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E-filing expands in some counties, not others

By: Denise M. Champagne//October 3, 2013

E-filing expands in some counties, not others

By: Denise M. Champagne//October 3, 2013//

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The electronic filing of civil court documents is expanding in upstate counties, with Erie County Supreme Court adding mandatory filing this week for all contract, commercial and tort actions.

Onondaga County is planning to go mandatory with certain case types Jan. 1, while Monroe County is seeking to integrate its own system with the state’s, according to Ronald Younkins, executive director of the state Office of Court Administration.

Erie County has been on e-filing for more than a year, said Erie County Supreme Court Justice Paula L. Feroleto, administrative judge of the eight-county Eighth Judicial District.

She noted the county began mandatory filing of mortgage foreclosures involving real property on April 15 and, on July 1, added Commercial Division matters, medical, dental and podiatric malpractice cases; tax certiorari cases; and asbestos cases.

The addition this week also includes all other foreclosure proceedings with the exception of in rem tax foreclosures.

Daniel J. Marren, Justice Feroleto’s confidential law clerk, said that pretty much includes everything except Election Law cases, matrimonial, mental hygiene, Article 78 proceedings and certain real property actions.

Also not included are Family Court matters, Buffalo City Court and criminal matters.

“We’re the first upstate county to become mandatory,” Marren said. “Westchester is similar in size to Erie and we’ve traveled to Westchester to see their operation and see how they do things. That was a good help.”

He said Erie is also working on programs with other counties in the district, but does not have anything in place yet, although Niagara County has indicated an interest in beginning e-filing for civil matters and being a possible pilot for criminal.

Marren said a lot of the success of Erie County’s e-filing program was with the help of County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs, his staff including Deputy Clerk Patricia L. Fulwiler; Erie County Supreme Court Justice John M. Curran; Ellis Bozzolo, chief clerk, Erie Supreme and County courts; and the OCA, including Jeffrey Carucci, statewide coordinator for electronic filing.

Erie County uses the New York State Courts Electronic Filing System, known as NYSCEF. So does Onondaga County, which Younkins said will be seeking to go mandatory in all Supreme and civil case types in 2014.

Jan. 1, to be precise, according to Onondaga County Clerk Sandra A. Schepp, who said that will include the cases they have been filing on a voluntary basis since March: Torts, consumer claims, tax certiorari and non-commercial credit.

She has been working with Supreme Court Justice James C. Tormey III, administrative judge of the six-county Fifth Judicial District.

“We’re using the NYSCEF system,” Schepp said. “That has worked well. As we keep progressing along and everybody gets more friendly with the system, we’ll keep adding and slowly build the system. I think the attorneys will see the biggest benefit is they will be able to work from the comfort of their office.”

She said the county benefits in terms of less storage; that it currently files more than 240,000 documents a year, some of which are huge.

Justice Tormey said the county, as did Erie, has had training sessions for the lawyers that have been well attended. In conjunction with the local bar associations, each county was also able to offer continuing legal education credits.

“I think it’s been well received and I think there will be some benefits,” he said, starting with the ease in which attorneys will be able to file documents any time of day from anywhere.

“Plus, it saves the lawyers a lot of time and inconvenience,” Justice Tormey said. “It also saves the court a lot of time and money.”

In addition, he said documents can be served via the Internet, filing fees can be paid online at any time, it greatly decreases or eliminates copying fees, and it creates an electronic file easily accessible to the public, with the exception of sealed records.

“We’re really getting into the modern age with this,” Judge Tormey said. “We’re really happy with it. We think it’s going to be terrific. It’s a step forward for the whole practice of law.”

Erie and Monroe counties have been leaders in the state in terms of e-filing of Surrogate’s Court documents with Erie being the first, under the leadership of Judge Barbara Howe. Monroe leads the eight-county Seventh Judicial District in being the first entire district in the state to have mandatory e-filing of Surrogate’s Court documents, with a few exceptions, as of April 30. Younkins said Chautauqua County Surrogate’s Court, in the Eighth Judicial District, is also mandatorily filing its court documents.

Surrogate’s Court documents, however, are managed by their own clerks while the county clerk is the clerk of the Supreme and County courts, responsible for maintaining those records.

“Every county has its own system for the management of records,” Younkins said. “They’re all automated systems. One of the key pieces of any implementation is integrating and syncing up the e-filing system and the county clerk system so there is the transfer of information and the transfer of data. Each county clerk’s system poses its own issues with integration of the systems.”

Monroe County Clerk Cheryl Dinolfo said the county has been working cooperatively with the Office of Court Administration in developing a system that would be used as a prototype, not just for Monroe, but for any county that would like the documents to continue to be filed directly through the county clerk’s office.

She said many other counties, such as Livingston, Tompkins and Cayuga, are also interested in filing court documents with the country clerk that would replicate the way they are filed currently in accordance with civil practice.

The state has yet to approve Monroe County’s system. Younkins said it comes down to the interface of the two systems, the county’s and the state’s, making sure everything is reliable from a user’s perspective and that everything is uniform and seamless.

“I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress with regard to transfer of information, transfer of documents,” he said. “The issues, at this point I think, relate to the uniformity of experience in terms of what screens the user sees.”

Dinolfo said under the state legislation approving e-filing of court documents, expansion is not allowable without the complete approval of the county clerks and that many believe a system with documents coming from the county clerk’s office provides a greater level of accountability and direct local contact with constituents.

“We also believe it is a system that best supports the constitutional role of the county clerk,” Dinolfo said.

She cited computer failures in several state-run systems Tuesday as millions of people tried to access health care exchanges to sign up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, saying people were sorely disappointed.

“When we have services at the local level, we can ensure customers are fully served to the best of our ability,” she said, noting Monroe has successfully demonstrated its system to the Office of Court Administration in terms of successfully exchanging documents.

“We are awaiting further instructions as to any area they would like to have changed,” Dinolfo said. “We are trying to work cooperatively with the Office of Court Administration to ensure that their wishes are fulfilled. I would like to say we are hopeful that the Office of Court Administration will continue to work with the counties that are interested in providing e-filing through the county clerk’s office.”

Judge Craig Doran, administrative judge of Seventh Judicial District, points to the success of Surrogate’s Court e-filing which he said is going very well.

“I am a big proponent of electronic filing and expanding every way we can,” he said, acknowledging Surrogate’s Court was easier because it had its own clerk.

Judge Doran said the OCA, in 2010, agreed to allow county clerks to build their own e-filing systems if they complied with the statutory rules and regulations. He said what is taking so much time is getting the county clerk’s system to meet the specifications of the court system.

He said the screens, in terms of appearance in what users see, have to exactly mirror the NYSCEF system.

Judge Doran said he, Supreme Court Justice Matthew Rosenbaum and the OCA have spent “hundreds of hours” working with Dinolfo and her staff in getting the two systems to work together.

Neither he, Younkins nor Dinolfo could project when an agreement might be in place.

“It’s not for lack of putting forth effort that this hasn’t happened yet,” Judge Doran said. “It’s technologically more challenging than I would have anticipated getting her system to exactly mirror the OCA system, the NYSCEF. For so many reasons, it’s the way to go. It continues to be a high priority for me.”

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