Monday, November 3, 2003
Valley Court Wraps Up Settlement Blitz at 360 Cases
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Superior Court’s Northwest District wrapped up a “crash settlement program” Friday having resolved 360 cases after two weeks of work by judges and volunteer attorneys, judges reported.
Some 250 lawyers put in a day of work each beginning Oct. 20 at the civil courthouse in Van Nuys, Judge Richard Wolfe said. The volunteers were recruited by the San Fernando Valley Bar Association.
Northwest District Supervising Judge Sandy R. Kriegler said the volunteers worked in pairs on a roster of about 800 cases identified by the court’s civil case judges. Wolfe coordinated the work on behalf of the court, Kriegler said.
“He’s done all the heavy lifting and he deserves all the credit,” the supervising judge said.
SFVBA President James R. Felton of Greenberg & Bass in Encino said the volunteer lawyers held settlement conferences for two to four cases in the morning and a similar number in the afternoon. If a settlement was reached, one of the court’s judges was available so that a record of the terms could be made in open court, Felton explained.
Wolfe said the success of the effort by the Valley Area Settlement Team, or VAST, in producing case resolutions exceeded his expectations.
“If anybody would have told me we would have got that many I would have wondered if they were on anything,” he commented. He added that even conferences which did not result in settlements may in many cases have brought about significant progress, increasing the potential for resolution during the coming weeks or months.
Judge Bert Glennon, who coordinated the VAST program when it was first implemented in the middle 1990s, said the court’s judges worked for about a year to plan the two-week effort this time, identifying cases and trying to clear their calendars as much as possible of law and motion matters and trials.
When the VAST program was first tried, Glennon explained, the two Van Nuys court buildings housed separate superior and municipal courts, both of which were involved in the effort. Now the courts are unified and one of the buildings is devoted to civil matters while the other handles criminal cases.
The courts then worked on a master calendar bases, which Kriegler characterized as “more of an attorney driven system.” He initially had doubts about how well a crash program would work under the current direct calendar system, in which judicial supervision of the progress of each case is much more intensive, the supervising judge said.
“It turns out we still had plenty of room to operate,” Kriegler observed.
Another difference between the original VAST and this year’s version, Glennon pointed out, was that the just-concluded effort involved a day devoted to each of three specific types of cases: medical malpractice, construction defects, and employment. On those days, Glennon said, the SFVBA was able to provide volunteer attorneys who were specialists in those complex litigation areas.
Felton said the success of the program could lead to its repetition on an annual or biennial basis, and Kriegler said the court would welcome that if the SFVBA was able to recruit the volunteers required.
“The program doesn’t work without them,” the supervising judge declared.
He added that the impetus for trying VAST again came last year when three of the court’s 12 general jurisdiction civil courtrooms had to be shut down in a budget crunch. That required assigning about 100 additional cases each to the remaining nine courtrooms, Kriegler noted.
While VAST did not succeed in reducing caseloads in those courtrooms to their old numbers, it did “move it toward” that level, he said.
The VAST effort wound down as the two Van Nuys court buildings were briefly locked down because of a shooting outside them. Kriegler said that for about an hour no one was allowed in or out of either building.
The lockdown did not affect the settlement efforts going on inside, the supervising judge said.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company