In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Michael J. Rourke of Rourke
and Blumenthal, LLP comments on the improvements in the operation of the
Ohio Court of Claims.
The Columbus Dispatch – Monday January 14th, 2013
Trial lawyers frustrated by waiting - and waiting - for rulings on their
cases jokingly labeled it the "Court of No Claims."
The Ohio Court of Claims, which handles legal actions seeking monetary
damages from state agencies and public universities, became "notorious
for taking a long time," said
Columbus lawyer Michael Rourke.
Sinceer a makeover led by Chief Justice of Ohio Maureen O'Connor and
a new administrator, the court is now quickly handing down decisions while
spending $1 million less a year.
The number of lawyers and other staff members has been reduced from 30
to 19 over the past two years, and changes have been made to efficiently
resolve cases ranging from pothole-damage claims to complex personal-injury
It once could take nine months, even more than a year, for the court to
hand down rulings after final proceedings. Now, the wait generally is
two months or less.
"We're pleased with the results," O'Connor said. "These
are real cases affecting real people who may have been injured by the
state of Ohio."
Created in 1975 and staffed by retired judges who serve by appointment,
the court also hears wrongful-imprisonment claims and appeals of crime-victim
compensation decisions by the attorney general's office.
A Supreme Court review found that the court became bogged down by time-consuming
procedures and the schedules of three part-time judges. The judges, paid
$528 a day, came from around the state and could not preside as often
as needed to keep cases moving.
The court now has one part-time judge, retired Appellate Judge Patrick
McGrath, who regularly can tend to cases because he lives in Columbus,
McGrath handles the bigger-dollar cases, while magistrates dispense with
the 60 percent of cases involving damage claims of less than $2,500. The
court has an annual budget of about $3 million and handles about 1,200
cases a year.
O'Connor will ask lawmakers to change how the Court of Claims handles
appeals from crime victims dissatisfied with compensation rulings by the
attorney general's hearing officers.
Five appointed commissioners - lawyers who serve part time for between
$50,000 and $70,000 a year - now hear appeals, but more than half of the
cases are not resolved within the 150 days required by state law.
The General Assembly will be asked to eliminate the commissioners, saving
about $250,000 a year, in favor of allowing existing full-time hearing
officers to handle the appeals and issue rulings more quickly.
Mark Reed, hired as Court of Claims administrator in early 2011, said the
court was "overstuffed" with employees and not performing at
the needed pace. "It's significant to know you can get a trial
date soon and that date will actually occur. It's a savings not only
to the taxpayers but also the plaintiffs who come here."
The Ohio Association for Justice, representing about 4,700 trial lawyers,
will honor O'Connor and Reed with a resolution of commendation on Feb. 7.
"We are very pleased with the changes; they've been dramatic," said
Rourke, a board member of the organization. "They've been very beneficial
to making the Court of Claims friendlier to the people bringing claims
against the state."