Unhappy With Trial Time Limits Imposed by a District Court? You Must Try Your Case First and Then Appeal

In re Arthur Baldwin, 700 F.3d 122 (3d Cir. 2012).  This was an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy, involving claims of breach of the fiduciary duty of care and loyalty, and deepening insolvency, against sixteen former officers and directors of the debtor, a non-profit nursing care facility.  Prior to trial, the parties told the district court that they, collectively, intended to call as many as 85 witnesses.  On defendants’ side, 20 of those witnesses were “definite” witnesses, though their descriptions of the intended testimony of some of those witnesses were similar and overlapping.  The parties also identified 400 potential trial exhibits. 

The district court, frustrated with the parties’ failure to “streamline the case,” said that each side would have 7.5 hours to present their testimony, plus another 30 minutes for each of their opening and closing statements.  Defendants objected, asserting that each side would need eight days to put on its case.  The district court declined to provide that much additional time, and defendants sought a writ of mandamus.  In this opinion by Judge Vanaskie, which contains a very useful discussion of the parameters of the writ of mandamus, the Third Circuit dismissed the appeal, finding that relief could be obtained by an ordinary appeal after trial.

Mandamus is available only in “exceptional circumstances” where there is “no other adequate means” to obtain the relief sought.  Here, defendants could try the case and, if they lost, appeal at that point.  If they won at trial, of course, they would have no need to appeal.  Defendants had argued that it might be hard for them to identify prejudice from the trial time limits after the fact, but Judge Vanaskie turned that argument against defendants, noting that a “sine qua non” of mandamus is that the right to the relief sought be “clear and indisputable.”  Nor did the time limits effectively deprive defendants of their right to a jury trial.  That issue could not be properly analyzed until after trial, when defendants could “identify with precision” what evidence they were unable to present because the clock had run out.

Judge Vanaskie noted that both the Third Circuit and other Circuit Courts of Appeals had approved trial time limits.  Defendants could not cite any case where a court had held, before trial, that time limits deprived a party of a fair trial.

The panel carefully stated that it was not holding that the time limits were valid, but only that their validity could be reviewed on post-trial appeal, therefore rendering mandamus unavailable.  In a closing footnote, however, Judge Vanaskie questioned “how either side in this complex case could possibly present the necessary evidence to a jury in 7.5 hours of trial time,” especially since, under Pennsylvania law, “there may be different liability rules and defenses applicable to defendants who were members of the board of directors versus defendants who were officers of the non-profit entity.”  He urged the district court to “re-examine the time-limit order to avoid the necessity of a re-trial.”  There is thus little mystery how an ultimate appeal on this issue might turn out.