On May 7th, 2014 Wednesday, I visited the King County Superior Court in the afternoon. Although criminal trials sound a lot more interesting, the basic law I learned is based on civil law more, therefore I decided to observe the one and only civil trial on that day: “Chism v. Tri-State Construction” trialed by Judge Ken Schubert. The plaintiff, Geoffrey Chism, represented by attorneys Lindsay Halm and Thomas Breen. The defendant, Tri-State Construction Board of Executives including Ronald Agostino, Tom Agostino and Larry Agostino represented by attorneys Jillian Barron and Larry Agostino. To begin with, Chism was hired in the beginning of 2009. In October 2011 Ronald Agostino became the President.
He granted a compensation of $500,000 to Chism through an oral promise, an express contract. The trial began by Chism suing Tri-State Construction for not giving him the right amount of compensation that they initially agreed on. However, Tri-State Construction made a counterclaim stating that Chism did not did his job properly, thus does not deserve the compensation agreed upon previously. As a result, the burden of proof now shifts to the plaintiff, Chism, to proof that he actually did his job properly not as what Tri-State Construction stated.
The general trial proceeding was carried out as the following: the afternoon session of the trial started by Judge Schubert, plaintiff’s attorney and defendant’s attorney discussing the approval of new evidences provided to the trial and other information that either side doesn’t want the juries to know before any discussion. When everything is settled Judge Ken brought the juries back to the courtroom “To honor the juries, Please stand up.” Everyone in the courtroom stood up to welcome the juries back and then the actual trial began. There are 15 juries composed of different races, ages and gender. Each holding a pen and a notebook, taking down notes to aid them made their decision. Already half through the trail, a witness was brought back to the court to continue questioning by the plaintiff’s attorney for the remaining of the trial.
First of all, before the juries returned, the defendant brought an email asking approval to add new evidence, which was objected due to character evidence, and being out of touch with the argument. The email was argued irrelevant, as it is just a general series of email that does not provide a solid understanding of the issue. However it is relevant because it shows that the plaintiff is acting against the interest of the company. In the end, the argument of emails was ruled as irrelevant. Thus, it will not be presented to the juries. Waiting on the benches outside the courtroom, witness Kristi Middleton finally entered the courtroom after the juries settled down and was brought in by Chism’s attorney Lindsay to testify for the plaintiff. Kristi Middleton is the Chief Financial Officer of Tri-State Construction; she did not participate in the agreement of compensation between Mr. Chism and Mr. Ronald.
However, as a Chief financial officer Mr. Ronald sent email to made her aware that Mr. Chism was willing to wait for the compensation until it is available due to the difficult financial position that the company was in. Thus, Middleton kept the record among other compensation files. The defendant stated that, Mr. Chism was acting for the interest of the company; instead it continued to show a pattern that he was at the stake of himself. For example, in an agreement in 2010, car expenses were promised to be covered by Tri-State Construction but Mr. Chism turned in all personal expenses stating as “car” expenses. It is stated that the initial agreement is made upon express contract, however, when the company is suffering with financial crisis, Ronald Agostino, president of Tri-State Construction, sent a letter to Mr. Chism offering another promise: “I am very sympathetic TSI’s current cash availability is such that I don’t expect any accrued bonus. You can get paid until next year, initial this memo to Kristi.”
In the end, the amount actually paid to Mr. Chism was not the $50,000 agreed, instead, it’s $40,000. It is interesting to note that when a memorandum is shown to the Ms. Kristi, she didn’t recognize the handwriting immediately with some hesitation and thus attorney Jillian called out “Objection! Lack of personal knowledge!” And thus, the memorandum is ruled out. Witness Kristi also brought up a Canada project in 2011 that Mr. Chism was in charged to be responsible with. The project was scheduled to be substantially complete in Spring 2012. The client that Mr. Chism was dealing with “did not have a really good reputation” and is “extremely difficult to dealt with.” Mr. Chism worked extremely hard 7 days a week. And in October 2011 the client threatened to stop paying and hold the project. Mr. Chism then had a negotiation of preventing the project going into default. In the end, Mr. Chism’s negotiation was successful.
The defendant’s Attorney argued that this just showed Ms. Kristi’s sympathy towards Mr. Chism but not evidence showing that he isn’t an average employee. “But did the company appreciated Chism’s work?” questioned by attorney Lindsay. In the end, although Ms. Kristi did not provide a very solid evidence to defend against the defendant’s statement, she has a high profile and I am sure that her testify will at least raise some sympathy of the juries towards the plaintiff: Chism. Unfortunately, by the end of the day no judgment is decided yet, and by listening from the middle of the trail, there are still some aspects of the case that I have the lack of understanding with. Thus, I cannot make a fair judgment from my personal opinion. The courtroom itself has not much difference between what I expected and what it actually looks like. Wooden benches, white wall and judge wearing a court robe with national and state flags sitting at the middle back of the room. However, the atmosphere in the courtroom is a lot different than what I was expecting.
It is less formal in general. Teacups, water bottles, reference document needed for the trial were all scattered on the desk in the middle of the courtroom with attorneys on both sides sharing the same L-shaped desk. When the trial started I didn’t even notice it. One jury even took her shoe off during the trial. Also, there’s more technical support in actual court than those showed in television series, such as projector and computers. “Suits” is my favorite US drama, which focus mostly on civil law unlike most other drama such as Law and Order that focuses on criminal law. However, compared to what I observed in the King County Superior Court, I would say that the television does not provide an accurate picture of the US legal system.
In a real courtroom, the attorneys don’t shout out loud their argument like they did in a television show, and in fact it is so hard to hear that I have to pay a lot of attention and sat in the first row in order to hear what the attorneys and judge are discussing about. Also, the testimony of a witness is never longer than 5 minutes in a television show; yet, in the trial I observed the attorney questioned the witness Kristi for the entire afternoon session, which is about 3 to 4 hours. The process of the questioning isn’t as dramatic as it is shown in a drama, in fact, it is quite boring and dull that several observers fell asleep during the testimony including myself. I don’t know how to tell whether the juries are good or bad, however, they all did pay a lot of attention writing down arguments of both sides and testimony of Kristi Middleton, completing the duty as a citizen of the Washington State.
In my opinion, I think the trial was fair and effective. Judge Schubert is fair in making judgment on objections raised by the attorneys. Also, I think the plaintiff’s attorney Lindsey Halm did a good job in her direct examination of the witness in raising sympathy towards the plaintiff from the juries as well as establishing credibility of the witness. By hearing how Mr. Chism completed the tough Canada project, I tend to be more biased towards him by the end of the day. On the other hand, although the defendant’s attorney Jillian Barron did not get a chance to cross exanimate the witness, she also did a great job in showing the aspect of the adversarial system, by trying to discredit the witness, advocating her client. This visit to the King County Superior Court absolutely changed my thought of how a trail is conducted in a court. Instead of imagining all the trial process by myself, court observation really helped me solidified a lot of concepts and knowledge we learned in class in my mind.