Obscure court cuts costs and woes Settlement judges help warring parties to agree, avoid trial

July 22, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Divorcing couples, accident victims and people injured at work come into the Baltimore County courthouse by the bunch every day -- with their adversaries and lawyers, grim-faced and tense.

An hour or so later, many leave shaking hands, their legal disputes over -- without ever entering a courtroom.

The secret: a little-noticed office tucked behind double doors on the fifth floor. It's the home of Settlement Court, a pit stop for everyone who files a civil suit in county Circuit Court.

The process is designed to save courts and litigants time and money. And though judges say the settlement rate has declined in recent years, the court still works in more than half the cases.

"It's good for the litigants, it's good for the lawyers, it's good for Baltimore County," said Settlement Judge Frank E. Cicone, who began the office in 1983.

People who compromise in settlement conferences -- which occur a month before the trial date -- may sacrifice a shot at a big jury verdict, or the chance to go home scot-free. But in reality, many can come out ahead by eliminating the hefty legal fees of a trial.

"That is what you try to sell when you work things out," said Settlement Judge James S. Sfekas. "Amazingly enough, when you talk to the parties directly, it's rare that they don't listen to recommendations."

Last week, he tackled a contract dispute. In his office, where seven chairs are set up, he listened to a computer specialist -- who had been hired to create invoicing software for a local apparel company -- charge that his 18-month employment contract was terminated illegally.

The company's lawyer said it was pressured to sign the contract, that the employee didn't show up for work for almost two weeks, and that he was offered 30 days' severance pay.

Sfekas asked the company's attorneys to leave for a moment, then leaned forward and asked the employee in a conspiratorial tone:

"What is your bottom line? What would it take to settle this?"

His response was more than the company wanted to pay. So the judge met separately with the defendants, got them to boost their offer a bit, and urged the employee to take it.

"You'd be rolling dice to do better than that," Sfekas said. "I would quit while I'm ahead."

Within an hour, both sides grudgingly reached an agreement, shook hands and left.

Civil cases avoided

Settlement courts exist in many Maryland localities, relieving the crush of civil cases, which can take a year or longer to be assigned a trial date.

In Howard County, for example, a retired judge comes in once or twice a week to act as a settlement judge.

In Baltimore, retired Circuit Judge Albert L. Sklar does the same, handling up to a dozen cases a day and settling about 25 percent -- a rate that has remained constant since 1981.

The settlement rate in Baltimore County is higher, but declining. When the office opened, 75 percent of the cases were settled; these days, settlements are harder to come by, Sfekas said.

It's because defense lawyers will risk a trial, thinking that increasingly conservative county jurors will provide a favorable ruling. These days, a jury awarding $1 is not unheard of, Judge Sfekas said.

"There was a time when the plaintiff would, all things being equal, get the benefit of the doubt" from jurors, said Richard C. Burch, a Towson lawyer whose firm is in Settlement Court about once a week.

"Now I think [jurors] are generally inclined to be more conservative, in that the defendant gets the benefit of the doubt in cases where the injuries are questionable."

Still, a settlement's savings in cost and time can be tremendous. Before a civil case is tried, lawyers take depositions and haggle over documents, sometimes billing clients $150 an hour.

Expert witnesses

Expert witnesses are paid as much as $300 an hour at trials; meanwhile, taxpayers foot the bill for judges, clerks, juries and other expenses.

Although Settlement Court saves money for the public, it does not make very much for the judges involved.

In Baltimore County, judges Sfekas and Cicone get a part-time salary in addition to their retirement pensions. Judge Leonard S. Jacobson, who handles family matters such as divorce and custody disputes, gets $140 if a case settles, nothing if it doesn't.

Burch said one shortcoming of Settlement Court is the lack of time to devote to each case. Judges, however, say years of experience help them quickly assess what a jury likely would find.

Judge Sfekas often keeps track of cases he can't settle to see if his instincts matched the jury's.

"Sometimes we're right on the button," he said.

"Sometimes we get a shock. You never know what a jury is going to do. That's what makes it interesting."

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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