Albert “Al” Diaz has had a busy three years at the N.C. Business Court in Charlotte.
The judge handles a growing number of complex business cases amid an economic downturn that could further fuel the surge – and the ever-present questions about what exactly the Business Court does, he said.
Diaz was appointed a resident Superior Court judge in 2001 after working as a military lawyer and in private practice at Hunton & Williams in Raleigh and Charlotte.
He lost a later bid to keep the judgeship, but the next year he was appointed as a Special Superior Court Judge. In 2005, Diaz accepted Gov. Mike Easley's offer to serve as Charlotte's first and only business court judge. Still considered a Superior Court judge, he's now in the first year of his second five-year term and plans to stay in a role he calls challenging and fulfilling.
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Diaz, 47, spoke with the Observer recently about his job, Charlotte business, and his memorable moments. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. What's your workload like?
We've seen a steady growth in the number of cases that have come before the court. Right now, I have about 55 cases, and we have 180 active cases among the three judges in North Carolina. When we first started, the total caseload was around 100 or 120. We expect that it will continue to grow.
Q. What's behind that growth?
It's a function of lawyers understanding the court. I still get queries from lawyers about exactly what kind of animal this business court is.
It's also a function of the increasing economic activity here in Charlotte, although in recent months, things have been on the downswing. But downswings bring litigation – people get unhappy about business agreements and feel that one party is not living up to his or her contractual agreements.
So we get full employment, whether the economy is up or down. If it gets any worse, I suspect we'll continue to see more cases.
Q. How is Business Court different from regular court?
In the regular Superior Court docket system, we have a rotating system. Every six months, the resident Superior Court judges leave their home counties and go out to other districts. So a judge will show up for that week of court and resolve whatever cases are on the docket for that week.
It became clear that as cases became more complex, it does not work as well when you have four or five different judges looking over a single case. The thought was, it would be important to develop a Business Court docket to lend some predictability to complex civil litigation.
Q. What kinds of cases do you handle?
The first and foremost type of case we see is what's generically defined as “corporate governance issues” – claims alleging breaches of fiduciary duty by officers, disputes between shareholders or members of corporations and limited liability companies – those kinds of things.
Then we have jurisdiction over topics such as state securities disputes, antitrust matters and unfair competition. We've recently had our jurisdiction expanded to include tax disputes.
Beyond that, a case can still be assigned to us, even if it doesn't fit within that rubric of the jurisdictional statute, if its complexity is outside what the court typically deals with or the parties agree that this would be a case that would be best handled by the Business Court.
Q. What's been your most memorable case?
My most memorable case is not a Business Court case. I tried a case about four or five years ago involving, of all things, two runaway elephants.
We had a circus come to town and set up shop in a strip mall, and they hired a trainer from Florida and two elephants, Judy and Debbie. On the way back from the performance, the trainer lost control of the elephants. They caused some serious property damage in the parking lot and also broke into a local church that was holding choir practice at the time.
That ended up being a three-week trial, and it was literally a circus. You just see it all at the courthouse.
Q. Are the Business Court cases you're seeing unique to Charlotte?
I don't think so. I think the expectation was that we'd get a good number of banking disputes. We've had some of those, so in that sense, it's a little bit different than the other two divisions.
Q. Has the economy affected the kinds of cases you're getting?
I have seen a good number of closely held corporations and shareholders and members involved in disputes over financing and economic issues, and I suspect it has something to do with the economic downturn.
I have at least one case that involves a mortgage-lending dispute. That's obviously an outgrowth of what has happened not just in this county, but statewide and nationwide regarding mortgage practices.
Q. Lawyers in Charlotte have talked of your efforts to highlight minority issues. Why is that important?
The legal profession remains vastly under-represented when it comes to minorities, both as lawyers and judges. I think it's important for people to have the sense that the bench reflects the community.
Q. What do you see for the future of business in Charlotte?
Like everything, it's a cycle. For a while, I think people thought this business community would be immune. It's clear we're not, but I think we're better situated than most to ride this out and come back from it.
There are a lot of good things about this city. That's the reason why so many people come here, including me. I think we'll be OK.