New Georgia business court’s tall order: Get both parties to show up

Judge Walter Davis poses for a portrait on the site of the new business courtroom in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

First new state court in a century targets commercial bottlenecks

Walt Davis believes the new state court he leads can help businesses across Georgia reconcile thorny disputes, but success is no sure thing.

The Georgia State-wide Business Court started taking cases this month and is the state’s first new court since 1906. It offers an alternative to long waits in Superior and State courts, which have fallen further behind because of coronavirus shutdowns even as commercial disputes mushroom amid mounting financial losses.

The new court, though, has its own hurdles. Opposing parties are by nature at loggerheads, and Davis must get both sides to agree for their lawsuit to be assigned to him. Davis is also the sole judge and the court’s annual budget is a modest $1.4 million, limiting the case load.

A former commercial litigator at the law firm Jones Day, the 44-year-old Davis was attracted to the job because, after years of representing business, he now gets to be a leader himself.

“It was the ability to start this thing from scratch,” he said. “There’s never going to be another first judge of the Business Court.”

He has largely focused on hiring staff, monitoring office construction inside the Nathan Deal Judicial Center and overseeing the adoption of software and other technology.

The new business courtroom is seen under construction in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Now comes the trickier task of recruitment. Davis has received inquiries from lawyers on about 15 potential cases so far. However, all but two attorneys warned they expect the other party to oppose the case being filed at the Business Court.

Corporate litigants should flock to Business Court because cases won’t get stuck behind the hundreds of criminal and domestic disputes that Superior Court and State Court judges hear, said Dan Laney, an attorney at Rogers & Hardin.

“Our state trial courts are second-to-none, but they have a crushing docket,” said Laney, who represents companies in complex cases. “This will help litigants get cases decided faster and, hopefully, with less expense.”

When a Superior Court judge deals with a sensitive topic like parental custody of children, a domestic case should obviously take precedence, said Ronan Doherty, a business attorney at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore. But hundreds of domestic and criminal cases sit on a single judge’s docket, and business owners wait weeks or months to have their case heard.

A total of 32,725 cases were filed in Fulton County Superior Court in 2019, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. About 80% of those were criminal or domestic cases. Georgia does not provide details on the number of business-related lawsuits.

For a case to reach Georgia’s new business court, though, both parties have to agree. The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and other advocacy groups pushed for that requirement after Georgia voters endorsed the creation of the court in a 2018 ballot referendum.

Statesboro attorney Daniel Snipes, past president of the GTLA, said small businesses would be at a disadvantage at the new court because they would need to hire “Atlanta lawyers” who are experienced in complex cases and who would be expensive.

“We didn’t want to see a big company like Home Depot come after a small-town sawmill about a bad load of lumber and it go to the Business Court,” he said. “It would put small businesses at a disadvantage.”

Clerk of Court Angie T. Davis, Judge Walter Davis, and Senior Staff Attorney E. Lynette Jimenez pose for a portrait in the Nathan Deal Judicial Center on Wednesday, August 5, 2020, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

The business court in neighboring North Carolina, by contrast, only requires a single party’s consent. Since its founding in 1996, the North Carolina court now has five judges, four locations and heard 133 cases in 2019.

Three lawsuits have been filed with Georgia’s business court so far, including one involving a company that owns apartment complexes in Columbus and Macon and the financial company Orix USA.

Quarreling Georgia businesses have other options. The Fulton County and Gwinnett County courts each maintain separate divisions to hear business cases. Other counties are allowed to establish a business division.

Litigants can also hire a private arbitrator to referee disputes and avoid the courts altogether. The Georgia Business Court’s $3,000 filing fee is about the same cost as hiring an arbitrator, said Davis, the judge.

Once the court has been operating for a few months, business owners and their lawyers should see the benefits it offers, said Doherty, the business attorney. Davis has the experience to handle litigation that involves antitrust, intellectual property, securities and other complex areas of the law.

It would have helped some of his past clients if Georgia’s Business Court had existed, Doherty said. In one recent case involving a fuel supplier and a trucking company that carried fuel to convenience stores, Doherty said his client had no idea what he was getting into by filing a lawsuit in Superior Court.

“They were amazed to see how long it takes,” he said.

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