Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dismissal Is Not Always A Good Thing

Note: Today's Guest Blogger is Cathy L. Ribble, CP, owner of Digital Paralegal Services, LLC. You can also follow Cathy's blog, Paralegal Prompts.

Dismissal Is Not Always A Good Thing
By Cathy Ribble, CP

If you are the Plaintiff's counsel, the word 'dismissed' is not always a good thing to hear, especially if it is combined with the words 'for want of prosecution'. Some attorneys--and their clients--react more strongly to this occurrence than others.

So, just how does this occur and what does it mean?
For decades, courts have made a practice of cleaning up inactive cases on the docket by setting those cases for 'dismissal for want of prosecution'. For whatever reason, the case has been sitting inactive on the docket for a period of time. The court sets up a dismissal docket with a list of all the inactive cases, and notice is given to all the attorneys of record. If neither Plaintiff nor Defendant shows good cause for the case being retained on the docket in the manner designated by that particular court, then the Court dismisses the case and removes it from its list of active cases.

Historically, some law firms felt dismissal in this manner was a bad reflection on the law firm's reputation. The preferred method of handling was voluntarily dismissal of the case by the plaintiff without prejudice if counsel was unable to persuade the court to keep the litigation open indefinitely.

As courts have grown in number and their dockets have become more congested, courts have adopted local rules of practice to streamline the litigation process. The circumstances under which a court may dismiss a case for want of prosecution have been expanded. For instance, Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 165a provides that a case may be dismissed for want of prosecution on failure of any party seeking affirmative relief to appear for any hearing or trial of which the party had notice. That includes failure to appear at docket call.

One area that requires your special attention is your court's local practice concerning docket call before a trial setting. The procedures for docket call can vary from court to court, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some courts require personal appearance before the court. Other courts or jurisdictions require a telephone call to the court coordinator with an announcement of whether your party is prepared for trial. That call might be required between certain hours on Thursday afternoon before a Monday trial setting, or it might be required on Friday.

Attorneys and paralegals are now more likely to practice in multiple jurisdictions. It is more important than ever to thoroughly and frequently review a court's local rules of procedure. Be aware that a county's district court system may have adopted local rules at the county level, but the specific judge of your court may have additional rules which require special handling throughout the litigation.

The lesson to be learned is this: Court rules and practices change frequently and they vary at state, county and local levels. Review your court rules often, and do not make assumptions. Use a sound docketing system and establish backup systems with multiple accountability levels for all deadlines.

If you do learn that a case has been inadvertently dismissed for want of prosecution, check the rules of your state immediately to determine deadlines for filing a motion for reinstatement and take appropriate action.

And last but not least: Be sure someone thoroughly reviews those lengthy dismissal notices received from your local court with page after page of case listings. Pull that old litigation file, and make a conscious decision concerning the future of that litigation.


Cathy L. Ribble, CP is the visionary behind Digital Paralegal Services, LLC. After working as a legal professional in the traditional law firm setting for over 15 years, Cathy understood that the current economic climate is creating a new need and opportunity for paralegals. Attorneys need to cut costs for themselves and their clients. Part of that equation is partnering with qualified paralegals and support personnel who can provide professional services at reasonable rates. Digital Paralegal Services, LLC was formed in 2009 to meet that need.

Cathy earned her Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) title from the National Association of Legal Assistants early in her career. In 2009, she re-established that professional certification by earning her Certified Paralegal (CP) title. Throughout her career, Cathy has developed a well-rounded legal background and had extensive experience in the area of civil litigation in Texas and Oklahoma, including trial support.

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