The legal community was far from immune from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which forced courts to close their doors, oral arguments to be canceled and law firms to shutter their offices up and down the East Coast.
In some respects, Sandy was no match for the technology and continuity plans firms and courts have in place, and, in some instances, the sheer will of attorneys to close a deal. But what Sandy did take was time, causing backlogs in cases and potential prison overcrowding, Pennsylvania’s chief justice said.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille reported Tuesday that the biggest impact at that point from the storm for the state judiciary would be delays in cases from closing down prothonotaries’ offices and courthouses.
The storm will “hurt the system with less efficient disposition of cases,” Castille said.
For the appellate courts, the prothonotary for the Eastern and Middle Districts of Pennsylvania was closed Monday and Tuesday. The prothonotary for the Western District closed Tuesday, but not Monday. The First Judicial District also closed Monday and Tuesday.
Closing the courts has a huge impact, Castille said, because rescheduling cases, especially in high-volume Philadelphia, results in a ripple effect of delays. In terms of criminal cases, delays in those listings increase prison overcrowding and raise the likelihood that the system will run afoul of speedy trial rules for defendants, the chief justice said.
But the circumstances of an act of God, or force majeure, will likely make it so that delays attributable to storm Sandy can be excluded and not result in criminal defendants’ rights to speedy trials being violated or in civil plaintiffs running afoul of the statute of limitations, Castille said.
“In Philadelphia, you have a huge number of cases,” said Castille, the liaison justice to the FJD. “If you lose one day it takes a significant impact.”
As of midday Wednesday, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said it had not received reports from the state’s judicial districts that any president judges had implemented their rights under the judiciary’s continuity of operations plan under which the judges can request help from other counties or move trials to other counties.
The Philadelphia and Harrisburg offices of Pennsylvania’s trio of appellate courts were closed Monday and Tuesday. The Supreme and Commonwealth courts had no arguments scheduled for those days, but the Superior Court had to push back an argument session that was scheduled to take place in Philadelphia at Drexel University.
According to President Judge Correale F. Stevens, the court acted last Friday and pushed that panel’s session back until the end of November.
Among the matters on the argument list were a group of pharmaceutical cases over the applicability of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Pliva v. Mensing that ruled generic failure-to-warn drug claims are pre-empted by federal law.
The arguments scheduled to take place at Drexel will now be held at the end of the month in the court’s regular Philadelphia location. A different session will be heard at Drexel in the spring, Stevens said.
“I was hoping to be made a fool of,” Stevens joked Monday, referring to his pre-emptive decision at the end of last week.
The Mensing-related case wasn’t the only appellate case lingering in the courts during Sandy.
On Tuesday, exactly a week before Election Day, the state’s reply to a motion to enforce the injunction of Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law was due. The court was also closed that day.
“I’m not sure it matters,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which was among the public interest groups that brought a challenge to the law passed in March that would have required voters to present valid photo identification cards at the polls in November.
On October 2, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson enjoined the law from taking effect for the November 6 election. On October 19, the petitioners asked the court to require the state to amend its advertising campaign to make it clear to voters that they wouldn’t need an ID to vote in the upcoming election.
“He effectively denied the motion,” Walczak said of Simpson, when he declined to require the state to answer in short order.
“Even if he ordered them tomorrow to make changes,” Walczak said, “there just isn’t enough time” before the election. Walczak added that he doesn’t anticipate Simpson will find in the petitioners’ favor, anyway.
The state Attorney General’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment.
All three of the federal district courts in Pennsylvania were open for business on Wednesday, after having lost two days to the hurricane.
The last time that the Western District was faced with severe weather, as Pittsburgh was buried under two feet of snow, it fell at the end of the week, said Robert V. Barth Jr., the clerk of the court. When a storm comes at the start of the week, it throws off the court’s schedule, he said, noting that two trials were postponed due to Sandy.
One judge finished jury selection on Monday morning, before the court closed at 2 p.m., and had to put off the start of the trial while another judge was supposed to pick a jury on Tuesday. Jury selection in that case will wait nearly a full week, until November 5, because the Western District draws jurors from 13 counties, which may well have suffered damage, making transportation difficult.
Two trials were disrupted in the Eastern District as well, including the trial of alleged mob boss Joseph Ligambi, according to Michael E. Kunz, clerk of the court. Although the court was closed both Monday and Tuesday, Judge James Knoll Gardner, who was the emergency judge on duty, was at the court with his staff on those two days.
It’s “been quite some time” since the court had to close due to weather, Kunz said, adding that PACER was fully operational the whole time, so filings weren’t held up.
The Middle District, too, had to reschedule trials, sentencings and revocation hearings, said Mary E. D’Andrea, clerk of the court. All four of its division locations were closed on both Monday and Tuesday, with the building in Williamsport, Pa., having a leak in the roof, leading to some water damage, D’Andrea said. She had a tree branch go through her own kitchen window.
Many of the judges and other court employees either came in to work or did work from their homes, D’Andrea said, explaining, there was “still work going on despite the fact that the offices were closed.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Reed Smith’s offices were in “closed mode,” though staff could go in if they were able to get to the offices. The closure affected the firm’s Philadelphia; New York; Princeton, N.J.; Wilmington, Del.; Falls Church, Va.; and Washington locations.
Reed Smith personnel who had power and remote access were able to work remotely and the firm’s IT team enabled extra capacity for the increased load. Reed Smith’s Global Customer Centre located in Pittsburgh answered the telephones and handed other matters for the closed locations.
On Monday morning around 3:30 a.m., as firms were preparing to close, Reed Smith partner David Grimes and his team were putting the final touches on a $255 million deal in which client Pantheon Inc. agreed to purchase the stock of Banner Pharmacaps, a global specialty life sciences company with operations in the United States, Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands. And once that was inked, Grimes got a few hours of sleep and then began evacuating his Westport, Conn., home.
Grimes lives near the water and was told on Saturday he should evacuate no later than Sunday night. On Sunday afternoon, officials drove around town blowing an air horn and reinforcing their evacuation orders.
“I just didn’t have time to go anywhere,” Grimes said. So he stayed home and finished the deal, waking up opposing counsel at 3 a.m. to get things signed.
Grimes checked the weather and figured he could sleep for a few hours. He woke up, put water in the tubs, moved furniture as high as he could and left for a friend’s house four miles away before his road was closed at 11 a.m. Monday.
Reed Smith wasn’t the only firm to use headquarters and offices off of the coast to help back up locations in Sandy’s path.
Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney’s business continuity committee monitored the storm over the weekend and decided Sunday to close the firm’s New York, Newark, N.J., Princeton, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Washington and Virginia offices until further notice. That closure was in effect Tuesday as well and all offices reopened Wednesday.
The lawyers and other client service professionals in those offices were able to work remotely. Buchanan Ingersoll said lawyers and staff from unaffected locations were able to assist, allowing the firm to service clients even when multiple offices were closed.
Dechert was also forced to close multiple locations, affecting more than half of the firm’s attorneys. The firm said Monday that it decided the night before to close the Washington, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York, Boston and Hartford, Conn., offices. Those offices remained closed Tuesday. The firm’s lawyers have the ability to work remotely.
Drinker Biddle & Reath closed its offices in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Princeton, Florham Park, N.J., Washington and New York both Monday and Tuesday.
The firm’s Princeton office was still without power Wednesday and remained closed. The New York office was closed Wednesday due to mass transit issues. Its Florham Park location didn’t regain power until the middle of the night Wednesday, after the firm already said the office would be closed Wednesday. Drinker Biddle said some lawyers and staff made their way in when they heard power was back on.
Drinker Biddle said a number of lawyers and staff were working remotely during the closings and the administrative staff, IT team and others in the Chicago and West Coast offices were serving the firm as a whole.
In Newark, Pittsburgh-based K&L Gates closed its office indefinitely; the neighborhood was strewn with fallen trees and power lines and without functioning traffic lights, according to Legal affiliate The National Law Journal.
“It is really hard to get around,” R. Spencer Lane, director of the security and business continuity, told the NLJ. The firm, which has 44 attorneys in Newark, was renting conference center space in a nearby Hilton hotel for attorneys who needed it.
The NLJ also reported that Duane Morris closed its offices in Wilmington, Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, N.J. A large tree was down on the main road near the Cherry Hill office, closing a portion of that road for days as power crews worked to restore downed lines.
The Philadelphia office has reopened, Duane Morris told The Legal, but the Newark and Cherry Hill locations were still closed as of Wednesday afternoon due to power outages.
The storm and its effects didn’t stop Philadelphia partner Richard Silfen and his team from closing Tuesday an initial public offering for Lehigh Gas Partners. The team was at the firm’s Philadelphia office during the weekend and through Tuesday. •