The Dangling Docket
August 31, 2009 by Kristin Donnelly-Miller
Most courts, without even knowing it, encounter an annoying “dangling docket.” Every court in the state reports its docket of cases to the Division of State Court Administration on the Quarterly Case Status Report (QCSR). Each case is counted and noted as being filed, pending or disposed. A frequent question from the courts is: “When can a case be disposed?”
Courts can readily label as “disposed” cases concluded after a jury or bench trial. Other common disposition types include bench disposition, default judgment and dismissal. But when should courts use the disposition types such as deferral, diversion, violations bureau, or the most confusing type “closed?”
While the Division offers an Applications Guide on its website under “Statistics Reporting Forms” describing every disposition type with examples of their common uses, here are a few frequently encountered yet not well known danglers! One caveat to remember: the QCSR is a statistical report. A case can be closed statistically but that does not replace any requirement to keep the case file intact or conduct reviews required by statute.
Deferral or Diversion program: Did you know that when a defendant has negotiated with the prosecutor to enter a diversion program or deferral of prosecution agreement, the court can count the case disposed as a Deferred/Diverted case. Many court s believe that the case must remain open until the prosecutor dismisses the case after the defendant has completed the agreement. While the prosecutor is required to dismiss the case by statute, the court can report the Deferral/Diversion disposition on the QCSR at the time the agreement is finalized.
Violations Bureau: Did you know that when a violator pays a ticket or citation for Infractions and Ordinance Violations, whether by mail, internet or in person, the court can dispose of the IF/OV or OE case as “Violations Bureau” even though a county may not have created a separate Bureau from the Clerk’s office.
FTA/FTP: Did you know that if a violator fails to appear or fails to pay the ticket or citation, the court does not need to continue to count the case as pending? The case can be disposed of as FTA (Failure to Appear) or FTP (Failure to Pay). The court is obligated to provide the necessary documentation to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles when required, but the court does not need to keep the case dangling after a violator fails to appear at the hearing or pay the fine.
Default Judgment: Frequently, courts may grant default judgments but set hearings for damages. The case can be counted disposed at the time of “Default” and does not need to be kept pending until the damages hearing, which frequently does not occur quickly.
Guilty Plea/Admission: Sometimes a defendant will enter a guilty plea but will retract the plea before sentencing. Courts should dispose of the case as guilty plea after the sentencing hearing, rather than at the time the defendant entered the plea. However, if a defendant admits guilt in an infraction or ordinance violation case, the court can dispose of the case as Admission after the hearing where the defendant admits the violation.
Closed: Sometimes a case is complete through actions unrelated to a judge’s decision. Examples are estates and trusts. Did you know that an estate is disposed of as “Closed” when the final report has been filed by the executor? A trust is disposed of as “Closed” when the trust has been fully funded and the permanent trustee has been established, rather than when the trust ends. Guardianships are disposed of as “Closed” earlier than some courts realize. Even though the guardianship is intended to last for years, a guardianship case is disposed of as “closed” when the permanent guardian has been named and confirmed by the court. Again, courts are required to review these cases regularly, but statistically, courts can close their dangling trust, estate and guardianship cases. In addition, the “Closed” disposition is used for two other commonly occurring events: notice of bankruptcy and removal to federal court. When a court receives a Notice of Bankruptcy by the only or last remaining defendant, the court can dispose of the pending case as “Closed.” Likewise, a court receiving a Notice of Removal to Federal Court can dispose of the case as “Closed.” Sometimes the cases are returned to the trial court but not frequently enough to justify leaving the cases dangling.
Dismissed: Often civil courts face a large dangling docket of cases filed where the defendants are never served, the parties have resolved their differences, or the plaintiff has chosen not to pursue the case. For civil cases only, the court can conduct some helpful housecleaning of the dangling docket under Trial Rule 41(E), “call of the docket.” Sometimes the call of the docket will serve as a call to action by reminding litigants of the case, and it will remain pending. But many dangling cases can be dismissed if the parties fail to respond to the “call” or attend a scheduled Trial Rule 41(E) hearing. Because Trial Rule 41(E) applies to civil cases only, a court can set status conferences in dangling criminal cases for those cases that appear to be ripe for resolution. Courts may not dismiss a criminal case sua sponte but may remind the prosecutor of those cases and determine if a decision has been made to drop the charges or otherwise not pursue the case.
The list above is not exhaustive but it does reflect some examples where courts may be carrying unnecessary pending caseload or dangling dockets. Courts are encouraged to conduct periodic housekeeping to remove these dangling cases.