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Chief Judge Nanci Grant (left) is overseeing the operation of the planned business court in Oakland County, working with assigned business court judges James Alexander and Wendy Potts.

Photo by Robert Chase

Judges Potts and Alexander to preside over county’s new business court

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The business of handling business disputes in Oakland County Circuit Court will change July 1 under provisions of a sweeping state law enacted last year.

True to its name, the new Oakland County business court will handle business and commercial cases where the amount at stake is more than $25,000 and includes matters where all the parties are “business enterprises.” The court also will hear disputes between a business and individuals connected with it, such as owners, managers, directors, shareholders, officers, suppliers, and employees.

Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court assigned Circuit Court Judges Wendy Potts and James Alexander to preside over the newly established “business court” in Oakland County. Statewide, 16 other judges were appointed to business court posts in their respective counties under terms of the statute, which arose from recommendations made by a Judicial Crossroads Task Force that the State Bar of Michigan created several years ago.

In a prepared statement, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. said that business courts “complement Michigan judicial branch’s three-part reform plan: Court performance, technology, efficiency — with the best possible service to the public as the goal.”

Nanci Grant, chief judge of the Oakland Circuit Court, echoed Young’s remarks, saying that the new business court should “enhance the accuracy, consistency, and predictability of decisions in business and commercial cases.”

The business court, according to Circuit Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner, calls for electronic filing of legal documents “whenever possible,” and encourages the use of audio or video conferencing, and early use of alternative dispute resolution. The court’s written opinions will be available on an indexed website, he indicated.

Chief Justice Young said the stress on technology and prompt resolution of disputes “is very much in the spirit of the reform plan for Michigan courts.”

Added Young: “The focus, first and always, has to be on public service. That is what we mean by the slogan we’ve adopted for our court reform plan: ‘Courts working smarter for a better Michigan.’”

Judges Potts and Alexander have taken the message to heart with their new assignments, which officially begin Monday, June 3 with the creation of business court dockets for the two Oakland County jurists.

“In a sense, I have come full circle with this assignment,” said Alexander, who began his legal career in the field of commercial litigation after graduating in 1973 from the University of Detroit School of Law. “It will be very familiar ground.”

The same could be said for Judge Potts, a Wayne State University Law School grad, who spent a portion of her early career with the Detroit firm of Hill Lewis, now known as Clark Hill. She later spent 6 years as chief judge of the Oakland Circuit Court, guiding the court through particularly challenging economic times when budget cuts were mandated because of plummeting tax revenues.

“We expect to hit the ground running with the business court, which will be scheduling intensive and require that we bring in the parties as early as possible to begin efforts to resolve the disputes,” Potts said, noting that she and Alexander expect to preside over more bench trials under the business court concept.

The two judges will be assigned the business court cases by blind draw, according to Chief Judge Grant, who indicated that each business court judge will serve a 6-year term.
“While they will hear all the business court cases, Judge Potts and Judge Alexander also will retain their criminal caseloads,” Grant said. “They will keep their pending civil cases as of June 3, but will no longer receive new non-business court civil cases. Those will be handled by the remaining 11 judges in the Civil/Criminal division.”

Examples of the types of cases that will be heard in the business court, according to Oeffner, include:

• Those involving information technology, software, or website development, maintenance or hosting.

• Those involving the internal organization of business entities and the rights or obligations of shareholders, partners, members, owners, officers, directors, or managers.

• Those arising out of contractual agreements or other business dealings, including licensing, trade secret, intellectual property, antitrust, securities, non-compete, non-solicitation,
and confidentiality agreements if all administrative remedies have been exhausted.

• Those arising out of commercial transactions, including commercial bank matters.

• Those arising out of business or commercial insurance policies.

• Those involving commercial real estate property.

On the flip side, “types of actions that are expressly excluded” from the business court, Oeffner indicated, include:

• Personal injury actions, including wrongful death and malpractice.

• Product liability cases in which any claimant is an individual.

• Cases within the jurisdiction of the family division.

• Proceedings under the probate code

• Condemnation cases.

• Appeals from lower courts or administrative agencies

• Proceedings to enforce judgments of any kind.

• Landlord-tenant matters involving only residential property.

• Land contract or mortgage foreclosure matters involving residential property.

• Most motor vehicle insurance coverage matters.

• Insurance coverage disputes in which an insured is an individual consumer

• Employment discrimination.

• Civil rights actions.

• Wrongful discharge, except for actions involving corporate officers or directors.

• Workers’ Compensation claims.

To spread the word about the new business court, Circuit Court officials have been working with the Oakland County Bar Association, which will send out e-mail blasts to all of its 3,000-plus members.

“We are reaching out to attorneys through the OCBA, the media, and other means to make everyone aware of the new court,” Grant said. “The news is already percolating through the local legal community and we hope to create a greater awareness in the weeks ahead.”

Business court judges from across the state are scheduled to convene in September for formal training sessions in Lansing. Potts and Alexander also have been invited to join the American College of Business Court Judges, an organization founded in 2005 that “develops programs and seminars to equip business court judges with the knowledge and skills necessary to deal with the increasingly complex issues they confront.”

The staffs of the two judges have been “working diligently” to make the business court transition as seamless as possible, according to Potts and Alexander.

“They have displayed a lot of initiative in working together to make this happen on schedule,” Alexander said of the judicial staffs. “Our goal is to help streamline the process of handling business cases and disputes, and we’re confident that this concept will prove over time to be cost effective and efficient for all parties concerned.”

For more information on the business court, visit the Business Court page on the Circuit Court website at http://www.oakland.com/courts/businesscourt.

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