Sector Portrait: Law
Florida's business courts
Attorneys laud progress in the system but see room for improvement.
The state Legislature — with a push from the Florida Bar — created Florida’s first business court in Orlando in 2004. Since then, that court has handled more than 3,600 cases, and the concept of designating a judge to specialize in business litigation — antitrust suits, franchise cases, intellectual property suits and the like — has spread throughout Florida.
Tampa and Miami created business courts in 2007. A year later, Fort Lauderdale used a slightly different model to create a litigation unit for disputes of more than $150,000. Judges Jeffrey Streitfeld, Jack Tuter and Patti Englander Henning hear cases other business courts in Florida might not, including medical malpractice and product liability suits.
So far the courts have been almost universally well-received. Attorneys say that having a judge with expertise in complex litigation helps move cases through the system faster and has made judicial rulings more consistent. "These cases would have bogged down other divisions," says Merrick Gross, a commercial litigator at Carlton Fields who spearheaded the Bar’s advocacy for business courts nearly a decade ago. Economic developers, meanwhile, have touted the courts because they say businesses are drawn to areas that show an understanding of business-related litigation.
Lawyers say several factors have left room for improvement, however. "There’s a perception that cases were moving too slowly and decisions were taking longer than hoped to get decided," says Jim Murphy, an attorney with Shook Hardy & Bacon in Tampa. Murphy says much of the problem has stemmed from funding issues — the business courts, he says, didn’t get the kind of support staff and other help to enable them to work through cases more quickly. "These are complicated cases that require research and active case managing, and the resources we initially had envisioned were not there," he says. "I think the caseloads were more than anticipated."
In 2009, there was a moratorium on assigning additional cases to the business court in Tampa, and Murphy served on a committee created to recommend tweaks.
? Growth of Business Courts ?
Some see changes in judgeships at several business courts in Florida as an opportune time to refine the courts’ operation.
Murphy says the previous committee in Tampa may be reconvened now that there’s a new judge, and a similar committee is to begin meeting early this year in south Florida. Joel Brown, chief judge of the civil division in the 11th judicial district, has asked Michael Higer, a commercial litigator with Higer, Lichter & Givner in Aventura, to co-chair a committee of lawyers to advise the business court in Miami-Dade County.
Attorneys say there may be a learning curve for the new judges, but they don’t expect the business courts to lose much momentum. Higer points out that it’s still early in the history of Florida’s business courts. With tweaking in 2012, he’s convinced they’ll stay on a good path.
"Business courts have accomplished exactly what the lawyers in the business community wanted to see occur," says Higer — "to get a judge whose more proficient and efficient in handling business disputes."
A New Round of Judges
Lisa Taylor Munyon (left) replaces Frederick Lauten (right) as business court judge in Orlando. [Photo of Munyon: AP]
In Orange County, departing business court Judge Frederick Lauten says about 40% of the cases he presided over in 2011 were construction litigation lawsuits, typically with more than 20 parties requiring six to eight weeks of jury trial time. "In the general civil division, it’s hard to get to that case," Lauten says. Most business court judges have about 500 cases at a time. "I meet with every party and lawyer and schedule these out," says Lauten, who recently ruled on a $90-million construction litigation lawsuit with so many warring parties that he needed to use the large courtroom in which the Casey Anthony trial took place.
Also in Orlando, Alice L. Blackwell (left) takes over for Thomas Smith (right).
Herbert Baumann Jr. (left) takes over for Richard Nielsen (right).
Jennifer Bailey (left)and Jose Rodriguez (center) will take over for Gill Freeman (right) in Miami. [Freeman photo by Tampa Bay Times]
Gill Freeman, the first business court judge in Miami-Dade, says her background as a commercial litigator gave her an edge when ruling on the large commercial foreclosure suits and real estate-related disputes that have come to her courtroom. "I manage the cases, which means (at the start) I set down orders for the discovery period, file motions and when the case is going to trial. It gets everyone marching and that doesn’t happen in regular civil divisions."