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VOL. 123 | NO. 141 | Monday, July 21, 2008

Steady as She Goes

Q2 court filings on par with last year

By Rebekah Hearn

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COURT AFFAIRS: Court filings for the second quarter of 2008 remained fairly constant. – PHOTO BY REBEKAH HEARN

Memphis City Schools in June filed a lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court against the city of Memphis because of the City Council’s cutting of nearly $70 million in funds for MCS.

The city school board, along with state education officials, stand behind their position that the city never should cut its funding to MCS.

In fact, the state has threatened to withhold $423 million in state funding for the school district if the city continues with its argument that it has no fiscal responsibility to MCS. The city later filed a countersuit.

That battle began in Chancellor Kenny Armstrong’s courtroom Thursday. (For more on the case, see the story in today’s paper.)

The lawsuit is one of the more prominent filings the courts in Shelby County saw during the second quarter of 2008.

With few exceptions, the Q2 numbers for Chancery, Circuit, Probate and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee remained fairly consistent with the Q1 numbers and the numbers from the year-ago period, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com. There were a few changes that have taken place, one of which is the way the courts report their data to the state of Tennessee.

Collection change

Breach of contract filings in Circuit Court more than doubled in the second quarter compared to the year-ago period but not necessarily because there are more filings.

Instead, a change in how collecting breach of contract data has been done was made in accordance with a state mandate, said Circuit Court Administrator Van Sturdivant.

Previously, any appeal from General Sessions Court was lumped into one category reflecting that. Now, the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts has mandated the courts put the cases in the categories in which they actually belong.

“Not all of the General Sessions appeals are … breach of contract, but a large number is,” Sturdivant said. “The majority of them will be breach of contract issues.”

If the filing falls under another category, such as auto accidents or divorces, it is categorized as such and then additional data is entered that says it was an appeal from General Sessions, Sturdivant said.

“There’s not been an increase per se in the number of lawsuits filed across the boards; it’s just that … we are now pigeon-holing them as what they really are,” he said. “This gives (the state) a better idea of what’s actually going on in the state as far as issues coming before the court.”

Counting the numbers

Filings do not equal the number of cases heard in court, because the majority of lawsuits are settled before they reach a courtroom to be decided by a judge or jury.

Q2 civil court filings in Chancery and Circuit courts have remained fairly consistent otherwise, among filings for which case type was available by press time.

Chancery Court saw 595 filings for Q2, virtually the same as the 593 filings in Q2 2007 and about 7 percent higher than Q1’s total of 556 filings. These filings include divorces, adoptions, breaches of contracts and complaints for workers’ compensation.

In Circuit Court, the total number of filings in Q2 2008 reached 1,612 filings, which represents a 1.4 percent decrease from the year-ago period, which saw 1,635 filings.

Q2 filings rose about 1 percent compared to Q1, which saw 1,596 filings.

Chancery and Circuit Courts both continued to be dominated by divorce hearings, with 176 filings in Chancery and 520 in Circuit, according to The Daily News Online.

Adoptions, with 56 filings, came in second in Q2 in Chancery Court. Breach of contract filings reached 43. Both figures are down from Q2 2007’s numbers (64 and 54 filings, respectively).

Auto accident filings, which had the second largest number of Circuit Court filings behind divorces, dropped to 289 in Q2 2008 from the 306 filings from Q1 2008. There was virtually no change from Q2 last year.

Wills dominated the business in Probate Court. There were 316 filings in Q2 in Probate Court, over half of which were wills; that compares to 306 Probate filings – including 175 wills – in Q2 2007.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, Memphis office, saw a 15 percent drop in civil filings with 217 filings in Q2 compared to 255 during Q2 last year.

However, when compared to the first quarter’s 203 filings, the U.S. District Court’s numbers rose 6.9 percent.

These numbers deal only with cases originally opened during each month, and do not reflect cases that were reopened during the quarter.

“Sometimes cases we think are over, and they come back, particularly in the domestic relations area – people oftentimes come back on those kinds of cases,” said Circuit Court Judge Rita Stotts.

The top four categories for the federal court’s civil filings in Q2 2008 were civil rights act claims (22 filings), job discrimination claims (21), prisoner civil rights (20) and motion to vacate or correct illegal sentence (12).

These filings represent only those filed in the Memphis office during the second quarter of 2008.

A filing does not always mean the case goes to court, Stotts said.

“There are various methods, of course, of cases being dispositioned,” she said. “Some were simply non-suited; some of them are tried by judges or they are tried by juries; and some are compromised or settled by the lawyers.”

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