A court set up for small-scale business cases gets clogged with so much work that it has to call a timeout.
A Hillsborough County court set up only to hear complicated business cases has been too successful for its own good — particularly in a sputtering economy not spewing out enough to go around.
The court, in the 13th Judicial Circuit of Hillsborough County, opened in early 2007 as the first of its kind on the Gulf Coast. Known officially as the complex business litigation division, the court's focus was to take on cases with at least $75,000 and a slew of legal issues at stake. (See Review, March 14, 2008.)
The idea is that such a specialized court will be able to handle such cases more quickly while freeing up the rest of the judicial system for other cases.
Circuit Court Judge Richard Nielsen, a former Tampa-area commercial litigator, was picked to oversee the court and hear the cases. And back when it first started, to get the word out and to prove that it could work, Nielsen says he was “taking all comers.”
Well they came. And they kept on coming. More than 500 cases were heard by Nielsen the first year and with still four months left in 2008, the court has already signed on to hear more than 400 new cases.
The sheer volume of cases, combined with statewide budget cuts that cost Nielsen a part-time case manager, has caused the court to call a timeout and become pickier about which cases it took. First, in late August, Nielsen stopped taking new cases altogether.
And Hillsborough Circuit Court Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. recently signed an administrative order that doubles the amount of money that needs to be at stake for a case to be eligible for Nielsen's court, from $75,000 to $150,000. The order also sets up clearer terms for the types of cases the court will hear and it allows Nielsen some wiggle room in deciding what cases he can send back to the general civil case load.
“This will give us some breathing room to get things under control,” Nielsen says. “I'm given a little more discretion to say what's complex and what isn't.”
Just as court officials did when they started the division, they looked to other complex business litigation courts in Miami and Orlando as a guide to see how to best slow things down, says Nielsen. Both of those regions are facing big backlogs, too.
Nielsen says an ideal number of cases per year for the court would be about 300, considering his trimmed down staff that now includes his regular judicial assistant and one staff attorney — who spends about 25% of her time with other judges. Nielsen intends to spend the rest of 2008 whittling down that number and then, sometime next year, he hopes to begin taking new cases.