In a recent post about the infrequency of civil trials in the United States, I asked whether this infrequency is a good or a bad thing. I then answered my own question, suggesting that we need to draw a distinction between “no trial” because of negotiated settlements (very often a good thing) and “no trial” due to overwhelming expense or the insurmountable hurdles our system sometimes places in the way of meritorious claims (a very bad thing).
I again illustrate this post with a picture from Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times because one might see the problem as being the mechanization of our justice system. Thus, instead of treating legal claims as coming from people invoking their legal rights, courts seem to consider them as just case files, numbers, statistics, to be processed and disposed of as quickly and cheaply as possible.
An excellent and experienced civil trial lawyer brought two recent examples in Hennepin County District court to my attention. They highlight the risk that meritorious cases are being thrown out of court on “summary judgment.” In both cases, defendants were awarded summary judgment by the trial court judge. The defense wins were appealed, then reversed, and then the cases were remanded for trial. After remand, the plaintiffs won jury verdicts in both cases. One of the cases even had a plaintiff pro se appellant, previously covered on Minnesota Litigator (here).
Here, linked, are the back-up documents showing the unfortunate round-trips from the improvident awards of summary judgment (IASJ), to successful appeals (SA), to jury verdicts (JV) in the two cases (“Pop Dental” and “City of Richfield”): Pop Dental IASJ, Pop Dental SA, Pop Dental JV; City of Richfield IASJ, City of Richfield SA, City of Richfield JV.
If you look at the jury verdicts in these two cases (“JVs,” linked above), you see that the juries’ awards totaled $175,000 and $125,000. This makes the wasteful up-and-downs to the Minnesota Court of Appeals particularly troubling because these dollar amounts mean a great deal of money for most citizens, but are borderline sums in terms of the costs imposed by our legal system.
In other words, for these amounts of money, there is a serious risk of cases ending up “upside down,” with the lawyers’ fees exceeding the award.
The expense of these round-trip detours had to have been substantial, both in the amount of time wasted between case filing and resolution and in dollars (for transcripts, court fees, and attorney time). The City of Richfield action was an age discrimination case against the city, which means that Richfield tax-payers not only had to put up with age discrimination by the city (at least according to the jury); they also had to pay the plaintiff’s lawyers fees and the jury award, which were undoubtedly much greater than they would have been had the trial court not improperly awarded the defendants summary judgment.
We must concede this anecdotal evidence suggesting the potential overuse of the summary judgment procedure for disposing of civil lawsuits is a long way from robust or conclusive evidence that the summary judgment procedure is over-used in Minnesota. On the other hand, perhaps highlighting this suggestive evidence will cause our system to be aware of (and thereby mitigate) the risk.