Court pressures parties to settle Berkeley senior co-op case

A judge in two lawsuits involving a Berkeley senior housing cooperative issued an order on 5 April that caught all the attorneys by surprise, telling them they had been arguing about something that didn’t exist. In doing so, he ramped up the pressure on them to complete a voluntary settlement of the litigation.

Attorneys for a Berkeley senior housing cooperative and seven of its former directors involved in a four-year-old lawsuit and a more recent related case switched their position in court on 5 April from “Give us more time to settle this case” to “Please pressure us to settle this case fast”, and the judge applied even more pressure than they asked for.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge George C. Hernandez, Jr., heard Dennis F. Moriarty and Huge A. Donohoe, representing Berkeley Town House Cooperative Corporation, which owns a sixty-unit apartment building near the University of California campus, and David L. Jordan, representing seven former directors of the the co-op, take a position opposite to the one they had taken a week earlier. In a statement filed on 30 March, signed by them and by Moji Saniefar, representing co-op member Jonathan Pool, who had initiated the litigation in 2012, the attorneys had agreed that a voluntary settlement of both cases was “imminent”. They had argued that the court should continue its ban on discovery long enough to let the parties work out the details instead of collecting evidence to get ready for a trial. The statement disclosed that Pool had given the co-op a settlement offer valid until 31 May, permitting time for a new co-op board of directors, to be seated on 23 May, to review the terms.

On 25 February, Hernandez had ordered “the discovery stay be extended until the next hearing” and had scheduled that hearing for 24 March. On 24 March he scheduled another hearing for 5 April and ordered the parties to give him a statement “limited to whether the stay on discovery should remain”.

At the court session, however, the co-op’s attorneys asked the court to continue the stay for only two weeks, so as to pressure the parties to settle. William E. Joost, Jr., representing the same seven ex-directors in the original lawsuit, asked the court to apply even more pressure by letting the parties immediately resume their discovery activities. Saniefar told the court that two weeks would be insufficient and the parties should be given at least four more weeks to complete a settlement before being permitted to resume discovery.

After hearing the conflicting requests about how long to leave the stay on discovery in place, Hernandez told the attorneys that the stay on discovery that they had been arguing about did not exist. He asserted that any suspension of discovery was a private agreement among the parties, not something imposed by the court.

In an order issued after the hearing on 5 April, Hernandez wrote that the trial date of 13 May would be “maintained” and declared that “discovery was not stayed by the Court”. In a separate order in the related case, he ordered the parties to appear on 13 May so he could set a date for that case’s trial.

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