to maximize limited resources. As the year progressed, conditions improved allowing, first, for the trials entitled to preference, and gradually leading into the last several months of 2021, to where we are now — conducting trials in the wide array of civil cases at full throttle.
Notwithstanding loose talk of civil backlogs, the truth is that the judges have tried all cases that were ready for trial since early in 2021 when Presiding Judge Taylor returned discretion to each trial judge to determine whether cases were ready for trial. There has been no waiting list of trials, as first feared. Nor were lawyers told to come back sometime later.
In addition, though the independent calendar courts and PI Hub courts have seen increased inventories, the real feat has been judges’ ability to manage caseloads by holding counsel to deadlines and finding different means to achieve resolution. Whether through informal discovery conferences or motion practice, judges have taken advantage of these discussions to narrow the issues.
While holding jury trials is the principal focus of civil litigation, most cases never did go to trial. Instead, judicial management of cases has been key. To help in this endeavor, given the challenges of the pandemic, Judge Taylor formed a Special Civil Jury Trial Committee to find ways to meet these new challenges. The committee launched numerous initiatives to address the situation:
Centralizing trial assignments countywide through Department 1 to facilitate social distancing and prioritize trial scheduling given the court’s limited capacity. Consequently, Department 1 and the district supervising judges coordinated with one another not just about which judge would try a case, but whether the courtroom and courthouse could safely accommodate the number of people who would be present. The large courtrooms at the Spring Street courthouse in downtown Los Angeles proved critical in holding the initial trials.
Requiring a mandatory settlement conference within 90 days prior to trial to ensure only the really tough cases went to trial. In this way, the court could be assured jurors would be brought in only after all attempts had been made to avoid having to do so. Though this was initially met with some grumbles, after it became no longer necessary, others complained about why we had stopped it. The temporary requirement served as a critical screening device when needed but did not have to stay in place if it was then causing delay in going to trial.
Implementing a pilot expedited bench trial program. Though ultimately not used significantly, it filled a demand by lawyers to be able to try cases sooner rather than later where there was no end in sight to be able to have a jury trial.
Reorganizing the UD Hub at Stanley Mosk Courthouse and other district unlawful detainer courtrooms to change to a case-management model with a judge from start to finish rather than sending cases to Department 1 for trial with another judge. In this way, more time became available to conduct trials in other case types or to conduct MSCs.
How did this translate in terms of cases being heard and decided?
The court conducted about as many trials as we had judges to do so. We conveyed the message that, if counsel were able to be ready for trial in a PI Hub case, we would have a trial court to try the case. In terms of jury trials, we have seen steadily increasing numbers of cases going to trial: Department 1 has sent out 286 cases for jury trial through December 13, 2021. More than half of those cases have come from the PI Hub courts. That there have not been as many UD trials as originally forecast at the start of the pandemic has allowed the court to devote more of its trial judges to hear other civil cases. In addition, independent calendar courts have conducted nearly an additional 100 jury trials.
Altogether, in 2021 we have conducted 89% of the jury trials that were conducted in 2019. While we recognize that it can take time to obtain a trial date, we do not believe time to trial has increased significantly. Judges have continued to set cases for trial knowing that many of those will not go forward as a way to assist the parties in reaching a resolution.
This fall, the court also made a major financial commitment to reinvigorating operations with additional funding it received to address pandemic issues:
• Opening three new independent calendar courtrooms — two serving the Eastside in Alhambra and one serving the Westside in Beverly Hills.
• Reopening three trial courtrooms to serve the whole county — in Torrance, Van Nuys and Beverly Hills.
• Converting two courtrooms to MSC courtrooms to help resolve cases in the San Fernando Valley and in West LA — in turn allowing for sooner scheduling of MSCs at the Spring Street MSC Unit.
• Adding a fourth MSC courtroom at Spring Street to handle other parts of the county, including Central.
• Opening a new PI Hub courtroom to lessen those courtrooms’ crushing caseloads and appointing the first managing PI Hub judge to increase coordination and help reduce times for hearing and to trial.
Who deserves credit?
Our judges: Judges have persevered through extended jury selection and jurors’ positive COVID tests or symptoms that could have easily caused mistrials. They exercised discretion carefully whether to start trials, when was the right time, and which courtrooms could handle a trial. They have taken cases from Department 1 whether on the eve of a five-year deadline, notwithstanding any preference requiring an immediate start or long or very short. As a result, we are able to say that Department 1 has always found a courtroom for any trial where the parties were ready. We have had no waiting list or delay in conducting cases ready for trial. Our judges, each in their respective assignment, have all worked together — learning lessons from our colleagues — so Civil could proceed forward and allow litigants to conclude their cases.
Our management and staff: At their own considerable risk, staff have been at the forefront of working with you and members of the public in addressing fears and concerns arising from the pandemic. It has not been easy but they have been professional and fearless throughout. Management has in turn provided critical assistance in allowing our big ship to maneuver through the numerous challenges in continuing to provide access to our courthouses, whether in buildings or virtually.
Those working on the technology front converted our remote appearances to the Teams platform to vastly improve video appearances in particular, all in conjunction with our case management system. In addition, our Complex courts have now joined the rest of Civil with e-filing of the unique documents filed in those sorts of cases often involving thousands of litigants. Further, as one positive outcome of the pandemic, the court has made it so that jurors can now come directly to an assigned courtroom, without an intervening jury assembly room. Our jury assembly rooms have been converted to use for jury selection where larger spaces were needed to accommodate the greater number of people present.
Your local bar associations: They have been true justice partners in working with the court to advise us what your needs were and to help the court promptly disseminate critical information to you. This summer CAALA, ASCDC, ABOTA and the Beverly Hills Bar Foundation launched in conjunction with the court the Resolve Law LA MSC program for the PI Hub courts. This remote platform takes over from the unique MSC program that lawyers conducted on a volunteer basis at the Spring Street courthouse before the pandemic closed it down. One lawyer from the plaintiff side and one from the defense side are now conducting settlement conferences remotely and doing an incredible job resolving the majority of cases sent to the program just before trial. Their success has led to expansion of the program for those cases where counsel jointly represent early on that there is a meaningful opportunity for resolution.
We have also formed an Employment Law Bench Bar Working Group comprised of leading members of the plaintiff and defense bars, together with judges with relevant experience. We are drafting a proposed form stipulation to a case management order for Private Attorneys General Act and wrongful termination case types, to work in conjunction with a planned early resolution program modeled on the remote Resolve Law LA program. In this way, the plan is to help resolve more quickly those cases where individuals and small businesses can ill-afford time-consuming litigation. The initial plan is to roll out a remote MSC program starting in January that will receive referrals through five pilot courtrooms at Mosk.
Each of you as lawyers: You have demonstrated patience, civility, flexibility and volunteerism, and have served as advocates for your clients. Those of you who have been engaged in trials have made them possible because of your cooperation with one another. What could have been impossible situations you have instead allowed to be occasions where jurors’ time was respected and the court could focus on the merits of the cases. Many of you successfully resolved cases through settlement — knowing what was otherwise involved. You likely had clients happy to move on. Others of you acted as settlement officers to help colleagues resolve their cases. In doing so, you created significant goodwill and gave the bar and lawyers the good name they deserve.
The governor, the chief justice and legislative leaders: Our court operations and improvements would not be possible without the governor having a budget that included sufficient provision for the courts. This year saw an increased portion of the budget coming to the courts. In turn, that would not be possible without the work of our local legislators knowing how important it is to their constituents that the courts operate at full capacity. Finally, the chief justice as chair of the Judicial Council has ensured that the funds provided to the trial courts are appropriately apportioned among the different counties, including based on the significant workload involved in many of the difficult cases we have in Los Angeles.
The public: Members of the public have braved the pandemic and fears of contagion to come into public courthouses around the county to serve their civic duty as jurors. Fears that nobody would show up proved to be unfounded. On the contrary, yields from summons have been similar to pre-pandemic levels. As is true with people saying they want to continue jury duty, the truth is that once in court people appreciate having had that unique experience of playing an important role in the decision making that makes the courts the third branch of government and our country a democracy.
What can you expect in 2022?
Continued uncertainty as to the impact from the termination of the various moratoria that forestalled most UD cases. Filing levels will likely have an inverse correlation to the ability of state agencies to provide rental assistance. Rental debt cases may be heard in Small Claims courtrooms irrespective of the amount in question. To mitigate against any wave of new cases, the court launched an online dispute resolution program designed for UD cases, which has a mediation component (through the support of the city and county), as well as providing references for those seeking legal advice or housing or rental payment assistance.
Further initiatives to increase efficiencies and to balance workloads among judges; fostering increased case management; promoting greater predictability in routine procedures.
Development of local rules on how to navigate the new remote appearance law, Code of Civil Procedure Section 367.75. We are at a critical juncture where we must imagine what civil litigation will look like with digital technology without compromising the benefits of the adversarial process, including cross-examination at trial. We do not want to lose the benefits of a hard-fought trial — that has been the cornerstone of our judicial system — in the interests of convenience. As with all things judicial, this takes balancing. Courthouses have been a focal place where people come together as a community for hundreds of years. You miss courtroom hallway conversations because it is not the same as being remote and separated on a screen. Whether justice can survive by us just each talking to one another at a distance is a question we now have to consider. A witness stand — placed right next to the jury box — is indicative of why people being in a room together counts. The way people testify remotely may be different than it might have been if it had been in a courtroom. A judge sitting on a bench overseeing testimony, in the formality of a space open to scrutiny from others, is powerful architecture.
Ensuring that any remote trials have a jury pool that represents all members of our community, wherever they live, regardless of socioeconomic status. While greater convenience is hard to argue with, it is the role of the court and our partners to ensure that all prospective jurors enjoy an equal ability to participate in their justice system, in turn, to be able to concentrate on testimony if selected and thereafter to deliberate together. Not everybody has a spare room where they can just listen without distraction on a computer fed by good upload ability. These are statutory rights not necessarily stipulated away by counsel.
These are challenging but exciting times and ones in which the Los Angeles County Superior Court will continue to seek your input as new issues develop. Your bar associations are critical partners in assuring that we can continue to assure that the court meets its goal of providing fair, timely, efficient and careful adjudication of litigants’ disputes.