Appellate lawyers throughout the state are urging the California Supreme Court to crack down on court reporters who overcharge for their transcripts.
A petition pending at the high court is drawing support from the defense bar and the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers, a public-interest law firm.
David Ettinger of Horvitz & Levy in Encino, who filed the petitition, said although the amount of money at stake in any one case is not large, it can be a serious barrier for low-income litigants and "the cumulative effect of ignoring the statutes and rules in thousands of civil appeals filed every year is staggering." Gomez v. City of San Diego, S177774.
Ettinger said his case is a perfect illustration of what he views as a chronic problem.
This summer, the firm appealed a $7.5 million judgment in a personal injury case on behalf of the City of San Diego and gave the superior court a deposit of $8,125 to cover the estimated cost of transcribing 14 days worth of court proceedings. The firm used a formula outlined in court rules to come up with the deposit amount.
The court reporter said the deposit wouldn't cover the costs and demanded another $3,410.
The city agreed, but asked to see a final bill and receive a refund of any money over the fee set by law, which is based on word count.
After counting the words in the transcript, Ettinger figured San Diego should have gotten about $8,000 of its $11,535 back.
But the superior court only refunded about $1,100 based on the bill it received from the court reporter, which gave no explanation of how it was calculated.
When Ettinger complained to the court, Assistant Executive Officer Stephen Cascioppo said he was powerless to resolve any fee disputes with court reporters, who act as independent contractors.
Carolyn Dasher, president of the California Court Reporters Association, declined to comment, citing a policy of not speaking about pending litigation.
The Court Reporters Board of California, a professional oversight body that licenses and disciplines court reporters, has not received any recent complaints of overcharging, said Executive Director Yvonne Fenner.
When the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected Ettinger's request for a refund, he took his case to the state Supreme Court.
Lawyers and litigants are at the mercy of court reporters because without a proper transcript, the court will not hear an appeal, said Robert A. Olson of Greines, Martin, Stein and Richland in Los Angeles, who is submitting a friend-of-the-court letter on behalf of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers.
While many court reporters are doing the right thing, the problem is that once the deposit is made, there's no remedy for an overcharge, Olson said.
"As the military experts say about Afghanistan, it's an asymmetrical situation where the reporters have all the leverage," Olson said. "As this case illustrates, the court reporter got to use the superior court as its agent essentially to strong-arm the additional money because the consequence of the party not paying is they can have their appeal dismissed."
Lisa Jaskol of the public interest law firm Public Counsel in Los Angeles said indigent litigants can get their court fees waived on appeal but do not qualify for help with the cost of transcripts unless they have a lawyer.
"One of the major barriers they face is the reporter's transcript," said Jaskol, who runs a self-help clinic at the 2nd District Court of Appeal. "It's just not right to make them pay more than they already pay."
A Sherman Oaks woman who recently had her child support reduced told Jaskol that she would have to choose between pursuing an appeal of the child support order or buying Christmas presents for her son.
Jaskol is writing a friend-of-the-court letter on behalf of Public Counsel and the Los Angeles County Bar Assocation.
The Association of Southern California Defense Counsel has submitted a letter of support.
"This is a matter of great importance to all attorneys, not simply the defense bar," said Steven S. Fleischman of Robie & Matthai in Los Angeles.
© 2009 Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved.