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Court Declares a Settlement Week to Clear Old Caseload

The Western District Court of New York is one of the most congested courts in the country, receiving over 3,000 filings annually with individual judges’ caseloads at nearly 800. To reduce a long backlog of unresolved lawsuits, Chief Judge Frank P. Geraci, Jr., revived a mediation strategy not used by the court since 1995: a settlement week.

The idea of a settlement week is simple, a court designates a week to bring civil litigants and mediators into the courthouse to resolve their disputes, saving valuable time and money for the parties, and for the court.  

“I was once a civil litigator myself, so I understand the frustrations lawyers and clients face when they are paying fees and stuck waiting to have their disputes resolved,” said Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford, who served as the chair of the program’s planning committee. “It’s easy for litigants and attorneys to become entrenched in a lawsuit to the point where it’s too difficult for them to create an open dialogue on their own. Settlement Week brings parties back to the table and puts control of the decision in their hands.”

The Constitution guarantees a speedy trial for criminal defendants, but not for civil cases, which means that lawsuits often take longer to resolve. While federal courts all possess some form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program to offer litigants less costly alternatives to trial, the Western District of New York is among the few to attempt a full-scale settlement week to resolve multiple civil cases at one time.

“Mediation has proven to be an effective tool for resolving cases, and this initiative will hopefully assist us in our constant struggle to keep up with the increasing caseload,” Chief Judge Geraci, Jr., said. 

During two weeklong sessions at the district courthouses in Buffalo from Oct. 30, 2017, to Nov. 8, 2017, and Rochester from Nov. 13, 2017, to Nov. 22, 2017, the court referred 89 cases for possible resolution. The court targeted older cases on the docket. It also hired trained mediators and offered free legal representation for self-filing parties during sessions at the courthouse.

Nineteen of the 89 cases reached a resolution as a direct result of Settlement Week.

“I was skeptical when I first heard of the court’s plan to host in-house mediation,” said Hugh Russ, a private attorney who served as a mediator during the Buffalo Settlement Week. “It sounded like an imposition on the part of the court that wouldn’t produce results much different from off-site mediation.  However, after participating in Settlement Week, I saw that parties responded to the court’s interest in their cases by coming to the courthouse prepared and serious about opening up the lines of communication necessary to reach a resolution.”

 “The entire process was very smooth; the court gave us all the time we needed to come to an agreement with the other party,” said Richard Saraf, an attorney who attended the Rochester Settlement Week. “In early mediation attorneys often try to intimidate each other because there is still ambiguity in the case. Once you’ve gone through the discovery process the strengths and weaknesses of each side become much more apparent, making it easier for parties to come to terms with settlement.”

The court will conduct a thorough evaluation of the program in the coming months to determine how settlement weeks can be used in the future.

“Planning our first Settlement Week was certainly a time intensive project, since several moving pieces were involved,” Judge Wolford said. “However, it should be a relatively simple program to replicate now that we have a clear roadmap.”

Related Topics: District Courts