by Shannon J. Colangelo, Queen City Court Reporting
In the past decade, the practice of insurance companies contracting for services has changed the court reporting industry, but for better or worse? Who is this practice benefiting, the local court reporting firm or the insurance industry? This practice has been the subject of much debate over the years as to whether these contracts bias the court reporting firms providing the service. In February of this year, California became the latest state to pass a law imposing disclosure requirements similar to those in North Carolina, while over half the states in the U.S. prohibit these contracts completely.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-28(c)(4) addresses the rise in the use of exclusive or preferential contracts between providers of deposition services being financed by insurance companies, in efforts to ensure fairness and prevent cost-shifting. Such arrangements, while frustrating for small court reporting firms and counsel on opposite sides of such litigation, have thus far not been prohibited in North Carolina. The vexation created by these contracts is felt predominantly by attorneys paying for “outrageous” copies, as evidenced in a recent suit, Crystal Danielson vs. Veritext Corporate Services, Inc., filed by attorney Lamar Armstrong. Although the Court ruled against Mr. Armstrong’s client in this case, his plight is felt throughout the industry. Judge Robinson noted, “Nor does Danielson allege that she, or her counsel, made any efforts prior to the deposition to determine who would be serving as the certified verbatim reporter at the deposition or how much a copy of the deposition would cost.” As an aside, most court reporting firms cannot tell you how much a transcript is going to cost prior to the deposition, as prices are dictated by page count. The best they could have done was disclose their copy page rate.
N.C.G.S. 1A-28(c)(4) also requires “the party desiring to take the deposition under a stipulation shall disclose the disqualification in writing in a Rule 30(b) notice of deposition and shall inform all parties to the litigation on the record of the existence of the disqualification under this rule and of the proposed stipulation waiving the disqualification. Any party opposing the proposed stipulation as provided in the notice of deposition shall give timely written notice of his or her opposition to all parties.”
This business shift allowing insurance clients to dictate which reporting firm to hire has hurt independent reporters and local reporting firms and benefitted national reporting firms and the insurance industry. National reporting firms, most of which are not located in North Carolina and do not benefit our economy in the same way local reporting firms do, contract with insurance companies to provide lower original rates to their client and charge higher than average page rates to the copy attorneys, while paying lower than average page rates to the court reporters who provide the actual service to the client, all in efforts to cover their exorbitant overhead. This shift in business has affected closure of many small firms in recent years due to their clients being herded to the national firms by insurance litigation. Small court reporting firms across our state, as well as throughout the U.S., are still trying to survive this industry shift. In an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them mentality, some local reporting firms have petitioned these national agencies, requesting to be placed on their list of approved firms, if only to handle the depositions of their own clients, most times being thwarted in the attempt unless the attorney goes to battle with the insurance company on their behalf.
In a May 2016 Lawyers Weekly article, Lawyer challenges court reporters on ‘outrageous’ copy charges, Phillip Bantz interviewed Mr. Armstrong, the attorney who filed the suit against Veritext. The article quotes Armstrong to have “believed that court reporters are using copy charges as an ‘extra profit center’ but he said he’s been told that reporters have to make money off the copies based on how they price the originals...the answer is to set your originals at whatever cost you need to generate the profits you want.” In theory, this is a plausible answer, but would necessitate an industry-wide pricing model change. If one agency raised the prices of original transcripts to cover the expenses that copy sales now cover, that agency would not be competitively priced within the industry and would soon find themselves out of business. Another way to keep costs down is to use a local firm with a smaller overhead and plan the deposition with enough time to receive transcripts at standard, not expedited, page rates.
This problem has been ongoing for more than a decade. Consumer Watchdog discussed the issue in 1999. One attorney they quoted had complaints that mirror the concerns of court reporters across the nation, “When a client learns that the court-reporting firm is financially tethered to the insurance company, he feels that maybe he's not getting the transcript he deserves,” Says Gallen. “One thing we could always count on in the past was the integrity of the court reporter. I could always make that assurance to my client. But now I can't vouch for something I don't know.” They also point out that “many defense lawyers hate being told which court reporter they can use for a particular case. They'd rather pick the best one for the job.” The same holds true today.
When asked, “How does contracting affect impartiality? Aren’t ethical codes enough?”, the National Court Reporting Association’s answer is that “Any arrangement that threatens the impartiality of court reporters or merely threatens the appearance of impartiality will lead to a breakdown of our justice system. What if the judge in a case of yours was being paid by your opponent in the litigation? Would their oath to be impartial be enough for you? If you lost, would you feel as though you got a fair shake? It is our faith in the impartiality of the judicial system that is the very basis of our Rule of Law and ordered government, and this foundation erodes when the antagonists in litigation--the parties--start directly paying the bills of the allegedly impartial.”
The national agencies keep growing year after year and acquiring more smaller firms in every state and, left unchecked, will eliminate the small reporting firms all together in not too many years. If you’re paying too much for copies now, beware. The monopoly that is growing certainly will not keep prices down in the future.
About the Author: Shannon Colangelo has been a court reporter for 10 years, partnering with three colleagues in March, 2015, to form Queen City Court Reporting. She spent the 20 years prior as an executive assistant and is a Gulf War veteran, U.S. Air Force. Queen City Court Reporting, based in Charlotte, with over 50 years combined experience, serves primarily North and South Carolina, as well as the Southeastern U.S. We pride ourselves on our professionalism, accuracy, and timeliness in every job we take, striving to get to know our clients so we can tailor each job to fit their individual needs.