Circuit ruling: Lee's fast-paced foreclosure docket not out-of-bounds

The 20th Judicial Circuit did not overstep its jurisdiction when it created the rocket-docket, a special Lee County plan to expedite thousands of foreclosure cases, the circuit contends in a recent court brief.

The Friday filing comes in response to an April request by the ACLU that the Lakeland-based 2nd District Court of Appeals intercede in a Lee County foreclosure case and overhaul the docket.

An attorney for the circuit argues in the recent brief that such a step is unnecessary, as the court’s case management plan is backed by the state Supreme Court and needed to control a large backlog of foreclosure cases.

“Case management is a means of bringing some order to this chaotic scenario,” attorney Robert L. Donald wrote.

The ACLU petitioned the appeals court in the case of Georgi Merrigan, a 40-year-old Cape Coral homeowner facing foreclosure of the two-story stucco home she shares with her husband.

It contends that Lee’s mass foreclosure docket disposes of cases in such a mechanical fashion as to disregard civil procedure and the due process rights of homeowners. The petition points to case quotas set by judges and the number of cases disposed before lenders shared discovery, or information relevant to the case.

The ACLU requested that Merrigan’s case be moved off the docket and that the appeals court declare Lee’s system an overreach of its jurisdiction.

Acting as a backdrop is the recent years’ foreclosure crisis in Lee County, which has forwarded tens of thousands of cases into a court system designed for far fewer. The Lee Circuit had a 27,000-case “backlog” of pending cases in July 2010, when it received state funding for the docket, according to Lee Clerk of Courts Charlie Green.

As of April, the backlog was less than 9,000, Green said. In April, the appeals court ordered the ACLU’s petition be handled as a petition for prohibition, or a request that the higher court step in and correct a lower court error, and it asked the circuit for a response.

Specifically, it asked the circuit to respond to “the allegation that the (circuit) court has set (Merrigan’s case) for trial before it is at issue.”

Donald writes that the case was never set for trial, but scheduled for a docket sounding, a kind of status conference used to keep tabs on a case as it approaches trial or summary judgment. That docket sounding was later canceled, after the lender attorney withdrew from the case.

He suggests that, far from moving too quickly, Merrigan’s case has stalled. He also notes that the case is more than two years old.

Donald’s broader argument is that the state’s circuits not only have the right to design their own case management systems but have been repeatedly encouraged to do so by the state Supreme Court. He cites a 2009 state task force report in which the Supreme Court emphasizes the need for circuits to take control of their flooded dockets.

“Thus case management and the foreclosure crisis were predictably linked,” Donald writes.

The court then set a goal of reducing its backlog 62 percent by summer 2011, when the state money runs out, according to the brief.

The ACLU will have 10 days to respond to the circuit’s brief. The appeals court could make a decision on the petition or ask for oral arguments in the matter.

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