A victim of its own success, the Manhattan Supreme Court, in the words of one judge, has turned into a "Mecca" for New Yorkers seeking divorces.
And the great majority of the couples who file in Manhattan don't even live in the borough.
For years, attorneys and large-volume divorce preparers—called "divorce mills" by some judges— have flocked to 60 Centre St., attracted by the court's convenience to their offices and its reputation for ending marriages more quickly than anywhere else.
Now, however, Manhattan divorce judges are seeking support for a change in state law that would allow them to turn away couples who have no ties to the borough.
Although Manhattan had only an estimated 8.3 percent of the state's population last year, its 13,519 uncontested divorces were 29.3 percent of the statewide total.
Within the city, Manhattan had 55.3 percent of all uncontested divorces according to the Office of Court Administration, but had only 19.4 percent of its population.
The great majority of divorces in New York City—87.9 percent last year—are uncontested, but Manhattan's 911 contested divorces, representing 26.9 percent of the total, also set the pace for the city.
Many lawyers with offices in Manhattan in close proximity to the courthouse naturally gravitate there. But even attorneys who are based elsewhere send their divorce business to Manhattan.
"We know what they want in Manhattan," said Jayson Lutzky, an attorney who has an office in the Bronx but files many divorces in Manhattan. "It's a matter of trust and familiarity."
"They're just very efficient," said Daniel Yaniv of Yaniv & Associates, who has offices in Rockland County and Manhattan, a fact that keeps clients satisfied.
"Most of my clients are contacting me, and asking 'how quickly can I be divorced?'" said Yaniv. "We're all looking out for our clients. As long as it's legal, we're going to do what's needed to help our clients."
Pamela Sloan, chair of the New York State Bar Association's Family Law Section, praises the administration of the Manhattan court.
"More is expected of judges and special referees in Manhattan," said Sloan, a partner at Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan in Manhattan, and that "absolutely inures to the benefits of the attorney and the client."
But she added that the Manhattan judges are "clearly unfairly burdened" by being saddled with so many cases from outside their home boroughs.
Justice Sherry Klein Heitler (See Profile), the administrative judge of Manhattan's civil term, said that the divorce judges "feel strongly" that state law should be changed to insure that at least one of the parties seeking a divorce resides within the borough. And she said she hopes that "extraordinary" divorce statistics will help make that case.
Of 539 uncontested divorce cases filed in Manhattan between May 27 and June 7 of this year, neither the husband nor the wife lived in Manhattan in 71.2 percent of the cases, according to a survey by the staff of Justice Matthew Cooper (See Profile) requested by the Law Journal.
Moreover, in 70 percent of the cases, neither the husband, the wife or any children lived in Manhattan.
Cooper said that the largest percentage of cases in the survey were divorces where both husband and wife lived in Brooklyn or Queens. Divorces were filed in Manhattan even where attorneys or preparers had offices in Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens.
The judge pointed out that CPLR 503 (a) provides that the place of trial for civil actions, including marital actions, is "the county in which one of the parties resided when it was commenced."
But he said that divorce litigants have been able to use CPLR 509 to trump this seemingly clear venue requirement. That section requires that the place of trial is up to the plaintiff, "notwithstanding" other provisions of the CPLR article, unless it is changed to another county "by order or upon motion."
Here, Cooper was able to grant the wife's motion to reject her husband's bid for a Manhattan venue. But if there is no motion for change of venue—as there is not in virtually all uncontested cases—the judge is powerless to act on her own.
As a result, Cooper observed in his decision, Manhattan judges, clerks and court staff "are called upon to deal with a veritable tsunami of divorce filings for people who live in every borough of this city and every county in this state," taking time from cases involving people who "actually live in New York County."
And the problem has only gotten worse, Cooper said in an interview. According to OCA, the number of uncontested filings has increased from 11,673 in 2008 to 13,512 last year. (Staff who work with divorces said that OCA has undercounted and that the real figure for 2012 was 14,405).
Cooper said that the increase in uncontested divorces, coupled with the budget-driven reductions in court staff of recent years, have increased to five to six months the time it takes to turn around an uncontested divorce, compared to the six weeks of a few years ago.
Even with that increase, however, attorneys say Manhattan retains a significant advantage.
Yaniv, for example, said that uncontested divorces his firm files in the Bronx can take as long as a year to resolve. Queens is inconsistent, Yaniv said
The figure for Brooklyn, the city's most populous borough, is eight to 10 months, although that has been improving, Yaniv said. Justice Lawrence Knipel, the borough's administrative judge for civil matters, said the court has added personnel, and "we are making a lot of progress."
Reflecting its greater workload, Manhattan has more people assigned to divorces—six regular Supreme Court judges, two part-time "hybrid" judges, one part-time Family Court judge and two part-time judicial hearing officers.
OCA says Brooklyn now has four Supreme Court judges and four hybrid judges processing divorces; the Bronx, two judges; Queens, four judges and one JHO; and Staten Island, three judges. In Queens, uncontested divorces not involving children are shared among judges throughout the court.
Court attorney referees also are assigned to divorces, although not exclusively. Manhattan has eight, the Bronx four, Brooklyn two, Queens three and Staten Island three. The figures do not include courtroom staff.
'It Never Stops'
Frequently, obtaining a divorce judgment is not the end of the road for litigants and court personnel. Post-judgment issues usually must be resolved in the venue where the judgment was granted.
That presents another challenge for Manhattan judges.
Changes in circumstances can open up divorce terms in contested as well as uncontested cases, but Justice Lori Sattler, who runs the Manhattan court's post-judgment part, said that a majority of the matters she hears involve once uncontested divorces and most of those cases are brought by people with no ties to Manhattan.
"It never stops," she said.
Litigants who have paid $400 to $500, plus court fees, for a cheap uncontested divorce may find themselves litigating unresolved issues involving property or children. Some parties claim they have never been served and are surprised that they have been divorced at all.
In most cases, litigants will have paid only for the basic uncontested divorce, a fact that attorneys and divorce preparers say they stress to their clients.
To deal with post-judgment issues, parties must spend additional money for an attorney or bring their motions pro se.
And they usually must travel to Manhattan, where the judgment has been granted, to untangle the situation. Cooper remembers one litigant who had to take a 4 a.m. bus from Orange County to make her Manhattan court dates.
"We're here," said Sattler. "We're happy to do the work, but I feel very sorry for some of the parties who are stuck coming into New York County."
"Litigants should not have to travel to appear in a court in a county where neither party resides if an uncontested divorce action becomes contested," agrees Justice Laura Drager (See Profile). "Unfortunately, our present law may require that result."
Sometimes court personnel are surprised to discover that children have been produced in these fractured unions. That fact is often not mentioned in initial divorce papers.
Manhattan judges complain that makes their job harder because they and the attorneys appointed to represent the children may not be knowledgeable about schools, counseling and other services available for children outside of Manhattan.
"We have to pass judgment on things outside our world," said Cooper.
Family Court in the litigants' home counties has the power to resolve child support, visitation and similar issues. But Cooper said that Family Court staff in the city often refuse to accept cases from Supreme Court, citing as their authority a policy instituted several years ago by then-Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau.
Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson (See Profile), the city's Family Court administrative judge, said the policy in question was promulgated to help her court deal with its crushing workload by requiring that all post-judgment motions be heard in Supreme Court for at least 18 months after the judgment.
But she pointed out that the memo in which it is outlined applies only to contested divorces, adding that Family Court was not reluctant to take on problems that emerge in uncontested cases.
Sattler said she has a good working relationship with Family Court judges, although she acknowledged that there are "coordination issues" between the two courts.
Proposals for Reform
After Cooper's decision in Castenada, Drager and John Werner, the Manhattan civil term's chief clerk, drafted a bill to give courts the authority on their own initiative to change venue to a county where a parent or a minor child of the marriage resides or in which the child resided within six months of commencement of the action. The proposed law would not affect the venue of divorce actions in which there is no child involved.
Cooper said that the proposal drew a cool reception when it was circulated in the court system's advisory committee on civil practice. "My understanding is that the committee's primary concern was that it might be inconvenient for some attorneys if they were required to file divorces in a county where one of the parties or the children reside," he said.
George Carpinello of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the chairman of the advisory committee, said the group had taken no formal position on the proposal, but the general view was that there was "probably a very good reason why people go to Manhattan"—the convenience of the parties.
As long as the parties consent, Carpinello said committee members didn't see a legitimate reason for restricting the location of divorce filings. However, he acknowledged that the involvement of children presents "significantly different" issues.
Erie County Supreme Court Justice Sharon Townsend (See Profile), chair of the Unified Court System's matrimonial practice committee, said that unfettered filing of divorces creates problems that are not confined to Manhattan.
At least one Manhattan attorney, for reasons she said she doesn't understand, often files divorces in Buffalo, petitions that are "fraught with problems," she said.
Sloan, of the state bar committee, said Manhattan divorce attorneys sometimes file "celebrity" divorces far upstate to avoid publicity.
Townsend's committee has not taken any position on the Manhattan judges' complaints, but she said she has asked a subcommittee to study possible reforms.
"I think there are problems with the way the [current] law is written," she said.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan judges are upping the ante. Several recently met with Manhattan divorce attorney R. Kenneth Jewell to draft a bill for submission to state bar committees that review changes in family law and the CPLR.
In the latest version of the Manhattan reform, the judges would have the authority to change venue in all cases, not just those involving children.
Such a proposal would be difficult to get through the Legislature. In addition to the skepticism of many attorneys, some legislators may be hostile because they believe it would make it harder to obtain a divorce.
But, Jewell said, "there is strong unanimous support by all six Manhattan matrimonial judges" for the change.
@|Jeff Storey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.