Meet the Family Court Facilitator — Joel Borgman of Denver District Court
By Joel Borgman, Esq.
Contributed by Kristi Anderson Wells, Esq., Hunnicutt + Appelman P.C.
1. Where were you born? Family background?
I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to two Iowans. I am the oldest of three brothers and my middle brother and I were both born in Minnesota. My youngest brother is the only one who can claim to be a true Colorado native. We relocated to Colorado for my dad’s job when I was four years old. Growing up we made many trips back to Iowa to visit aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. My parents are both from the Quad Cities, located along the Mississippi River, and I have many fond memories boating and waterskiing on the Mississippi.
2. Where did you attend school?
I grew up south of Denver and graduated from Cherry Creek High School. For a change of scenery, I attended college at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon but (eventually) came home for law school at C.U. Boulder.
3. What brought you to your current position?
I think there are a few life experiences that brought me to my current position as a facilitator. After college I taught English in Japan for a couple years and, upon returning to Denver, needed a job. I ended up working in residential title insurance, which was later somewhat helpful in my property law class but otherwise has been my least favorite job. It did teach me a valuable lesson though: to be satisfied at work I must feel like I am making a difference in peoples’ lives and/or working towards the betterment of society. I left title insurance to teach fourth and fifth grade special education through the Teach for America program. I had several students who struggled to control their anger and attended a conflict de-escalation training over one summer vacation. I didn’t realize it until I had been facilitating for a few years, but I call on those de-escalation skills all the time. I have become more and more comfortable working amid conflict, both while teaching and in my current position, and believe one of the rewards of my current role is helping individuals navigate through an emotionally trying time.
4. How did you end up working in the Denver District Court?
I am forever grateful to Judge Starrs for hiring me as her first law clerk after she was appointed. I took the family law course at C.U. and worked on a few domestic relations and juvenile cases through the American Indian Law Clinic, but I wasn’t necessarily interested in working in domestic relations during law school. I figured I would stay with Judge Starrs through a civil and criminal rotation and ultimately end up at a law firm. However, I found domestic relations tremendously rewarding and fascinating and when my predecessor left I applied for the facilitator position and was fortunately hired.
5. Please describe your judicial district.
As far as litigants of the district, Denver County is quite diverse. We cover the spectrum of socio-economic status and meet with individuals originally from countries covering the globe. No two cases are the same, which keeps the work interesting. I believe over 80% of litigants in Denver appear pro se. As far as working for the district, I am certainly biased, but I wouldn’t choose to work anywhere else. I think we have an excellent bench and dedicated staff and, as a facilitator, I feel very supported in my role.
6. Who are the judges who may be assigned to a domestic relations case?
Presently, our presiding judge in domestic is Judge Jennifer Torrington and the rest of the judges include Judge Christopher Baumann, Judge Jay Grant, and Judge Darryl Shockley. We also have two magistrates, Magistrate Karen Hubler and Magistrate Michal Lord-Blegen. Judge Baumann will be rotating out of domestic relations this coming July and Judge Elizabeth Starrs will be rotating into his spot. For the most part, new cases and filings within two years of permanent orders are addressed by a judge and filings more than two years after permanent orders are addressed by a magistrate.
7. Briefly describe your court facilitator process.
It depends on whether I’m meeting people for an initial status conference or a post-decree status conference and whether parties are represented. In an initial status conference, my role is to make sure cases are proceeding towards resolution as expeditiously as possible. I help confirm that the court has both subject-matter and personal jurisdiction, and bring that issue to the judge’s attention if jurisdiction is questionable, and alert the judge to needed experts such as a CFI or, occasionally, GAL. With pro se parties, I explain in detail the paperwork and case requirements and, in all cases, set either a hearing or follow up conference. If I am meeting with parties for a post-decree status conference, we discuss the disputed issue(s) and, if an agreement is reached, I draft the agreement for approval by the judge or magistrate.
8. When are meetings set with you?
Initial status conferences are scheduled by the courtroom clerks when parties or counsel call in to set (as required by the Case Management Order). At this point in time the facilitators are conducting all initial status conferences in Denver, whether parties are represented or unrepresented. Post-decree conferences are also set by the courtroom staff after the judge or magistrate has determined a post-decree conference may prove productive. Generally, if a post-decree conference is scheduled the clerk chooses an available date/time slot and sends out notice. With some exceptions, the judges and magistrates usually only order parties to appear for a post-decree status conference with a facilitator when each party is pro se.
9. How often are there follow-up meetings?
We often need to reset initial status conferences because the respondent has not been served or provided notice. Assuming there’s both proof of service and sufficient notice, we typically only hold one initial status conference. Occasionally, attorneys will request a follow-up conference because some issue is in negotiation or awaiting a ruling from the judge and it makes sense to hold a second conference once that issue has been resolved. With post-decree conferences, we typically only hold one conference and, if parties do not reach an agreement, set a hearing, though in certain cases a follow up status conference makes sense.
10. Do meetings need to occur in person or is telephone ok?
For initial status conference it is usually ok for parties to either appear in person or by telephone. If you or your client would like to appear by phone for a conference, please just call or email the facilitator you’re scheduled to meet with. It’s preferable that parties appear in person for a post-decree status conference so that they can sign a stipulated agreement, if one is reached.
11. Do all of the judges in Denver use the same Case Management Order?
We do have a standard pre-decree Case Management Order that is issued in all new cases. However, in the past some judges have issued their own supplemental pre-trial order. At this point in time, though, I do not believe any judges have a separate pre-trial order.
12. What happens when a party wants a temporary orders hearing or other emergency or expedited issue they want addressed?
It depends. For the most part, when parties are represented the judges require a written motion to identify the issues and allow the other party an opportunity to respond. There are occasions when the court will address issues immediately following a status conference, or without a written motion, but that happens very rarely.
13. What is the process to set permanent orders – both contested and uncontested – with and without counsel for both parties?
Again, it depends. Each courtroom has specific requests for how their dockets are set so it partly depends on the courtroom the case is assigned to. Permanent orders are usually scheduled at the initial status conference by the family court facilitator. For the most part, the judge must approve any settings longer than 1 day, i.e., the facilitator will not be able to set a hearing for more than 1 day, and some judges require a written motion for more than 1 day. Presently, in Courtroom 311, a notice to set outlining the issues and earliest feasible month for a permanent orders hearing is required for settings more than ½ day. In Denver, we essentially set every hearing as a potentially contested hearing to ensure parties and provided enough time on the docket to resolve any disputed issues. Cases involving attorneys tend to be set for a longer hearing than cases without attorneys.
14. What is the best thing about your job?
It is especially rewarding when I can help people work through a dispute in a post-decree conference and leave with a stipulated order. I also appreciate hearing I have alleviated some of the stress of the court process by helping people navigate the paperwork and process.
15. What makes you lose sleep at night?
My wife and I recently started watching The Wire and, if I watch an episode too close to bed, that tends to keep me up. That’s a bit of a joke but I think because I have been in this position for over 5 years, and meet with so many people, work doesn’t tend to keep me up at night. That said, there are some tremendously sad situations, especially when people use their children to seek revenge on each other, that get to me.
16. What is your pet peeve?
People who throw their cigarette butts on the ground.
17. What are common mistakes/frustrations that you have with attorneys?
There are certain attorneys that claim every case needs temporary orders, a PRE, and can’t possibly be set for a permanent hearing at the ISC. In certain cases that may be true but when those assertions become routine whenever that attorney is involved, it seems less about that specific family and more about that specific attorney. I think the other frustration is when attorneys seem flabbergasted that an opposing party would choose to proceed pro se. As facilitators, we have had attorneys ask us to instruct pro se parties that they need to, or should, hire counsel. That decision will always be up to the party and we are never going to instruct or advise someone to hire counsel; that’s not the role of the court. Also, if you look at the trends, the percentage of pro se litigants is only going to increase.
18. If you had three wishes for every family law attorney who comes before you, what would they be?
Please understand how much impact you have on the case. From my vantage point, good attorneys can help the parties deescalate a tense situation and work towards a resolution that acknowledges the parties will likely be in contact long after the attorney’s work is done. Bad attorneys do the opposite.
Please understand that, at the present time, in Denver your initial status conference will be with a family court facilitator and you will most likely be waiting because we set multiple conferences at the same time to keep the docket moving.
Please help your clients understand that you will not be in front of the judge the day of your initial status conference and temporary orders hearings will usually require a written motion and are usually reserved for the most egregious of circumstances. The reason Denver is reluctant to set temporary orders hearings is to keep the docket moving as quickly as possible.
19. What is your advice to attorneys handling domestic cases in Denver to make the process work as smoothly as possible?
Aside from my previous answer, my other advice is that we typically set the permanent orders hearing date at the initial status conference and, in most cases, are required by the bench to set the hearing within 6 months of filing.
20. If you could change anything about the way our current system works, what would it be?
This certainly isn’t an original thought but, in many cases, the adversarial process is not just unhelpful but is damaging to parties and their children. I don’t have a solution but, in a world where money is no object, I think some type of intensive “uncoupling” therapy would be helpful before people even start the legal process. I think there are a lot of emotional issues that are not legally relevant, and are therefore not addressed by the court process, but are certainly relevant to the parties and must be addressed for the parties to move forward in a healthy manner.
21. What is your passion?
Music. I am fortunate to be married to someone who shares this passion and a lot of our disposable income is contributed to live music venues.
22. What is the greatest joy in your life?
Spending time with friends and family.
23. What do you want to be when you grow up? Or, if that question doesn’t resonate with you, where do you see yourself in five years?
I really enjoy working for the judicial department so anticipate I will still be with judicial in five years.
24. What do you do for fun?
Listen to music, ski, hike, travel, read, cook and eat.