Snyder: COVID Is Messing This Up, Too
Wednesday, April 7, 2021 | 0
Due to the pandemic, very few cases are being tried. Reports from the legal community indicate that the absence of an imminent trial date is inducing parties to put off settlement as well.
A history of procrastination
Lawyers have always seemed to have a reason why it’s too early to settle a case. They need to get another report, look under every rock for new information, research the heck out of every issue whether or not it is pivotal. Traditionally, discovery cutoffs and upcoming trial dates have put up a big stop sign to that process in civil cases. Without that stop sign, some workers' compensation cases continue for decades.
Human nature being what it is, litigants tend to wait to the last minute to undertake the tasks necessary to close a case. The global pandemic has aggravated our proclivity to procrastinate.
When do cases settle? Legal and claims professionals have always referred to the ubiquitous last-minute settlements as happening “on the courthouse steps.” As trial dates get pushed further and further back on courts’ calendars, parties put off settlement longer.
CCP 599 makes procrastination easy
When the global pandemic forced courthouses to close their doors, the California Legislature recognized the obstacles to litigants’ ability to move their cases forward. The response was Code of Civil Procedure 599. This new section delays most civil litigation deadlines during the official COVID-19 state of emergency and for 180 days thereafter.
If a deadline had not passed by March 19, 2020, the continuance or postponement of a trial date extended that deadline. That includes discovery cutoffs and dates for identification of expert witnesses and motions for summary judgment.
Notably, the court retains the power to order litigation deadlines. Parties can also agree to self-impose deadlines that would otherwise be suspended.
At the beginning of the pandemic, no one had any idea how long this suspension would last or how we would all learn to conduct much of the court’s business remotely. Still, 599 remains in place. Some lawyers and claims professionals report that the absence of a hard deadline has resulted in fewer settlements.
Blessing or curse?
In the last year, we have learned to manage litigation pretty well without setting foot in the courthouse. Doctors have resumed seeing patients. The suspension of many hard deadlines provided breathing room while we figured it all out. These are blessings.
On the flip side, cases are backing up. After courthouse life returns to a version of normal, it will take a long time to work through the backup. Once 599 expires, there will be a rush to undertake long-delayed tasks critical to settlement. Things could get kind of crazy, and that’s the curse.
What to do now
Before any more time passes, look at your files to see what can be done to set them up for settlement. Almost all mediations are now occurring remotely. Let’s settle those cases promptly, so you can better manage your caseload once the state of emergency is lifted.
Attorney Teddy Snyder mediates workers' compensation cases throughout California. She can be contacted through snydermediations.com.