Judge Milton Shuffield
For years plaintiffs' lawyers exploited a loophole in the Jefferson County District Court civil system allowing them to avoid paying thousands of dollars in filing fees, which, in turn, created an "administrative nightmare" for the district's clerks and court coordinators.
So, who were the primary exploiters of this clerical oversight?
Trial lawyers filing asbestos lawsuits and "other toxic tort cases," said Judge Milton Shuffield, 136th District Court.
To "balance" the system, in 2005 Judge Shuffield, along with three other district judges, formulated and signed Standing Order No. 002-05, a decree prohibiting multiple unrelated plaintiffs to be added to an existing suit and requiring a filing fee in all severed cases.
In essence, before the order, plaintiffs' lawyers would file a toxic-tort lawsuit, pay a one-time fee and then proceed to tack on hundreds, sometimes thousands, of additional plaintiffs – circumventing the costly $210 fee for each new "unrelated" plaintiff.
"Aside from the revenue gathering issues, it was wreaking havoc with (our) court coordinators," Judge Shuffield said, adding that coordinators would call lawyers to inform them a trial date was scheduled, only to learn the parties had already settled.
Numerous district clerks described the filing loophole as an "administrative nightmare."
Now, when a suit is filed with unrelated plaintiffs attached, the clerks "red flag" the complaint and send it to the suit's assigned judge for review and acceptance.
Furthermore, lawyers who snuck in "intervening plaintiffs" before the order went into effect have to now pay a filing fee once the plaintiff is severed for trial. "Everybody pays eventually," the clerks said.
"The intent of (Order No. 002-05) is to prohibit 'mass' filing of cases with multiple plaintiffs, thereby depriving the district clerk of filing fee revenue, creating an unrealistically small statistical base for case management…and creating administrative and docket management problems for the court in managing numerous cases for trial in a single cause," the order states.
Judge Shuffield said that former 58th District Judge James Mehaffy, who has since gone into private practice, pioneered the order because of a massive lawsuit in his court. Shuffield said that "thousands of plaintiffs had been consolidated" into one suit.
"When the order went out, lawyers were concerned that they would have to pay thousands in attorney fees," Shuffield said, adding that he also had reservations that the order would create thousands of new files.
However, "there was a balancing that needed to be considered," he said. "(The loophole) caused too many problems for (court staff)."
The order was signed on April 1, 2005, by Judges Shuffield, Mehaffy, Gary Sanderson (60th District Court) and Donald Floyd (172nd District Court).