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Lead-paint attorneys, Baltimore court to meet on case management changes

Baltimore City Circuit Court. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore City Circuit Court. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Members of the lead-paint bar will sit down with the committee overseeing changes to Baltimore City Circuit Court’s differentiated case management plan after attorneys raised questions about a draft of the plan at a hearing last week.

Four committees spent months revising the plans for civil, criminal, family and juvenile cases, but the majority of feedback at the public comment meeting focused on the proposed pretrial scheduling order for lead-paint cases.

Approximately 20 attorneys, mostly members of the lead-paint bar, expressed their concerns about the deadlines set by the order as well as some wording changes from the previous version. Judge Althea M. Handy, who oversees the court’s civil docket, said Wednesday a meeting is being organized with lead-paint attorneys to discuss possible changes based on their feedback.

“If we can come to some plan that can work… I’m more than willing to try to accommodate them and try to make the best possible scheduling order we can make,” Handy said.

Attorneys raised questions in written comments prior the hearing about the deletion of a paragraph requiring attorneys to work with each other amicably and a mistake in the wording of the section about allowing lead testing. At the meeting, Handy assured attendees that they should not be concerned because those issues were oversights that the comments brought to her attention.

Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson cautioned attorneys against losing sight of the bigger picture and ultimate goal of the process, which is to encourage efficiency.

Four pilot jurisdictions – district and circuit courts in Baltimore city and Charles County – were asked to revise their plans, according to Tim Dibble, vice president at the Justice Management Institute, a nonprofit that assists court systems with case management.

The plans are supposed to manage expectations and define the local legal culture, Dibble said. In Baltimore city, part of that culture is minimizing postponements and a belief in firm trial dates.

“That’s actually quite exemplary,” he said.

Handy said a notable change to Baltimore city’s plan is a deadline for a request for a Frye-Reed hearing to evaluate expert testimony. Those requests will be screened for necessity in enough time for experts and attorneys to coordinate availability if a hearing is deemed appropriate.

“Quite frequently, these requests are made right before trial,” she said.

Postponement rule

Handy also reemphasized the court’s rule on postponements within 30 days of a hearing or trial: only in the event of an emergency.

“We have many, many requests for postponements and many of them go [past] the target date and that’s really not acceptable unless there’s a compelling reason,” she said.

Lead-paint cases are supposed to conclude within 548 days of filing.

The draft scheduling order also requires amended pleadings be filed and additional parties added no later than nine months before trial.

Some plaintiffs’ attorneys at the hearing said they were concerned about being unable to amend their pleadings without leave of the court within nine months of trial because issues can change as they develop their case, which Handy said was a good point.

But defense attorneys argued if plaintiffs can amend cases until the last minute, defense attorneys could be at a disadvantage if they depose witnesses too early without full knowledge of what issues will ultimately be involved.

Adding parties delays litigation significantly, but changing the language about amending pleadings will be one of the topics of discussion at the upcoming meeting, according to Handy.

“We want to make our civil docket work as efficiently and fairly as possible,” she said.

The court is still accepting written comments emailed to [email protected] Links to the plans can be found on the circuit court’s website.