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Closed Courts No Barrier to New York Easing Its Case Backlog (1)

May 13, 2020, 10:05 PM

The legal system in New York, normally one of the busiest in the U.S., is starting to whittle away at the massive backlog of cases caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced indefinite shutdowns of state courts two months ago.

Since mid-April, judges have been using phone and video conferences to conduct hearings, resulting in settlements or plea agreements in about 13,000 cases, state officials said. Before then, almost all court activity had been halted by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stay-home order in mid-March. Trials remain on hold, and there’s still a ban on filing new “non-essential” lawsuits.

But it’s a good sign that some court business is starting to get done, said David Leach, a Syracuse-based partner at Goldberg Segalla, who specializes in construction-related litigation and labor and employment matters.

“For a period of time it looked like everything was coming to a halt,” Leach said. “When the stay-at-home order gets lifted, we were all envisioning just an avalanche of new cases, and the backlog would have to be worked down. To some extent, it is a relief to work down what you had, so hopefully, it won’t be as bad when we start up again.”

New York handles about 3.5 million new criminal and civil cases each year, according to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Court Administration. In 2019, the New York Supreme Court recorded 450,409 new civil case and logged dispositions in 483,880, shrinking its backlog, court records show.

To prevent the number of unresolved cases from getting too big this year, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judge Lawrence Marks, who heads the state court system, loosened some restrictions beginning April 13 and encouraged judges to use virtual meetings to work out settlements and plea agreements.

Some cases also may be sent to alternative-dispute resolution panels, and electronic filings were expanded for motions and applications. Virtual courts were used to handling pending cases such as for personal injury, business, matrimonial, trust and estates as well as felony criminal matters and family court disputes.

In a statement Wednesday, DiFiore and Marks announced plans to begin the gradual reopening of courts in 30 upstate counties next week, while maintaining some precautions including mandatory face masks and social distancing.

(Updates with plan to reopen some upstate courts next week.)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Patricia Hurtado in Federal Court in Manhattan at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
David Glovin at

Anthony Lin, Steve Stroth

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