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Mandatory E-filing in the Fourth Judicial District
Colleen Hillesheim
December 22, 2011



Federal courts have required electronic filing for over ten years—since 2004 for U.S. District of Minnesota—so when will state and local courts jump on board? The Fourth Judicial District civil and family division courts have run a pilot program, are currently allowing registered attorneys to voluntarily e-file, and are now hoping to be among the first district courts to move to mandatory e-filing for all of their cases.

According to the National Center for StateCourts (NCSC), one-quarter of states have e-filing at the municipal level. And when you add the number of states with current pilot programs or forthcoming plans to institute e-filing, that becomes over half of the states. At least 25 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of electronic filing. (Those states are: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.)

Colorado leads the race to institute mandatory e-filing in state district courts. The website of the Colorado state judicial branch touts that in the district courts across Colorado approximately 96 percent of all civil documents that can be filed electronically are e-filed, and every county in the state has mandatory e-filing for at least one case type.

The NCSC’s statistics assure us that our municipal courts are catching up with the times and that we will be e-filing nationwide (no matter which court) in the coming years.

ABA E-Filing Statistics

According to the ABA 2011 Legal Technology Survey report, 86 percent of respondents who file documents with their state or local courts have done so electronically at least once. Over a quarter of these respondents (29 percent) indicate that electronic filing is voluntary in their state courts, and 24 percent report that electronic filing is mandatory. Twenty-nine percent report that electronic filing is not available in their state courts.

Respondents who report that they file court documents electronically were asked how electronic filing is available in their local courts. Twenty-three percent report that their local courts have voluntary e-filing, and 22 percent report mandatory e-filing. Thirty-four percent report that electronic filing is not available in their local courts.

E-Filing  in Hennepin County District Courts

This September, John Erar, chief information officer at the Fourth Judicial District, spoke to the HCBA Executive Committee in hopes of gaining the bar's support for the move to mandatory e-filing. In a letter dated Oct. 5, 2011, the HCBA Executive Committee did offer their support: “The HCBA believes that e-filing has great potential to provide financial savings to the judiciary, create efficiencies for parties and their attorneys, and improve access to justice. We commend you on your efforts to date and look forward to partnering with you as the e-filing project moves forward.”

Chris Morris, Bassford Remele attorney and HCBA past president, was the first lawyer to take advantage of the Hennepin County District Court’s e-filing system on Oct. 25, 2010. In a 2010 interview with Minnesota Lawyer, Morris said, “I wasn’t aiming to be first, but I had a case that had to be filed.” Nearly a year after that first filing, Morris says that he hasn't yet had a case in Hennepin County where both sides participated in e-filing so it has been “of limited utility thus far.”  However Morris said, “I am looking forward to the time when all law firms will be using e-filing in Hennepin County, because I understand that will allow us to serve discovery requests and responses through the e-filing system, which is a tool not available in the federal district court system.”

Morris’s firm was one of six firms in Hennepin County’s e-filing pilot program. (The other five firms were Dorsey & Whitney, Faegre & Benson, Lindquist & Vennum, Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand, and Rausch, Sturm, Israel, Enerson & Hornik.) The pilot program began in October 2010 and following the conclusion of the pilot, all of the firms interviewed for this article are supportive of the Hennepin County Courts’ hope to move to mandatory e-filing.

Jessica Castro, operations manager at Bassford Remele, said, “Our users like the system and feel that it’s much improved over traditional filing…. E-filing saves paper, time, postage, etc., and those savings are passed on to the client.” And Tessa Strandquist, assistant supervisor at Faegre & Benson, noted, “E-filing is definitely more efficient than paper filing; I am glad to see that Hennepin County made the transition.”

While all the pilot firms agreed that the e-filing system is a positive change, they were quick to note that attorneys should not compare Hennepin County’s e-filing system (known as Minnesota Court Information System (MNCIS) / Odyssey E-file & Serve, or “Odyssey”) to the federal PACER system. It looks and works differently.

Despite their experience and familiarity with PACER, many who were involved in the pilot program or who have voluntarily e-filed their Hennepin County cases prefer the Odyssey system over PACER. Erin Oberdorfer, information specialist at Dorsey & Whitney, said, “A lot of people get intimidated when they first get on to the [Odyssey] system because it looks so different from the federal system. But once they have started using it, they usually find that it is as easy, if not easier, to use. I often get the response, after showing someone how to do something, ‘That’s it? That’s all there is to it?’”

The Odyssey software is arguably more user-friendly than PACER, but it is important to keep in mind some key differences in the way the Odyssey program works:

 

  • Only attorneys that are on the case can access court documents that have been filed.
  • You can file public documents and confidential/sealed documents without sending hard copies.
  • The Odyssey system includes a clerk review step in the filing process. If a document is rejected by the clerk, the file stamp date is lost.
  • Odyssey does not send a confirmation or rejection email.
  • Odyssey accepts various document formats: PDF, Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or TIFF.
  • Currently, e-filing in Hennepin County is only accepted for new cases.
  • Hennepin County does not plan to store files indefinitely in the attorney's e-filing portal, but will store files in the Court's Odyssey case management system according to the record retention schedule.

Whether using PACER or Odyssey, the money, time, and paper saved through e-filing is substantial and important. Streamlining the process for case filings to a more efficient and innovative use of digital technology will significantly reduce the burden of managing millions of pieces of paper, reduce paper storage needs, improve accountability in case filings, and provide stakeholders with a more transparent and manageable case filing system.

 

Advice to New E-Filers

Once your firm has decided that the many benefits are worth the switch from paper filing, here are some tips from the pilot firms to keep in mind:

Setting Up Your Firm’s System:

  • Select one key person to learn the new system in-and-out. This person can serve as the “go-to” for questions within the firm and can be the contact for the county and the techs at Tyler (Odyssey’s creator).
  • Set up one firm credit card for e-filing for ease in tracking and billing.
  • Set aside some time to set up each attorney as a user, service contact, and attorney; and each legal administrator as a user and a service contact. (And remember to come back to remove any attorney who has left the firm so that they do not receive future filings on a case that they have withdrawn from.)
  • To save time at the setup stage, assign all users the same password. Each user can then choose a personal password when signing in the first time.
  • Arrange for staff training, documentation, and sharing of experiences among your attorneys and staff so that they can learn from one another.
  • Remember that the county staff are available to help.
  • Encourage your staff to take the time to learn the system before the afternoon of your deadline.

Tips for Practitioners When Filing:

 

  • You can file any time.  Your deadline is extended from paper-filing’s 5:00 p.m. to e-filing’s 11:59 p.m. But remember, if the e-filing is rejected for any reason, the document is not considered filed until the date you refile the correct documents and fees. If in doubt about the appropriate fee, overpay. The balance will remain on your account.
  • You will not receive a confirmation (or rejection) e-mail; you must watch the court’s website to see whether  your files were received.
  • Because it can take a while to learn if a filing was accepted, submit files with plenty of time to spare so that there is time to make corrections and refile if necessary. 
  • Some judges still want hard copies. Be sure to read the judge’s orders regarding requirements.
  • Remember to “attach”—any staff you would like to receive e-mail updates on each case filing.
  • You can also enter your client’s e-mail address for courtesy copies so that they may download the documents themselves.
  • Separate your paperwork appropriately; clerks will not accept one compilation document in some cases.
  • A best practice for attorneys is to keep any original signature documents in case there is a need to resubmit or you are asked to produce the original signature document in court
  • Filings requiring an IFP need to obtain the signature of the signing judge before they are e-filed.  We are told the court is working on changing this.
  • New cases cannot be e-served since the responding litigants cannot sign in to the system to accept service until after the case is filed.

All registered attorneys are now allowed and encouraged to voluntarily e-file any new case in the Fourth District’s civil and family courts. To sign up for a training or to view an online video tutorial, attorneys should visit www.mncourts.gov/district/4/?page=3953.

E-filing promises a new, more efficient way of work in law firms. The sooner you and your firm embrace and learn it, the better you will serve your time, clients, and bottom line.  


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