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Celestine v. FCA U.S. LLC

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 16, 2019

FCA U.S. LLC, Defendant.



         On July 15, 2019, the Court, court staff and the jury members assembled for trial. However, the attorneys and the parties did not appear. The cost of convening the jury and extra court staff totaled $6, 884.78. Consequently, the Court imposes monetary SANCTIONS on the parties[1] and on attorneys Russell Higgins, Steve Mikhov, Larry Castruita, Sepher Daghighian, Erik Schmitt, Jeanette Suarez, Jeffrey Fadeff and Kristi Livedalen for their failure to notify the Court that the matter had settled.[2]

         I. Background

         This matter involved claims that the defendant sold the plaintiff a 2012 Dodge Durango in April 2012, which he contends had defects and nonconformities to warranty. The Court held a settlement conference in March 2018 (Doc. 35), but the parties' positions were intractable, and the matter did not resolve.

         At a trial setting conference on December 12, 2018, the Court set the matter for trial to occur on July 15, 2019. (Doc. 49) In advance of the trial, the Court held the pretrial conference on May 28, 2019 at which it set deadlines for trial activities, including filing and opposing motions in limine. Id. In due course, the parties filed their motions which the Court decided without hearing on June 26, 2019 (Doc. 78) The parties also filed their witness and exhibit lists (Docs. 63-69, 71-78); their proposed jury instructions and verdict form. (Docs. 59-61) On July 2, 2019, the Court issued an order detailing the expected “courtroom decorum” to be exhibited during the trial (Doc. 79)

         As noted above, at the duly appointed time on July 15, 2019, the prospective jury members, the Court and staff-which included the Jury Commissioner and an ECRO operator, sent from Fresno to assist with the trial-assembled for trial. Counsel and the parties did not appear. The Court has been informed by the Clerk of the Court that the cost for travel by this extra court staff was $720.86.

         At the behest of the Court, the Courtroom Deputy Clerk contacted Sepher Daghighian's office but could reach only a secretary. Mr. Daghighian had identified himself as the attorney that would handle the trial for the plaintiff. The secretary informed the CRD that the case had settled on July 1, 2019. The CRD informed the secretary that the jury was waiting and that the Court expected a call back from a lawyer immediately. Thirty minutes later, the secretary called back and indicated she had spoken to Mr. Daghighian, but there was nothing to add and confirmed the matter settled on July 1, 2019. She relayed that Mr. Daghighian was “only” trial counsel, implying that filing a notice of settlement was not his responsibility.

         Despite that jury members in federal court generally serve for one month, if they are not first selected on a jury, the Court was forced to discharge the entire panel of jurors due to its concern over the damage suffered to the dignity of the court in the jurors' eyes and because of the imposition on the jurors that the parties' and lawyers' conduct had caused. Indeed, five prospective jurors had traveled from Stanislaus County, one from Mariposa County, one from Merced County, six from Fresno County and four from Tulare County. Though nine were from Kern County, one traveled from Ridgecrest-a two-and-half to three-hour drive, depending upon traffic-and one came from California City, which is about a 90-minute drive. Many of the jurors were forced to travel the day before and spend the night, due to the prohibitive distance. The Court has been informed by the Jury Commissioner that the cost of summoning this jury was $6, 163.92.

         Though the settlement occurred on July 1, 2019, the parties and counsel did not file a notice of settlement. Even though the Court issued an order related to the conduct of the jury trial on July 2, 2019 (Doc. 79), once again, the attorneys and the parties did not file a notice of settlement. Despite the passage of two weeks after the case settled and until the trial was to start, the attorneys and the parties did not file a notice of settlement. Consequently, the Court ordered the attorneys of record and the parties to appear on August 2, 2019 to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed for the costs incurred caused by summoning the unneeded jury (Doc. 81).

         In advance of the hearing, counsel filed a joint statement indicating that,

1. On July 1, 2019, the Parties reached a settlement in principle in the above referenced matter.
2. On July 12, 2019, Plaintiff emailed a draft joint notice of settlement for Defendant's review and signature prior to filing with the Court.
3. Trial counsels for Defendants, Jeanette C. Suarez and Jeffery Fadeff, were not included in the July 12, 2019 email and did not receive such a copy of the draft of the notice of settlement prior to July 15, 2019.

(Doc. 83 at 2) The statement then continued, “as of the date of the filing of this Joint Response, the Parties have yet to complete all the terms of the settlement.” Id. at 2-3.

         The Court held a hearing and required all counsel of record to appear. (Doc. 81) At the hearing, the Court was informed that, in fact, there was no “settlement in principle” reached on July 1, 2019. Rather, the plaintiff, through a lawyer at the Knight law firm[3], signed an acceptance of a Rule 68 offer made sometime earlier. The Court was told by counsel for the defense that this is a typical course of conduct between FCA, its lawyers and the lawyers on the other side, because, though the acceptance of the Rule 68 offer should be filed, FCA prefers that judgment is not entered and the parties will settle on terms consistent with the Rule 68 offer. Mr. Castruita, counsel ...

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