4th Circuit, Benchslaps, Screw-Ups, Technology

How to Lose a Case With Simple Computer Cluelessness

For attorneys, missing deadlines is a big no-no. BIG no-no. A Goodyear blimp-sized no-no. People have literally died because of blown deadlines. Cases worth millions of dollars get tossed out because of missed deadlines, even if someone has a decent excuse.

That being so, I do not envy the lawyer who had to tell his client that the 4th Circuit shut down their lawsuit because he didn’t know how to use his Microsoft calendar.

More about the difference between “excusable neglect” and this run-of-the-mill bonehead mistakes after the jump…

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled on a breach of contract and fiduciary duty dispute between Symbionics Inc. and its former president, Christopher J. Ortlieb, in December 4, 2009.

Symbionics planned to file an appeal on the last day of the standard 30-day window. But, uh oh, the company missed the deadline by a day, due to what the 4th Circuit later — and generously — called a computer “quirk” and “glitch”:

The alleged glitch occurred when, after counting twenty-seven days through December 31, 2009, counsel changed the month on the calendar display to January in order to continue the computation. Counsel failed to notice that the calendar did not automatically advance to January 2010 but instead reverted to January 2009.

Consequently, counsel mistakenly referenced the January 2009 calendar when he completed the calculation of the thirty-day window to appeal, which resulted in counsel’s erroneous determination that the deadline was January 5.

This almost makes me want to dive into an Elie Mystal-style rant, but I will restrain myself for the moment. The company apologized to the court, District Judge Anthony Trenga ruled the mistake was “excusable neglect,” and he gave Symbionics an extension. Of course, Ortlieb was like “WTF, mate?” and cross-appealed.

In late May, the 4th Circuit benchslapped Symbionics in an unpublished, per curiam opinion [PDF] that basically states the obvious: Learn how to use a freakin’ computer.

We find nothing extraordinary or unusual about counsel’s calendaring error that should relieve Symbionics of its duty to comply with the time limit of Rule 4(a)(1). Counsel’s total dependence on a computer application—the operation of which counsel did not completely comprehend—to determine the filing deadline for a notice of appeal is neither “extraneous” to nor “independent” of counsel’s negligence…

[T]his neglect is precisely the sort of “run-of-the-mill inattentiveness by counsel” that we have consistently declined to excuse in the past.

If you want a technical look at the Circuit’s analysis of what exactly “excusable neglect” means, check out this Law Technology News story.

More broadly though, it’s 2011. Not knowing how to use Outlook isn’t and shouldn’t be an excuse for anything. It’s a disability.

And somehow, there are attorneys (often senior-level ones) who still don’t think they need to learn this basic stuff. We’re not even talking about more complex e-discovery processes. It’s just scheduling your day! (If counting the days yourself is too hard, there are websites that do it for you.) A speaker at a conference I recently attended said the best thing attorneys with this mindset can do… is retire.

This kind of ignorance loses cases, makes routine office work less efficient and could even lead to malpractice claims. That said, if you’re reading this, you’re probably fine in the technology department. Kudos. I recommend you print this out and surreptitiously hang it on the doors of the attorneys at your firm who don’t know how to change the margins in Word.

As a footnote, I’m working on a post about individual stories of technological ineptitude within law firms. If anyone has a big or small story to share (I will keep you anonymous), please email me at cdanzig@gmail.com.

Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at cdanzig@gmail.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.

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