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New Jersey law firms and court officials are altering their routines and devising new ones to make up for disruptions in mail service and to counter the risk of anthrax contamination. They are taking extra precautions in opening mail, relying more on e-mail, express mail and courier services to ensure the receipt of important and time-sensitive documents — and chasing down missing checks. Mercer County has been especially hard hit. A regional mail processing center in Hamilton, N.J., has been closed since Oct. 18, when a worker was diagnosed with skin anthrax. Four other cases of anthrax have been confirmed among employees of the center, which also handles mail from parts of New Jersey’s Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex and Burlington counties. Post offices in West Windsor and West Trenton, N.J., remained closed as of the end of last week because of possible contamination, adding to mail delays. Local firms saw their mail dwindle to a trickle. “Our mail is virtually zero. We’re getting only one or two pieces a day,” says Robert Ramsey, a partner with Hamilton’s Donini & Ramsey. Administrator Paul Blankman of Princeton’s Stark & Stark says the firm got no mail from the Princeton post office for the first three days of last week. Neither did Markowitz, Gravelle & Schwimmer in Lawrenceville, N.J. “We haven’t got mail for several days,” says partner Linda Schwimmer. What hurts is that fee checks are in the mail. Robert Basco Jr., managing partner at Princeton’s Hill Wallack, says cash flow has “slowed down significantly.” “I had a day last week where we made $75,” he says. “That’s the first time that that’s happened.” Basco says that hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail have been locked up in the Hamilton center for more than two weeks. “We’re aware of large checks that clients have said they’ve sent to us that we presume are just sitting there,” says Basco. He is also worrying about payments mailed by clients to third parties that have not been received. Blankman says lawyers at Stark & Stark are trying to track down the missing money. “The personal injury group knows what checks are out and are following up with the insurance carriers when we should have received the check by now,” he adds. “The hourly side is looking at bills outstanding and clients’ payment history.” Where it appears a check was sent but not received, the firm is asking for the checks to be resent by express mail or other means. COURTS ALSO FEEL IMPACT Mercer County Trial Court Administrator Jude Del Preore says he has heard complaints that child support checks have not been received in time. He says his office is trying to get a handle on what mail at Hamilton may be court-related. “Our fear is that we might have court notices held up there. We’re going slow with default judgments before we determine if service was effectuated.” West Windsor solo practitioner William Anklowitz says he was in court last Tuesday when he learned that neither the judge nor opposing counsel had received the notice he had mailed on Sept. 23. He says the judge’s reaction was, “We have to expect that these days.” Most lawyers have stepped up their use of express mail services, e-mail, faxes, couriers and hand-deliveries. Blankman says lawyers who need to file arrange for other lawyers going to court to take packages down in person. Schwimmer says clients have also been coming in to drop off documents. Mark Manta of West Trenton’s Manta and Weige says that when the Hamilton mail center was closed, “we contacted all our clients and all attorneys in cases we were dealing with and told them that service in the future should only be by fax, e-mail or overnight mail. As far as court notices, we have called the courts on cases we’re involved in to see if anything’s appeared on the docket.” Trenton lawyer Daniel Graziano says his firm, Brotman, Graziano & Hubert, now arranges to pick up settlement checks instead of relying on the mail. It is also adding to all correspondence the following: “Please note that due to the difficulty we are having with mail in this region, the quickest way to communicate with this office is via facsimile or email … . Thank you for your cooperation during this time period.” Ramsey, who writes for West Publishing Co. in Minnesota, says the company expressed concern about receiving mail out of Trenton and he has taken to e-mailing manuscript submissions. He says he has also been harmed because he uses direct mail solicitation for his municipal court practice. With mail not getting through and people wary of opening unsolicited mail, new clients have fallen off dramatically. For mail that does reach its destination, different treatment is in order these days. An Oct. 18 memorandum from Administrative Director of the Courts Richard Williams to judiciary staff requires central screening, use of sealed containers for distribution and a second screening on receipt because “only the recipient knows what is normal for his/her office.” Verification must be obtained for mail that is deemed “suspicious” on account of handwritten addresses, misspellings, incorrect titles, excessive postage or other listed characteristics. Additional protocols in the memo specify what is to be done where verification cannot be obtained or where powder spills out of a suspect envelope. The attorney general’s office, which occupies the Hughes Justice Complex along with the Administrative Office of the Courts, is using similar safeguards. Thomas O’Reilly, the administrator, says the office is moving, on a facility-by-facility basis, toward the centralization of all opening of mail and is training staff and supervisors in the new procedures. An X-ray machine shared with the AOC and the public defender’s office is being used to scan packages. Visitors to the Hughes complex are also now required not only to pass through a magnetometer — like the machines long used throughout New Jersey -� but will also have to show photo identification, says O’Reilly. If they don’t have that, two forms of ID or a call by the security guard to the office being visited will be necessary to gain entry. Roger Shatzkin, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, says the office had a scare on Oct. 24 when a white powdery substance was found in mail opened by a Department of Elections employee working in the Hughes complex. An emergency response team was called, and building staff shut down the heating and ventilation system. A press release last Tuesday by New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer Jr. announced that the powder had tested negative for anthrax. Del Preore says he is doing everything in the AOC memo “and then some” to protect against potentially contaminated mail. Gloves, masks and waterless hand sanitizers have been distributed, and mail surfaces and bins are wiped down daily with disinfectant. Del Preore says he is trying to work out with the county a way to buy a second X-ray machine for letters and packages. The machine would be able to detect anthrax that is bunched up inside an envelope, he says. Law firms vary in their approach. The Princeton office of Florham Park, N.J.’s Drinker Biddle & Shanley is using gloves and masks to sort mail at separate tables, and plastic bags are on hand to seal suspect pieces, according to managing partner Jonathan Epstein. A few suspicious-looking pieces have tested negative. Basco says his firm is “trying to take a commonsense approach to the mail.” He says he has discussed with mailroom personnel the recommended protocols and is leaving the rest to their judgment. Anklowitz is taking an ad hoc approach. “I’m looking at the mail more closely to see if there is anything wacky,” he says. Hand-addressed envelopes — of the type sometimes received from inmates seeking counsel — now “get laid aside,” he comments. One Lawrenceville, N.J., firm declines comment on its safety measures, saying, “Everyone’s a little bit nervous” and “we don’t want to be mentioned. We want to stay very low, beneath the radar.” Court Clerk William Walsh of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey did not return calls seeking information on what security measures, if any, have been implemented in the federal courts. According to U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesman Tony Esposito, the mail at the Hamilton mail center is being placed in plastic bags and removed from the building for transport by tractor-trailer to a separate unspecified location where electron-beam technology will be used to kill any bacteria. With six tractor-trailers filled so far and as many as six more to be filled, Esposito estimates it will take probably at least a couple of weeks before the mail reaches addressees. The problems now confronting Mercer County attorneys might soon be shared by colleagues elsewhere in New Jersey. Suspected anthrax in an employee at another regional processing center, in Bellmawr, shut that facility last Wednesday and as of Friday, it was still closed. Located in Camden County, the center serves all of southern New Jersey. Employees are also trying to close the Monmouth Processing and Distribution Center in Eatontown, N.J., because of suspected contamination. Last Thursday, Judge Anne Thompson of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a union request for a temporary restraining order against the U.S. Postal Service to shut the building pending test results.

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