Commercial docket looking to fast-track civil cases

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The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association is facing a lawsuit by one of its members, alleging mismanagement by the board and staff in the wake of the director’s conviction in criminal court.
That case, which might spend years in the courtroom as part of a normal civil docket, could be moved to a faster legal track, thanks to a new “subdocket” now available in El Paso County’s Fourth Judicial District.
Known as the commercial docket, the pilot program is the brainchild of Judge David Prince and allows cases that affect a large number of people — and the community as a whole — to be tried more quickly.
“The concept is intended to try to pluck out from the civil docket cases that would benefit from leverage from early judge time, early case management,” Prince said. “If we can use judicial resources wisely, we can get resolution within six months. Otherwise, civil cases can sit on the docket for two or three years.”
Commercial docket cases must have a “significant community impact,” said former chief judge Gil Martinez. The docket will handle cases in which members of the community, beyond the named parties, are “obstructed by the existence of a dispute,” he said.
Other requirements include a request for equitable relief that impacts the community at large or “issues (that) are unusually complex requiring additional judicial resources.”
Attorney Tim Shutz, who is representing the plaintiff against the PRCA, said he feels the case is a good selection for the commercial docket. He’s waiting to find out if the judges who oversee the subdocket will select it. The commercial docket started accepting cases March 1.
“From a practitioners’ standpoint, it’s beneficial to get in front of a judge more frequently,” he said. “You get the benefit of the judge’s management and oversight along the way, it’s just more efficient. In a typical case, under normal rules, it just takes a while to get in front of a judge.”
The commercial docket is one way to ease the caseload in the Fourth District’s overloaded dockets, Prince said, although he cautioned that the district is not placing more resources for business issues.
Instead, he said, it merely allows cases to be placed before a judge sooner, based on the criteria that more people are affected the longer it takes a case to be resolved.
“Here’s a classic example,” he said. “If you have an architect in a dispute with the building owners, it affects hundreds of people — suppliers, tenants of the building — all those people could have their business disrupted as a ripple effect. The delay could halt business for hundreds of people.”
The PRCA case is being considered for the docket because of the number of people affected, Shutz said. While he represents a single member, the PRCA has 7,000 members nationwide who are also affected. The lawsuit also could halt business of the Board of Directors, he said.
James Warren, a calf roper and a member of PRCA filed the suit, alleging that the board denied members access to meetings.
“This member feels there are significant differences with how the nonprofit is being managed,” Shutz said. “There are a lot of issues with the executive director, management issues. My client is just one person, but he is not alone in this. They tried to have a special meeting of the members; 700 of them signed proxies to ask for a special membership meeting and were denied by the board.”
Two judges are handling commercial docket cases, Prince and Judge Larry Schwartz. The judges have the “sole discretion” to allow cases on the commercial docket.
The idea arose because of crowded court dockets, Prince said. The El Paso County Bar Association met with members of the bench to discuss a need to improve court procedures.
“We outlined this concept,” Prince said. “It’s definitely a joint bench-bar effort, an effort to parse out scarce judicial courtroom time.”
No court dates have yet been assigned to the commercial docket, he said.
“This is just one of the innovative ways to move things along,” Prince said. “We’ve done some things for the criminal cases, prioritize those cases, as well as prioritize cases involving children. But this commercial docket doesn’t redirect resources. Instead, it plucks out — from a large pool — those cases that will benefit from early judicial management, instead of leaving them in the great black hole to meander on two or three years, which does happen.”
The effort is unique in Colorado courts, but there are commercial dockets in other districts across the nation. However, none of them are operated quite the same way, Prince said.
“Some jurisdictions give preferential treatment to business cases,” he said. “They give high priority to those cases, because they feel what’s good for business is good for America. That was not an option for the Fourth Judicial District. We’re not providing extra resources; we’re just leveraging the resources we have to achieve bigger results.”
Attorneys interested in using the commercial docket are getting extra help. Three “very experienced, senior members of the litigation bar” — Glen Schlabs, Ed Flitton and Judge Richard Hall are volunteering their time, Prince said.
“They’ve volunteered to act as coaches to help lawyers through their first cases,” he said. “They are doing it free of charge, offering their help through the first six months to a year to make the transition to this kind of process. I’ve never heard of anything like that — and I’m really proud that they’ve taken on that responsibility.”