U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro, Southern District of Florida. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM.

Undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma isn’t enough to justify extending a federal court deadline for eight days, according to U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro, who denied a defendant’s motion to do just that in an insurance case.

Jonathan E. Kanov of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Fort Lauderdale represents insurance agent Suzannah L. Richards, who requested the extra time to file an answer to the complaint.

“This motion is not made for purposes of delay, and it is in the best interests of justice to allow for a brief extension of time for good cause,” the motion said.

But the judge disagreed.

“This is not good cause for the extension requested,” Ungaro wrote. “It is Richards’ responsibility to promptly hire counsel to represent her upon being served with summons and the complaint, such that she is able to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.”

Ungaro added that the defendant waited until Nov. 13, the last possible day to submit the request, and had only retained counsel the day before.


Read the court order:


The ruling came in Trinidad and Tobago resident Kamanie Ramjattan’s lawsuit. Ramjattan filed the complaint against Richards on Oct. 23, along with family member Karen Babwah and New York Life Insurance Co. over a life insurance policy for her brother, Kenny Sookdeo, who died in 2017 before arranging a $250,000 death benefit.

According to Ramjattan, her brother had also stolen $150,000 from her to help his struggling business, then later agreed that the life insurance company could take that $150,000 out of his policy and give it to Ramjattan when he died. The company then claimed Sookdeo had canceled his insurance policy, so Ramjattan sued.

No big deal

Defense attorney Kanov stressed that Ungaro’s denial wasn’t a big deal to him.

“It was surprising,” Kanov said. “But this was something that ended up being fixed and we moved on.”

Though Ungaro denied the motion, she ultimately gave Richards another three days to file the answer — a deadline that was met.

While state courts will typically extend a deadline if both parties agree, federal courts strictly require “good cause,” leaving judges to decide what is or isn’t.

Counsel to the plaintiff, Michael J. Hoover of Interpleader Law in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, echoed Kanov’s thoughts.

“It is what it is,” Hoover said. “There are deadlines that are set forth by the rules of civil procedure and any ruling within those lines is within the court’s discretion.”

Counsel to the insurance company, Charles A. Wachter of Holland & Knight’s Tampa office, and Babwah’s attorney, Justin C. Carlin of The Carlin Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale, did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.

In July, many in the legal community were outraged when pregnant Florida attorney Christen Luikart faced resistance from opposing counsel Paul Reid after requesting a continuance. Trial for the Palm Beach Circuit Court products liability suit was set for October, but so was Luikart’s new arrival.

Critics in that case accused Reid of comparing Luikart’s pregnancy to an illness, suggesting she became pregnant as a ploy to delay the litigation. Reid said they’d overblown his words and taken them out of context, but was swiftly fired from his firm, Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Miami.

Football games and moose attacks

Passman Jones shareholder and legal ethics scholar John G. Browning found the ruling highly unusual, considering the extension requested was short, unopposed and came before discovery.

“Usually, judges exhibit less patience when a case has gone fairly far down the road and the parties have made a habit of seeking additional time,” Browning said.

According to Browning, who’s based in Texas, this case stands out when viewed against the backdrop of extensions other judges have granted.

“Every year I see, across the country, motions for extensions of time associated with things like attendance at college ball games, or critical football playoff games,” Browning said.

In fact, Browning said he’s seen a subculture emerge among attorneys who exchange humorous motions for continuance, including “My dog just had puppies,” “My team unexpectedly made it to the playoffs” and “My client’s been attacked by a moose.”

“Some of them even play on a judge’s college or professional football allegiances,” Browning said. “One lawyer attached a picture of himself attending a Green Bay Packers game wearing a cheese head.”

Matthew Dietz, founder of the Disability Independence Group, agreed that courts are usually liberal in granting extensions, but said it’s noteworthy that Ungaro had denied another defendant’s extension request just days earlier.

“Because of that prior order, it really inured to counsel to demonstrate good cause, and especially why any other member of a defense firm with over 500 attorneys on staff could not respond to the complaint,” Dietz said. “While cancer treatment is extremely important and would be good cause for an enlargement, it is the duty for counsel not to take an enlargement for granted, especially on the day in which the pleading is due.”

 

The right call

Erica W. Rutner of Lash & Goldberg in Miami. Courtesy photo.

When considering such requests, judges make case-specific decisions, according to complex commercial litigator Erica Rutner of Lash & Goldberg in Miami, who said any judge would have denied the motion in this case.

“Richards waited two days before the response was due to retain counsel, and that was why the court denied the motion. It wasn’t really having to do with the cancer issue,” Rutner said. “The court wasn’t saying, ‘Your health issues don’t give rise to good cause.’ ”

It would be different, in Rutner’s view, if lead counsel had to have chemotherapy midway through a case, with depositions and discovery deadlines approaching.

“ I think almost any court would grant that,” Rutner said.

Disability rights attorney David Ferleger agreed, pointing out that Ungaro mainly found fault with the defendant for her failure to respond to the lawsuit in good time.

“The judge reasonably expects deadlines to be met and agrees that the standard is that there must be ‘good cause’ for an extension,” Ferleger said.

That said, Ferleger highlighted that it wasn’t the lawyer’s fault his defendant came to him at the last minute.

“I would hope that the court would have considered permitting some extra time for the innocent lawyer’s sake, if not for the defendant who has the blame for her delay,” Ferleger said.

Ungaro did allow a three-day window for the defense. The case is in its infancy, with discovery due in May 2019.

 

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