Law360, San Francisco (December 3, 2020, 8:12 PM EST) -- A California federal judge overseeing consumers' and app developers' antitrust claims against Google over its Play app store said Thursday he'll continue holding status conferences online "ad infinitum" even after COVID-19 vaccinations become widespread, lauding the time and money saved as well as the benefits to attorneys' work-life balance.
U.S. District Judge James Donato looked to the future Thursday when he announced that while "the world is breaking with news of COVID-19 vaccinations," he has no intention of resuming in-person status conferences in most of the cases he presides over.
"Just thinking long-term, I'm inclined at least for status conferences, regardless of what a post-vaccination world looks like, to continue to do this on Zoom," Judge Donato said during a remote status conference in the Google Play consumer antitrust litigation, which consists of proposed class actions accusing the tech giant of violating federal antitrust and competition laws by restricting the behaviors of developers and consumers through Google Play.
Google is separately fighting an enforcement action launched in October by the federal government and several states in D.C. federal court accusing the tech giant of stifling competition to maintain its monopoly position in search and search advertising markets.
Judge Donato, who has served as a federal judge in the Northern District of California for nearly seven years, has grown accustomed to the convenience and efficiency of holding conferences online, which his district began doing at the onset of the pandemic in March.
This "will improve your work-life balance, your home life and free you for productive billing on other matters," Judge Donato told attorneys for Google and the non-governmental parties accusing it of antitrust violations.
In-person status conferences, case management conferences and scheduling conferences can be brief, yet often require dozens of lawyers to fly in from around the country at great expense.
"You're the first group I've had the opportunity to discuss this with," Judge Donato told the attorneys Thursday before running a quick poll to determine whether the attorneys in the Google matter would be supportive of continuing status conferences on Zoom "ad infinitum."
All the attorneys polled Thursday voted in favor of keeping the videoconferences intact.
"Great," Judge Donato said following the vote, extolling the benefits of attorneys not being required to travel to San Francisco on a multiday business trip for only a brief conference.
"That's a long haul for 45 minutes in front of the court," he said, while also stressing the important role status and case management conferences play in the litigation process.
While Judge Donato is among the first judges to fully endorse the shift to remote videoconferences, it's possible other judges and courts around the country will follow suit given the convenience, reduced costs and increased public access that comes with holding conferences and hearings remotely.
For instance, in October, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, also in the Northern District of California, marveled at the turnout of an online settlement hearing in which hundreds of students defrauded by for-profit colleges sought the court's assurance that the U.S. Department of Education would process their loan forgiveness requests.
Judge Alsup said that in his 21 years of being a judge, "this turned out to be the most interesting [settlement hearing] of all because over 500 people tuned in — way more than you would ever get in a normal class action — and we've done it so that people can show up from all over the country."
"It's quite amazing," he added.
In the Western District of Washington, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman has extolled the value of holding remote jury trials even after the pandemic passes.
Judge Pechman, who wrote a handbook on remote jury trials, said some trials will be more efficient and less expensive if conducted online. The judge said the online format allows witnesses from all over the world to testify without significant expense and allows expert witnesses to be paid only for the time they are testifying, not their travel time.
Judge Pechman said the online format has also boosted public participation, noting that some of the online trials she's held during the pandemic have garnered more viewers than in-person trials.
During the pandemic and the shift online, several trial judges have also remarked that the video technology allows them to see witnesses' faces head-on and up close during Zoom trials, which is preferable to the courtroom where they often view witnesses 20 feet away from the side.
While the remote format won't work in all cases, some trial attorneys have expressed amazement at how well certain tasks, such as remote depositions, have gone.
The Mary Carr plaintiffs are represented by Korein Tillery LLC, Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP and McManis Faulkner.
The Dianne Bentley plaintiffs are represented by Milberg Phillips Grossman LLP and Greg Coleman Law PC.
Epic is represented by Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
Google is represented by Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP.
The case is In re: Google Play Consumer Antitrust Litigation, case number 5:20-cv-05761, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
--Editing by Adam LoBelia.
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