Local court involved in business experiment

March 6, 2012
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Kent County Circuit Court began a pilot program last week that will run for about two years. The local effort hopes to help establish a statewide Specialized Business Docket — or as some have called it, a business court — after the pilot ends at the beginning of 2014.

The idea emerged from a project completed by the State Bar of Michigan two years ago. The Business Impact Committee of the bar’s Judicial Crossroads Task Force recommended the pilot program because business litigation has become too complex and too expensive, and many cases take too long.

Kent County Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Johnston said the area’s top business litigators charge clients up to $400 per hour, and often multiple attorneys are needed to represent a client due to the complexity of the cases. “So the meters run very quickly, and businesses wince,” said Johnston.

Johnston explained that the program’s goals are to reduce the time to resolve business-related legal disputes, promote consistency in decisions, improve the efficiency to administer and process cases, and develop a body of case law that businesses and litigators can follow. He added that parties will still be able to have a jury trial.

Eighteen types of cases have been assigned to the SBD. These include shareholder disputes, torts, antitrust matters, intellectual property concerns, securities law, commercial real estate claims, business-to-business contracts, environmental law, and insurance cases, among others. Nine others have been excluded from the SBD, ranging from product liability issues to medical malpractice to commercial class actions.

Johnston has assigned Circuit Court Judge Christopher Yates to be the SBD judge. Yates will issue written opinions in non-jury trials and a brief written description of a verdict in jury trials. Both will be made available to the Grand Rapids Bar Association and will be posted on the court’s website.

Yates also will issue written or oral opinions on summary dispositions, final judgments, or other “significant proceedings” that are held to resolve disputes. These rulings also will be given to the bar and posted on the court’s website. “I’ve turned into a one-man publicity firm on all of this,” he said.

Yates held an informational session for business attorneys two weeks ago. He said the court formed an advisory board comprised of the “most prestigious business lawyers” in the area, and they will work with the pilot program.

Johnston will monitor Yates’ workload as he depletes his family and criminal and civil court cases. If Yates is overburdened with cases, Johnston said he would assign another judge to fill in until Yates’ caseload clears.

The bar’s committee designated the SBD for business-to-business disputes for amounts of $25,000 and more. The committee felt businesses would like this approach because their costs wouldn’t increase to be part of the SBD, because cases would be decided by a judge who has knowledge of business practices and an interest in these types of disputes, and because all parties are required to become heavily involved in the facts of a case so a dispute won’t languish.

The committee initially wanted the pilot program to be tested in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, but Wayne was released and Kent County was added.

“Wayne County was allowed to bow out. We are, so to speak, on the cutting edge,” said Johnston. “We hope it will make this community more business friendly.”

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