Benchslaps, Holidays and Seasons, Small Law Firms, State Judges

Judge Has Exactly Zero Sympathy For Lawyers Whining About Their Holiday Party

Sometimes in life you face choices. When faced with a slight, you can either walk away or you can keep it real.

Take the case of this benchslap. The lawyer felt the judge was being unfair because an appearance was scheduled for the date of the office holiday party. He could have just sucked it up, but he decided to “keep it real.”

And like so many of the protagonists of the Dave Chappelle skit of the same name, it ends with an important lesson about what happens when keeping it real goes wrong….

(Please note the UPDATE added below.)

Coming at you from Florida, a small law firm defending a client in a mortgage foreclosure action received word that the judge in one action was calling them in for a docket sounding without any consultation. Since the small firm is based in Tampa, and the hearing was set for Volusia County, roughly two hours away, making a four-hour round-trip for a docket sounding — basically a glorified status conference — was already burdensome. But it also happened to fall on the date the firm set for its office-wide holiday party.

Before continuing with this tale, it’s worth noting that the law firm in question is Stopa Law, no stranger to these pages for finding itself on the receiving end of a benchslap. In an earlier case, the judge berated Stopa’s principal, Mark Stopa, for claiming that the judge “physically assaulted” him. Good times.

But in this case, Stopa has a legitimate beef. Being haled to court two hours away without any effort to schedule a mutually agreeable time for all parties is a dick move. The judge is free to make that move, but it’s kind of a dick move. Stopa called and asked to reschedule or at least have the conference via phone. Request denied.

The judge would ultimately claim that he needed the parties to appear in person because the docket sounding would encourage negotiation. This is, of course, a lie. Rare is the pre-trial conference that magically cooks up a settlement simply because the parties were forced against their will into the same room as the judge. Judges can get the misimpression that their aura is magic, but generally settlements at pre-trial conferences are just the completion of negotiations the parties were already having. If that’s not the case here, forcing everyone into court isn’t going to change that. But the judge has spoken, for better or worse.

Now this sets up like the classic When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. Stopa Law had a simple choice to make: recognize that, while the judge was acting like a petulant child, there’s nothing to be done about it; or KEEP IT REAL.

2. Long before this hearing was scheduled, the undersigned scheduled an out-of-town Christmas party on December 6, 2013 for the entire office.

3. The undersigned moved to continue the hearing on this basis, which the Court denied without hearing and without explanation.

4. Now. the undersigned has come to learn the Court is not allowing a phone appearance.

5. With all due respect, Defendants and their counsel should not be made to be at the beck and call of this Court, attending hearings in person whenever convenient for the Court, particularly where the undersigned is given no input on the hearing date. If the Court is not going to reschedule the unilaterally-scheduled hearing, it should at least permit phone appearances. Otherwise, an attorney from this office has to miss the firm’s pre-planned Christmas party. Respectfully, that is patently unfair.

In Stopa’s defense, this party could actually a bigger deal than just missing out on some punch and cookies. The firm might have rented a venue, purchased catering and drinks for the expected attendees, maybe even hired entertainment. Asking the firm principal and whatever support staff of a small firm to trek across the state probably means those are all sunk costs.

But those reasonable arguments don’t make it into the whining about how it’s “unfair” and the unduly confrontational “counsel should not be made to be at the beck and call of this Court.” The request to reschedule had already failed! To quote Quintus from Gladiator, “People should know when they are conquered.” And like the barbarians about five minutes later in that film, Stopa is about to feel the wrath of Felix Legions, in the form of a hearty bench slap from Judge Robert K. Rouse Jr.:

The court empathizes with counsel’s angst over the prospect of missing a long-planned office party. Unfortunately appearing in cases pending in courts which are distant from one’s office, and fulfilling responsibilities resulting from that representation, may sometimes require immense personal sacrifice. The court will trust that there will be no long-term emotional damage.

Stopa kept it real. Judge Rouse kept it realer.

Stopa’s request and the court’s response are reproduced in full on the next page….

UPDATE (12/12/2013, 4:20 p.m.): Apparently Stopa arranged for coverage counsel to attend the hearing so he could still make the holiday party. Seems like something he could have just done in the first place, eh?

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