Justice Knipel hospitalized with coronavirus
Clerks say the court has failed to take the threat seriously.
Less than a week after the legal community lost Justice Johnny Lee Baynes to the coronavirus, word started to spread that Justice Lawrence Knipel was in the hospital after he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Justice Knipel, administrative judge for the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term, is not on a ventilator, and the latest news from his wife is that his symptoms are improving.
The New York State Court Clerks Association said, however, that he never should have been exposed to virus in the first place and that neither the Kings County Supreme Court nor the Office of Court Administration are taking the threat seriously enough.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think they’ve done a good job protecting anybody at all,” Glenn Damato, president of the NYS Court Clerks Association, said. “I gave them a warning. I spoke to Judge Knipel on March 16 on the phone and I warned him. I went down the next day and spoke to him again in person.”
Damato said that the problem came after the court told all non-essential personnel to begin working from home but didn’t outline who exactly was or wasn’t essential. He said the lack of guidance coming from Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks on the issue left the door open for abuse.
“They ordered 70 clerks essential, and I personally got up early and went to 360 Adams St. (Supreme Court, Civil Term) to see what was going on,” Damato said. “I was shocked. Nobody was wearing any masks, I saw no gloves, people were working closely together, people who were not essential were brought in.”
Damato has also accused OCA of lying to the public when it comes to supplying employees with gloves, masks or hand sanitizer. Worse, when it became public that a lawyer who was inside 360 Adams St. had coronavirus, none of the staffers who worked in the courtrooms that he visited were notified.
“Financial considerations seem to be more important than the people of Brooklyn,” Damato said. “My concern from day one was the health and welfare of my members, and nobody heeded my warning, unfortunately. On March 16, we reached out, we waited for an edict, Judge Marks said only essential employees were to report to work, but of course essential is ambiguous.”
OCA has strongly denied the allegation that it is not providing essential employees with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.
“We determine who is essential, not a union president,” an OCA spokesperson told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We have, and continue to, pare down the size of the staff every day and are constantly re-evaluating as to what we need based on this rapidly changing and unprecedented situation.
“Today, statewide, all essential matters are being conducted virtually, further reducing the necessity for both the public and staff to be in the courthouse, all the while ensuring that court users are not denied their constitutional rights throughout.
“Additionally, every courthouse in New York City, and every open courthouse in New York State for that matter, has an ample supply of N95 masks, gloves and hand sanitizer for all court officers and clerical staff to avail themselves,” the spokesperson’s statement concluded.
Justice Knipel’s wife, Lori Knipel, wrote on Facebook on April 2 that her husband’s health was improving, but that he was still in the hospital hooked up to oxygen and being fed intravenously.
“He took his responsibilities very seriously and ignored my pleas to stay home,” she said. “The smooth running of the court and the preparation for shutdown fell on him. Everything I said fell on deaf ears because he was so dedicated and would never abandon his ship or his co-workers.”
While Knipel is unavailable, Justice Ellen Spodek, president of the Brooklyn Brandeis Society, was named interim administrative judge of Civil Supreme. She won’t be in 360 Adams St., though, because personnel from that court have moved to 320 Jay St. while the courthouse was being cleaned.
“I am hoping this is a short-term assignment, as we are all praying for Judge Knipel’s speedy recovery and return to work,” Spodek told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday.
Charles Small, the chief clerk at the Civil Supreme Court, was contacted by the Eagle on Monday and had no comment.
As the courts work on expanding virtual operations, Damato said that he and his members are afraid of how OCA is handling it. Arraignments that he saw at the Criminal Court located at 120 Schermerhorn St., he said, did not inspire confidence.
“I’ve seen live cams of arrangements at Schermerhorn Street, and there are too many people working still, on top of each other, without masks,” he said. “The supervising judge is being overbearing, they’re asking people to work through this. The judges aren’t there, of course, they’re working from home. It’s the clerks that are running the courthouse. People are going to get sick.”
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