Trial by Webex, but Not Zoom?

Litigation by Zoom is not novel at this point. Depositions by Zoom, motions hearings by Zoom, bench trials by Zoom—it’s all become commonplace. While federal civil jury trials by Zoom have been rare, there have been many in various state courts. And while we know from our daily lives that other videoconferencing services are available (Teams, Webex, GoToMeeting, Collaborate), Zoom predominates in pandemic litigation.

It was curious, then, to see a ruling from the US Court of Federal Claims. Confronted with a routine discovery motion for leave to take depositions remotely pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(b)(4), which requires such leave in the absence of a stipulation, Judge Charles Lettow wrote: “In the circumstances at hand, the court GRANTS leave for depositions to be taken either telephonically or by Webex. Zoom should not be used, absent proof that such use would be secure.”

It seems that the parties did not direct the court to Zoomgov.com:

The Jury Returns - Trial by Webex but Not Zoom - Zoom for Government



In WDTex, the Fight Escalates

Last week we told you about Judge Alan Albright’s determination to keep trying patent cases. He had a trial scheduled for January in Austin, where he had transferred the case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404 while leaving himself as the assigned judge. Trials are not being held in the Austin courthouse, however, so he transferred the case back to Waco.

Now the defendant has moved to postpone the trial until after March, attaching a declaration from the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Baylor University Medical Center stating that the current state of the pandemic “poses a significant potential risk to the health, safety and life of participants in a trial starting January 11, 2021, in Waco or Austin, Texas, as well as to the communities in the Division where trial is held and communities in places where out-of-state participants will return after trial.” According to the declaration, there is a 74% chance of “at least one person having COVID-19 from a group of 50 people gathered in McLennan County [which includes Waco].”

The defendant notes that its trial team “includes persons who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 or have family members in high-risk groups. Absent a continuance, trial will require these persons—and numerous other attorneys, staff, witnesses, and client representatives—to travel to trial, placing themselves, their families, the Court and its staff, and the local community at risk. It may also force some witnesses to testify remotely.”

The plaintiff opposes the motion.

Meanwhile, most interestingly, the defendant has filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The petition argues that the re-transfer to Waco was improper under the governing US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit standard. There’s a lot going on between the lines, however.



A Mistrial, without a Positive Case

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Superior Court for Mecklenburg County attempted to hold its first pandemic jury trial, starting November 16. Things did not go well.

First, during the evidence phase, a jury was excused after reporting a possible exposure. He later tested negative. Then, jury deliberations were suspended for a week when a juror began experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. That juror too tested negative. Then, on Monday, a jury who traveled during Thanksgiving notified the court of being exposed to relatives who were not showing COVID-19 symptoms. The courthouse was trying to arrange testing for that juror.

The result? A mistrial, without a positive test.

Meanwhile, the county reports that more than 700 felony cases are awaiting trial, including 100 homicide cases and another 150 involving rapes, assaults and other violent offenses.

According to the Charlotte Observer, “the statewide surge in new COVID-19 cases is already surpassing some of the disease measures the courthouse pledged to use to gauge whether the jury trials should continue.” But jury selection of the second pandemic jury trial is now underway.



Waco to Be the New Trial Hot Spot

With Judge Rodney Gilstrap of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas finally cancelling his winter trials in the face of surging cases, attention turns to the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, which Judge Alan Albright is going in a different direction.

Waco has become the nation’s hottest patent infringement venue, in part due to Judge Albright’s willingness to bring patent cases quickly to trial. Defendants sued in the Waco Division frequently adopt a strategy of moving for an interdivisional transfer to Austin. Judge Albright has been amenable to such motions, but often he retains the case as the trial judge even as he transfers it to Austin. Yesterday he entered a noteworthy order in one such case.

The Western District of Texas has continued trials through the end of 2020. However, judges in a particularly division may opt out of that order. The judges in Austin have not opted out. Thus, according to Judge Albright, the Austin Division is “currently closed” and “remains closed indefinitely.” Accordingly, with trial set for January in Austin, Judge Albright transferred the case back to Waco, where he intends to proceed with the trial.

Judge Albright found that under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 1 and 77(b), district courts have the authority to try a case in any division within a district, even without the parties’ consent. He also found that district courts possess the inherent authority to transfer a case to another division. Exercise of that power, however, must be a reasonable response to a specific problem. Judge Albright wrote:

Here, the specific problem before the Court is the indefinite closure of the Austin courthouse. As described above, the Austin courthouse is currently closed and has been closed on a month-by-month basis since March 2020. Furthermore, because there is no foreseeable end to the COVID-19 pandemic, there likewise is no foreseeable end to the closure of the Austin courthouse. But, out of an abundance of caution, the Court asked Judges Yeakel and Pitman whether there is a month-certain when the Austin courthouse will reopen, but their answer was no. As such, that answer confirmed the Court’s conclusion that the Austin courthouse appears to be closed indefinitely.

 

Given this reality, the Court only has two options with respect to the instant case: (1) wait until the Austin courthouse reopens or (2) move the trial to an open courthouse in the district. The Court does not believe that the first option is practical or reasonable for several reasons.

 

First, the Court has already delayed the trial date in the instant case by two months and there is no foreseeable date or date-certain when the Austin courthouse will reopen. Second, the pandemic has created a backlog of trials such that delaying one trial further delays other trials. Therefore, the Court believes that it must manage its docket proactively in order to minimize the effect of that backlog. Third, because the trial dates for the -00255 and -00256 cases are two and four months, respectively, after the trial date for the -00254 case, delaying the trial date of the – 00254 case not only delays the trial date of that case, but it has a multiplicative effect by delaying the trial dates of the other two cases by the same amount of time. Fourth, because patents have a limited term, the Court does not believe it should unnecessarily delay a trial date, especially when an alternate venue is available. For at least these reasons, the Court does not believe that waiting until the Austin courthouse reopens is a practical or reasonable. As such, the only other option available to the Court is to move the trial to Waco.

In a footnote, Judge Albright noted: “Unfortunately, unlike circuit courts that may be able to hold telephonic hearings or district courts that may be able to hold a virtual bench trial, the Court does not believe that it is fair and/or appropriate to hold a virtual jury trial.”

Notably, this order was entered in a case filed in April 2019, with patents-in-suit that will not expire until 2027 and 2029.



McDermott’s litigation team monitors US courts as they reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis. 

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