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As virtual court operations expand, state ban on filing new civil cases irks attorneys

The parking lot for the state Supreme Court

The parking lot for the state Supreme Court building in Mineola is deserted on March 20. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A prohibition on filing new court cases during the coronavirus pandemic is irking some attorneys who handle civil litigation in New York, even as the state court system rolls out an expansion of virtual operations that will allow judges to consider some nonemergency matters.

By judicial order in mid-March, all nonessential functions of the state’s court system were postponed until further notice for safety reasons during the COVID-19 crisis before judges began handling emergency matters using Skype technology.

But some attorneys say the most recent modification to procedures in which judges can hold conferences in pending cases that include civil matters that are deemed a priority doesn’t go far enough to relieve the backlog of proceedings.

They also say it doesn’t offer relief to people who could benefit from new filings because they are suffering with problems that include child visitation and monetary support issues.

Sari Friedman, a Garden City-based attorney who practices matrimonial and family law, said she doesn’t see any reason why lawyers aren’t allowed to file new cases online when e-filing technology exists.

“I get social distancing … But why is anybody unsafe if you e-file a summons and a complaint? You could have one clerk there,” she said of court operations.

In the meantime, Friedman said it’s been “bedlam” when it comes to violations of child visitation orders and missed support payments.

Other people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus and need to try to get a downward adjustment of the monetary support they pay former spouses, she said.

“This can’t continue. There are people that are in awful situations … How long do you tell the public … ‘You have to wait.’ ”

Attorney Harry Kutner Jr., a solo practitioner based in Garden City who handles personal injury and civil rights litigation, said it “doesn’t make any sense” why the court system isn’t accepting new filings.

“That’s done all electronically and you don’t need any people involved. So what’s the big deal? They’re going to have a tidal wave when it restarts,” he added.

Nassau Administrative Judge Norman St. George, during a virtual town hall meeting the county’s Bar Association hosted Wednesday, said he didn’t know when the ban on filing new cases would end.

“It could take a while, so we ask for your patience with respect to that,” he said.

Nassau’s top judge added that the next phase of court operations would involve further expanding the scope of cases judges will handle virtually and acknowledged that many pending legal matters had stalled.

“We know that there will be a huge backlog of cases to address and so we’re putting systems in place now to be able to address that,” St. George said.

He added it was “clear that the priority of the governor and the chief judge has been to keep everyone safe and limit the further spread of the coronavirus.”

Attorney Stephen Gassman, who recently represented former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato in matrimonial and child custody proceedings, said the expansion of virtual proceedings in nonemergency cases was a positive step as the prohibition on new cases remains in place.

“Obviously it’s not a panacea but at least cases will start moving under very difficult circumstances,” the Garden City attorney said.

Attorney Thomas Foley, who handles wrongful death and personal injury cases from his Garden City-based law firm, said “certainly there is a level of frustration in not being able to pursue” new cases, but he’s been moving forward by concentrating on depositions in ongoing cases.

State courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said that in the past month, court officials have "deliberately, methodically and carefully” reimagined what he called the nation’s busiest court system — with 3.5 million annual filings.

“While our technology people have done nothing short of miraculous moving the court system to a virtual model almost overnight, resources are not unlimited,” he added, while referencing the expansion of judicial conferences in nonessential matters as another sign of progress.

“We are working on the next steps and they will be rolled out incrementally in the coming days,” Chalfen also said.

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