10 to watch in 2007: Judge Richard A. Nielsen
He's at the helm of the Hillsborough court system's new division for business litigation.
By Scott Barancik, Times Staff Writer
Published March 18, 2007
TAMPA - International Plaza blushed last month when it discovered a tenant's plan to host a "Love or Lust Soiree."
Fliers distributed by Piazza Roma promised a raunchy bash featuring bone-crushing crowds, lingerie-clad hotties and private VIP beds for couples in heat. It was not exactly the sort of "first-class, family-oriented" image that mall leaseholders pledged to uphold.
Problem was, the Soiree was only four days away.
While Tampa's overbooked civil courts generally offer little hope of scheduling a quick hearing, Judge Richard A. Nielsen of the county's new "complex business litigation division" was able to hear the matter within three days. Piazza agreed to cancel.
Nielsen, 57, says he aims to resolve business-to-business feuds quickly and fairly. That's good news for area companies and lawyers because Nielsen, hand-picked by Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. to launch the experimental division in January, is its only sheriff. Like it or not, the former board-certified litigator and Florida Law Review editor holds the key to swift corporate justice in Hillsborough County.
Among the 33 new cases and 156 transfers Nielsen had accumulated as of March 13 were shock jock Bubba Clem's lawsuit against former employer Clear Channel Communications, a raft of injunctions filed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a shareholder lawsuit concerning the proposed buyout of Tampa's OSI Restaurant Partners.
OSI's case is particularly hairy. The restaurant company behind chains like Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill has until April 30 to close its $40-per-share buyout deal, but it can't do so without getting its proxy approved by regulators and holding a shareholder vote. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, want Nielsen to cancel the shareholder vote, but they can't build their case without conducting a fairly extensive amount of discovery and depositions.
Nielsen has had to recuse himself only once. That was when James Cusack, a member of his Friday morning Bible-study group, appeared as a plaintiff. Nielsen, who attends Idlewild Baptist Church, offered to withdraw from the case, and the defendant agreed, he said.
Recusals will remain rare. Nielsen's retirement account includes mutual funds but no individual company stocks. And it has been seven years since Nielsen left the private sector, too long to consider former clients like Tampa Bay Water or law partners at the defunct Saxon & Nielsen a potential conflict.
"All of those relationships are far in the past," he said. Though litigants can ask him to withdraw, they do so at a cost: No other Hillsborough judge operates according to the business litigation division's expedited rules.
The division was created to handle complex litigation, but there are anomalies. Most consumer lawsuits are ineligible, including complicated types like product liability, and high-dollar cases such as a $300,000 dispute between two condo buyers and the troubled Trump Tower Project. Yet a company trying to collect on an $80,000 shipment of pickled herring would qualify because both parties are businesses.
Nielsen said he thinks the division's rules serve all plaintiffs well.
"Taking complex business cases away from other judges lets them focus more attention on consumer cases," he said.
Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-893-8751.