Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering decides interesting fee dispute over court reporting charges

Greatsealcal100Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering (May 7, 2008), arising from a fee dispute between the plaintiffs and a court reporting agency, is an interesting decision that may ultimately affect complex cases with far greater frequency than simple cases like Serrano.  In Serrano, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) reviewed a ruling by the trial court that required plaintiffs to pay the full amount charged by a court reporting agency to receive their certified copies of various transcripts:

The defendant noticed the depositions of several of the Serranos’ expert witnesses, including Robert Audell. The Audell deposition took place on June 26, 2006, and was reported by a certified shorthand reporter employed by Coast. Counsel for the Serranos requested a certified copy of the transcript. The trial was scheduled to begin on July 25, 2006.

(Slip op., at p. 4.)  Despite the fact that the defendant requested the expedited transcripts, the court reporting agency also charged the plaintiffs an "expedite" fee on top of the cost of the certified copies.  (Ibid.) "The Serranos filed an ex parte application on July 5, 2006, for an order requiring Coast to provide a copy of the Audell deposition transcript without charging any expedited service fee." (Slip. op., at p. 5.)

At this point, things get exciting.  The court reporting agency provided the transcripts on the condition that the plaintiffs agree to be bound by the trial court's ruling on the charges.  At the ex parte hearing, the trial court expressed sympathy with the plaintiffs, but denied them relief:

“I would love to give you relief. I don’t think I can. So take it up. Maybe, you know, one of the divisions up there will feel sympathetic.”

(Slip op., at p. 6.) The Serranos then petitioned the Court of Appeal for an extraordinary writ on August 25, 2006. The Court of Appeal summarily denied the petition on September 20, 2006 (parenthetical note: the denial of a petition for a writ is many times not an opinion on the merits of the issue raised).  The parties settled, but the trial court carved out the issue of the transcript fees on appeal.  Then, the Court of Appeal considered the merits, the court reporting agency appearing as objector and respondent.  After dispensing with various standing and jurisdictional arguments, the Court didn't mince words when examining the core contention:

Coast argues that a court ordering a deposition reporter to provide a copy of a transcript to a party pursuant to section 2025.510, subdivision (c) must order that party to pay the fee charged by the deposition reporter regardless of the amount of the fee. We firmly reject that argument. As we now explain, if a deposition reporter either refuses to provide a copy of a deposition transcript to a non-noticing party in a pending action, for whatever reason, or imposes unacceptable conditions upon such delivery, and the court must intervene, we conclude that the “expense” that the court may require the non noticing party to pay for the transcript must be reasonable.

(Slip op., at pp. 27-28.)  Continuing to pound in the point, the Court said:

Depositions play an important role in litigation and trial preparation, and deposition testimony may be offered as evidence in pretrial proceedings and, in some circumstances, at trial. In light of the importance of deposition testimony in a pending action and the non-noticing party’s lack of bargaining power, a trial court must be cautious not to lend assistance to overreaching by the deposition reporter. For a deposition reporter to refuse to provide a copy of a transcript to a non-noticing party in a pending action unless the party agrees to pay an unreasonable fee would be grossly unfair. Moreover, for a deposition reporter, as an officer of the court, to engage in such conduct would be an abuse of the reporter’s authority. For a trial court to condone such conduct by conditioning the party’s right to receive a copy of a transcript on payment of an unreasonable fee would undermine rather than promote the administration of justice and could very well result in a denial of due process to the non-noticing party victimized by the reporter’s conduct. It therefore follows that the only monetary condition that the court may properly place upon the non noticing party’s right to receive a copy of the deposition transcript would be payment of a reasonable fee.

(Slip op., at pp. 28-29.)  The Court of Appeal concluded by expressly holding that "[t]he cost of transcription must be borne by the party noticing the deposition, unless the court on motion and for good cause orders otherwise (§ 2025.510, subd. (b)), so a reasonable fee for a copy of the transcript would not include any amount that compensates the deposition reporter for the cost to expedite the transcription."  (Slip op. at p. 31.)

So out of a simple personal injury case that settled, we now know that court reporters cannot charge non-noticing parties an expedited transcript fee if it was the noticing party that requested the expedited transcript.  Court reporters around the state must be calling the respondent to thank them for clearing up this point of law.  Complex, multi-party cases may see a significant bottom-line cost savings, although I do not profess to know whether there is an industry practice by court reporters to charge non-noticing parties an expedited transcript fee when it was the noticing party that initially requested the expedited processing.