Public Meeting Leads to Plan Speeding Hurricane Sandy Litigation
Nearly a year and a half after Super Storm Sandy, New Jersey is seeing another wave. This time, it’s a surge in federal cases involving flood insurance carriers.
“These cases are hitting our docket very hard,” said Chief Judge Jerome B. Simandle, New Jersey District Court. “We have over 600 Hurricane Sandy cases now and we expect the final number could be as many as 2,000.”
With such a large and growing number of cases, Simandle took the lead. He called a public meeting to hear from homeowners, attorneys and other interested groups. On March 20th, the district’s Board of Judges adopted a plan for management of the Super Storm Sandy litigation, contained in a Standing Order and a 15-page Hurricane Sandy Case Management Order No. 1, which are available on the court's website.
The impetus for the public meeting was the level of interest —from public interest groups, homeowners who are still homeless, and attorneys— in the way the claims are being processed. The public meeting gave them all an opportunity to share their perspectives. The court formed a committee with two district judges and six magistrate judges to consider the public input and come up with a plan. The Eastern District of New York went through a similar exercise in February, and the New Jersey court drew on their experience.
“Basically, this reflects a collaborative effort between bench and bar to put sensible and clear requirements into place, tailored to the needs of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) cases,” said Simandle. “The uniform approach has been agreed to by all district and magistrate judges, and shortly will be filed in each of the affected cases.”
According to Simandle, the individualized case management of each dispute will begin after the parties have exchanged all essential information, by disclosure and discovery mandated in the Case Management Order, at which time the magistrate judge will convene the case management conference if the case has not already been amicably resolved. The magistrate judge will enter an order addressing the specific path for each case, whether to further discovery, a settlement conference, dispositive motion practice, the court's arbitration program, or to non-jury trial.
The court also has set an overall goal of resolving these cases in a median time of 6 months from filing to disposition, a benchmark that is typical for the court’s overall docket.
However, Simandle points out, the flood insurance carrier cases are not typical insurance carrier litigation. They’re in federal court because the claims are handled under the NFIP. According to Simandle, while the role of the insurance carriers is to administer the adjudication and payment of claims, federal regulatory requirements form an overlay on the insurance issues and the process of insurance adjustment.
In addition, each case may have its own particular problems. In some cases, the parties haven’t really talked to each other and the court will bring the parties together. In other cases, the carriers might suspect fraud and won’t pay a claim until they are satisfied.
“But a lot of the cases are in between,” Simandle said, “where there’s an honest disagreement about the amount of damage that the flood has caused. We think that by the exchange of discovery and by the intervention of the magistrate judge, we can determine how the case ought to go, whether to our arbitration or mediation programs, or just get listed for trial.”
Simandle adds, “I am grateful for the hard work of our judges and court staff in making this rapid progress, and I count on the good will and professionalism of the bar in fulfilling these obligations and resolving these disputes."