Saturday, February 1, 2014

The tide is turning and our local civil courts are making great strides

Our local courts are making significant progress in the efficient administration of justice in civil cases. Speaking as a civil practitioner, I’ve been one to say and still do that the federal district court in Puerto Rico is efficient and produces consistently uniform and predictable outcomes. Despite the “specter” of a jury, a stateside or foreign defendant would invariably prefer to litigate in the federal court if it had a choice of forum. Our federal judiciary is top notch and judicial review in the First Circuit stands as a reliable safety net to correct legal errors in the court below. And, lifetime appointments are designed to guarantee judicial independence in the decision-making process.

But, over the last ten years, the federal bench in Puerto Rico has been swamped by multi-defendant criminal cases which, adding to budget constraints, have created a backlog in the resolution of civil cases. Dispositive motions in federal court may stand submitted for six months or more without a ruling. Dispositive motions are rarely heard for oral argument and the pretrial conference may be the only or the final resting place to argue motions. Jury trials are two or three years down the road, if not more. To be sure, experiences vary depending on the judge and the complexity of the case. There is an increasing pressure to mediate and settle cases or to consent to the jurisdiction of U.S. Magistrate Judges. That is fine to deal with heavy caseloads but may not be the best or most effective solution for a litigant that needs emergency relief to save its business.

Should a party needing emergency relief go to federal court or try our local courts? My “default or automatic setting” primarily for the defense had been a preference for the federal court at least in Law 75 cases. But if you represent a client who is a dealer in a Law 75 case or a sales representative in a Law 21 case, think twice, for the local courts may be your best option, even without the right to trial by jury. If a dealer needs emergency or equitable relief, the local court, specially in San Juan, may be your best option. The defendant could benefit from an expedited proceeding too.

The Court of First Instance in San Juan has two civil trial judges assigned solely to hear requests for equitable relief, such as injunctions, mandamus etc. These experienced civil judges have become specialized in matters that require urgent and immediate attention. There is no room for delay. Just this month, it is commendable that our local judiciary implemented an electronic filing system for the special emergency courts which should expedite the filings and make litigation more cost effective. Although the civil dockets of the judges in the emergency court are huge and they lack the resources that federal judges have with multiple law clerks and unlimited access to electronic research, the cases in these special civil local courts are being heard and resolved quickly. Dispositive motions are heard with oral arguments in which counsel for both sides are afforded an adequate opportunity to argue (not counted in minutes) and the judges are keen, prepared and ready to grill the lawyers on the facts and the law. The long-established practice endorsed by the Supreme Court of P.R. of lawyers drafting opinions and orders to assist the local court judges certainly helps to expedite resolution of disputes and make up for the limited resources that our local court judges have.

Local judges in these emergency or special civil local courts are getting things done and quickly with limited resources. There are still situations in Law 75 cases where no matter what a defendant would prefer the federal forum because there is a body of developed federal case law or there is a federal question in the pleadings.

Winds are changing. There is reason for defendants to rethink before removing a case to federal court. Our local courts can be the right forum selection for a fair, prompt, and cost effective resolution of commercial disputes.