Federal Procedure,  Judges,  Legal Technology

A Technology-Induced Rush to Dismiss?

The Ninth Circuit has some unkind words for the district judge in Calderon v. IBEW Local 47, case no. 05-56937 (November 13, 2007). The district court dismissed the case for lack of prosecution because plaintiff’s counsel did not show up at a hearing on an order to show cause re dismissal for failure to serve one of the defendants.

Problem: the district court only gave notice of the OSC re dismissal via e-mail. Since plaintiff’s counsel did not consent to electronic notice (Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(b)(2)(D)) and did not regularly check his e-mail (and, given his lack of consent to electronic notice, had no obligation to do so), he missed the hearing. Putting aside the issue of whether a dismissal sanction is an abuse of discretion when it is imposed for missing a single hearing — an issue raised very briefly by the court — the notice was ineffective. Notwithstanding the attorney’s reasonable excuse for missing the hearing, the trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to vacate the dismissal, and did so without a hearing.

This easily meets the standard for “abuse of discretion,” says the Ninth. Indeed, the court takes the unusual step of apologizing to the parties. In the same sentence, it admonishes the district judge to “exercise more care and patience in the future.”

The district judge in question is Manuel Real of the Central District of California. Two prominent bloggers used the Calderon opinion to opine on Judge Real; both California Appellate Report and Decision of the Day do so in language that suggests they don’t plan to appear before Judge Real any time soon. More of Judge Real’s colorful history is memorialized in this Law.com judicial profile.

Anyway, on to the point reflected in the title of this post.

I wonder if Judge Real wasn’t made impatient because of the electronic notice. With electronic this and electronic that, we (as a society) expect everything to happen now.

By the time I was admitted to the bar in 1992, faxes were common. Car phones were widespread (though handheld cell phones were not), though somewhat pricey. My first firm (more than 1200 lawyers strong at the time) was still using Wang word processing in its LA office and e-mail had not yet been implemented firm-wide, if I recall correctly. Portable computers were heavy and hugely expensive. So things have accelerated greatly in the 15 short years since I became a lawyer.

I recall a partner at one of my BigLaw firms reminiscing in the mid-90’s about the “good old days” before fax machines. She thought the practice of law was much more civil before faxes. Fax machines, in her mind, were a leading cause of threatening letters sent by opposing counsel on Friday afternoons demanding detailed responses by Monday morning . . . or sooner. The same partner usually made a point of being totally incommunicado when on vacation.

My favorite anecdote regarding the impatience that technology breeds came from an an associate at Baker & McKenzie (where I spent my 2L summer in 1991), who once saw two attorneys in Los Angeles pacing back and forth impatiently outside the firm’s mailroom, cursing under their breath. When he asked why, they responded that they were faxing a contract and “it’s taking three minutes per page for this contract to get to Tokyo!”

While properly leveraging technology can make your life easier, I have some sympathy for (and sometimes count myself among) those who believe that, in many respects, technology just makes us work harder!