Judge Knipel discusses Supreme Court changes after Covid

October 19, 2022 Rob Abruzzese
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When Justice Lawrence Knipel took over as the administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court in 2013, he said there were approximately 14,000 pending, non-commercial foreclosure cases. Over the years, he and the justices of Brooklyn worked hard to get that number down to approximately 5,500 just prior to COVID.

Of course, during COVID there was a moratorium on foreclosure cases under then Governor Andrew Cuomo putting a pause on everything. Many expected that when those cases finally returned that there would be a huge backlog of people who lost their houses during the pandemic.

At least here in Brooklyn, Justice Knipel said, foreclosure cases are actually down post-pandemic.

“Prior to COVID, we were down to 5,500 non-commercial foreclosures and even though we started up again and I expected a tidal wave of new filings,” Justice Knipel said. “Except we’re down to 4,000 today, which is a virtual historic low in Brooklyn for the number of pending foreclosures.

“We hit on the right formula,” Knipel explained. “Judge Cenceria Edwards does the vast majority of owner-occupied foreclosures. She’s fulltime and dedicated just to foreclosures. She has a big staff now and is moving them along. Judge Larry Martin is helping out with motion practice on some of that and Judge Mark Partnow does the non-owner occupied cases.”

Justice Knipel explained all of this at a recent meeting of the Columbian Lawyers Association of Brooklyn in Coney Island on Wednesday, October 12 where he lectured the members on many of the changes in the Kings County Supreme Court since COVID.

Justice Lawrence Knipel, the administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term, explained that foreclosure cases are down in the borough and he also touched on other changes to the courts since the COVID-19 pandemic during a recent meeting of the Columbian Lawyers Association of Brooklyn. Justice Knipel (left) is pictured here with CLA President Salvatore Scibetta. Eagle photo by Robert Abruzzese

Columbian Lawyers President, Salvatore Scibetta, was impressed with some of the things Justice Knipel addressed.

“Judge Knipel is a long-time friend of the Association and a dear personal friend of mine,” Scibetta said. “Having him address the organization, and give us a rundown on the latest going on in the court, was both insightful and informative. He runs an efficient courthouse and communicates with the local bar associations in a constructive way.”

Scibetta said that he was impressed with the number of jury trials the Supreme Court, Civil Term, is able to host — as of Labor Day, Justice Knipel said that there have been 235 jury verdicts in the Civil Term, compared to Manhattan which has had only 91, and Queens which is at about 25, according to Justice Knipel.

Justice Knipel explained that his courthouse has been able to conduct so many trials despite being technically short handed on judges.

There have been 12 newly elected Supreme Court judges in Brooklyn this year. However, Knipel explained, of those 12, two were re-elected, and of those remaining 10, three were already sitting in the Civil Term, and two in the Criminal Term, as “acting” Supreme Court Justices, which means the court is only actually getting five new judges.

On top of that, three judges, Hon. Lara Genovesi, Hon. Lillian Wan, and Hon. Deborah Dowling, were promoted to the Appellate Division, and four others left to work in different boroughs. At least one judge is currently planning their retirement in 2023, Knipel said.

“So even though we’re getting 12, we’re really down three overall,” said Knipel. “But we will push on.”

As far as COVID changes to the courts — the building no longer requires temperature checks to enter it, and there is no longer a mandatory face-mask requirement. Social distancing is still technically in effect, but it has dropped from a six-feet requirement to a three-feet requirement. Judges have been assigned to their individual courtrooms, and have been encouraged to conduct more in-person motion practice.

“Social distancing has been reduced from six feet to three,” Justice Knipel said. “That’s a big difference. With six foot social distancing it used to take us three courtrooms to do one jury trial and now we can do it in one courtroom.”

The building at 360 Adams Street is expected to undergo renovations soon. Justice Knipel explained that the NYC Department of Buildings said that all of the building’s facades are in danger of collapse, and the sprinkler system needs to be replaced.

The judge would also like to see something done with the pens in the courthouse that used to house people awaiting criminal trial. Criminal trials moved out of the 360 Adams Street courthouse to the one located at 320 Jay Street nearly two decades ago, but the pens remain unused in their original condition.

The law library at 360 Adams Street is something else that likely needs renovation as many books and documents have become digital and don’t require the same amount of physical space they needed decades ago.

Targeted Alternative Dispute Resolution

Prior to COVID, the Kings County Supreme Court pushed mandatory alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as mediation, on all cases. However, Justice Knipel admitted that the program simply didn’t yield the results the administration expected it to. The court will try targeted ADR next.

“Right before COVID we started our mandatory ADR,” Knipel said. “We did 45 days of the RJI and then you had an ADR conference. We had thousands of them. It didn’t work out. Very few cases were settled. Very, very few and you couldn’t blame the parties because the cases had hardly started. So we stopped doing that.

“In the future, we’re going to target it, we’re going to have ADR post-Note of Issue, but pre-Summary Judgment,” Knipel continued. “So in other words, once all discovery is completed, maybe that is the time to push settlement discussions. You’ll see that coming up in the next few months.”

A Virtual Jury Trial Project

Manhattan courts had previously attempted a virtual jury trial, however, it had poor results. With some changes, Justice Knipel said that they will attempt a program that will test virtual jury trials on summary judgment trials.

“We’re going to start a virtual jury trial project with virtual summary jury trials,” Knipel said. “It takes more time. It is experimental. They tried it in Manhattan and it was a little difficult and took a lot of effort to do it. Brooklyn is scheduled for a virtual summary jury trial, a one-day trial, and summary jury trials don’t have doctors coming in to testify. It goes off of affidavits and medical records so it is an easier type of trial to do virtually.”

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