A FAMILY COURT FACE LIFT
An Article by the Honorable Kelly C. Wall, with contributions and edits from Sarinia M. Feinman, Esq.
Published in SIDEBAR Summer 2014 by the Montgomery Bar Association, Montgomery County Pennsylvania.
|This article defies logic in most of the aspects presented. The failure to see the full perspective of every party involved is clear. It seems that the writers are SO IMPRESSED WITH THEMSELVES AND THEIR CAREERS that they have completely ignored the reason they are involved in the first place.
How does someone who sits on the Family Court Bench lose sight of the necessity and the people standing before them? And how do they introduce changes which fail to correct or address any of the issues presented. Promptly abandoning the statements presented in her Inquirer Judicial Candidate Questionaire in 2009.
The Judicial Branch does NOT have authority to write (or re-write) law. Is the Legislature aware of these actions?
Prepare for one convoluted clueless ego trip.
Prior to going on the family bench, I practiced family law for several years. I remember showing up at the judges’ courtroom for short list conferences; there were so many lawyers present in the Courtroom that it felt like a social hour. My fellow lawyers would sit and catch up on each other’s lives as we waited for our turn in the judges’ chambers. That was the perception I had when I was assigned to the Family Bench in January of 2010.
Boy was I shocked!
|Shocked? Judge Wall had no knowledge or awareness about the working of the Family Court. Short List conferences are wasted days for the litigants and the lawyers.
Unrepresented litigants are the last to be called. They wait the entire day observing ‘the dance.’
Lawyer & Lawyer go to the Judge’s Chambers. Their unwelcome clients sit and wait. There is no record of the lawyers conference with the judge. Their clients have no idea what was discussed. Just an outcome, which is often an indication that the requested hearing will be scheduled.
This is NOT the “transparent and open to the public” fable from Judge Wall’s Election Questionnaire.
The first few months I kept questioning my staff about the whereabouts of the attorneys of record
for the conferences. I quickly learned that the days of litigants having two attorneys were gone and we were lucky if there were one or two cases on the list with even one attorney!
|This took MONTHS to figure out? BTW, if it took MONTHS, it was not ‘quickly learned’.
The ‘luck’ has another name which is best explained by Canon 1.
“A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”
The ‘luck’ indicates a lack of independence, integrity, and impartiality which improper or at least appears to be improper. The ‘luck’ contradicts Canon 1’s duty of ‘access to justice for all’ that reflects adversely on the judge’s honesty, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge.
The dockets were littered with the names of attorneys who, long ago, were fired, replaced or simply not being paid. I soon discovered that the Family Court system was overwhelmed with self-represented parties. This problem was so pervasive that in 2013 a new rule was passed requiring Pro Se litigants to enter their appearances in support and custody cases if there was no active attorney.
|Blame it on the litigants? Paying their lawyers to sit in a room for half a day at $300/hour doing nothing – or socializing. Perhaps that explains why the litigant fired, replaced or did not pay their attorney. $300/hour to socialize. Seriously?
Filing an appearance is one page. Name. Address. Phone Number. Signature. This filing would not overwhelm a second grade student.
Blame the unrepresented litigants? Require more from the unrepresented litigants than from the lawyers. Falsely suggest that you are requiring it for their benefit.
A ‘pervasive’ litter problem caused by the overwhelming volume of self-represented parties is best addressed by Canon 2.
“A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.”
“Luck’ is an absence of objectivity and open-mindedness, and a clear bias and prejudice which undermines and fails to ensure pro se litigants the opportunity to have matters heard fairly and impartially.
In the Questionnaire, Judge Wall indicated her “care and compassion will ensure that I treat all litigants equally” – a clear contradiction to the ‘luck’ of having EVEN ONE lawyer in the courtrooms.
I also learned that there was a plethora of repetitious filings; the Pro Se parties would often file several petitions at one time containing the same averments but different titles, or they would file petitions for modification within weeks or months of agreed orders or comprehensive orders entered after
protracted hearings. The cases were burdened with economic issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and/or mental health problems. With no attorneys available for guidance or counsel, the judges were forced to wear several hats: judge, attorney, therapist and parent. We were seeing people at their lowest point with
no legal assistance and no place to turn but to the Court system. The end result was a family court system burdened with climbing inventories, escalating emergency petitions, long delays in scheduling, and a drain on the Court and Court Administration’s time and resources.
|A PLETHORA OF REPETITIOUS FILINGS. AT THE SAME TIME. SAYING THE SAME THING. This is a FALSEHOOD. The unrepresented don’t have the time for that. NOBODY HAS TIME FOR THAT.
The cases burdened with other issues, abuses and problems… LIKE ALL CASES.
This is Family Court where the litigants are adults seeking an informed resolution to the issue before the court.
The tremendous disdain for unrepresented litigants is again indicated where absent an “attorney for guidance or counsel” the judge is forced to be judge, attorney, therapist and parent.
The statement lacks any logical connection to any reality. Perhaps Judge Wall has had a stroke.
In 2013, President Judge William J. Furber, Jr. asked me to step in as Administrative Judge of Family Court. I was both flattered that he believed I was capable of taking on that role with only three years under my belt in the third largest County in Pennsylvania, but I was also scared – very scared! It was a big undertaking and I never do things half way. I agreed to take on the challenge but only after Judge Furber assured me he would support my changes and commit to recognizing the importance of the Family Bench. I accepted the challenge and then the fun started!
|Only a fool would promise to support changes prior to analysis and review. Another self-serving paragraph where the vocabulary contradicts the statements. Capable? Scared – Seriously? BIG UNDERTAKING? Challenge? Support? Commit?
These sentences are constructed without logic or purpose.
I met with a diverse group of family attorneys and together we came up with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Family Court, from the Bar’s perspective. Michael R. Kehs and
Cheryl Leslie from Court Administration were extremely supportive and helpful in adding to the Court’s perspective. As result of those meetings, a big picture plan emerged to make our Family Court
more responsive to the needs of the litigants. Now, I just needed to figure out how to get there!
|Who has Judge Wall Completely Ignored? No participation by the unrepresented Pro Se litigants. The handwriting is on the wall. The big plan to address the needs of the litigants.
Some of the changes were easy: We initiated fees for petitions to modify, provided more stringent requirements for in forma pauperis status, and encourage our judges to enter more interim orders.
|How do these changes address the NEEDS of the litigants? THEY DON’T!!
Fees for Petitions
– Additional costs for the litigants.
– No added value to litigant.
– No added benefit for litigant.
Stringent In Forma Pauperis Requirements
– More effort required by the litigants
– More stringent requirements PLACED UPON THE DESTITUTE without any benefit for the litigant
[In Healy v Healy…]
[Judge Wall has failed to address an IFP petition filed on December 7, 2010]
[Judge Wall has failed to address an IFP petition filed on December 14, 2010]
[Judge Carluccio has failed to address an IFP petition filed on August 15, 2011]
[Judge Carluccio has failed to address an IFP petition filed on September 19, 2011]
[My contribution to THE PLETHORA of repetitious filings.]
[Judge Page revoked an IFP without explanation to prevent an Appeal to Superior Court]
[To have that revocation appealed, it would be necessary to FIRST obtain an IFP. Seriously.]
– More interim orders.
– No justification or explanation for this.
– I suggest caution where ex parte orders are concealed and prevented from any proceeding.
Thanks to Judge Del Ricci, my colleagues on the Civil Bench cheerfully adopted some family cases in 2013 and were immensely helpful in putting a dent in our huge inventories. Those small changes were very positive and have laid the framework for the bigger change that are in motion at this time.
|It’s peculiar because Judge DelRicci and Judge Carluccio already took credit for clearing much of the court backlog in an event recorded on ITUNES and published in several periodicals and papers.
With the assistance of Sarinia M. Feinman, Chair of the Family Law Section, and various volunteers from
the Section’s sub-committees, we have made great strides. I wanted to take this opportunity to share the new rules that have been passed or are forthcoming and introduce the new programs that will
streamline Family Court procedures and bring aid to the Pro Se litigants.
|LAWYERS MAKING WORK FOR LAWYERS. The only profession which can spontaneously create an economy for their workers. Injustice generates more revenue than justice.
Finally, I want to recognize the people who are willingly lending their assistance and expertise to changing the face of the Family Court.
|“bring aid to the Pro Se litigants”
WHAT? WHERE? WHEN? HOW?
A Bar Association lawyer, with input from other lawyers under her direction…. WHAT GREAT STRIDES?
There is no logic to any statements.
There is no logic to any action.
There is only an imaginary benefit to the litigant.
What has been accomplished? assisted? changed? for all the gratitude?
The only benefit is EXTRA fees.
The suggestion that using a lawyer to obtain an interim order from a judge can circumvent the current procedure and law.
HOW IS UNDERMINING THE CASE OF A PRO SE LITIGANT BENEFICIAL?
Where is that benefit for the Pro Se Litigant? It was the alleged motivation and purpose of the proposed changes.
EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION & DIVORCE
Moving Equitable Distribution online
– Much to my surprise, I discovered that the equitable distribution (ED) scheduling system was not automated and the filing system was comprised of 5 x 7 cards! There was no way to track cases once a Grounds Order was issued moving the matters to equitable distribution, and there were open cases from the late 1990s! An intern painstakingly created a spreadsheet identifying cases where Grounds Orders were filed before 2012, which were then Continued on next pagedesignated for the ED Special Master program as described below. Cheryl Leslie is in the process of working with our IT department to incorporate the scheduling of ED cases into the existing family scheduling system. The new ED system will allow the Equitable Distribution Masters’ office to issue scheduling orders and Court Administration will be able to track the cases and keep them moving on a timelier basis from the date of the Grounds Order through the entry of the final Divorce Decree.
Equitable Distribution Special Master’s Program
– Once we identified the 220 plus oldest cases with no current activity, we designated them for the ED Special Master’s program. We enlisted the aid of the Honorable Arthur R. Tilson, who agreed to sit as a special master in equitable distribution to hear these cases and enter recommendations.
Within a few months, through the combined efforts of Cheryl Leslie, Judge Tilson and Margaret Carter, 1 administrative assistant to the senior judges, we were able to reduce the inventory of the oldest cases by nearly 200! The program will continue indefinitely as we try to bring the inventory up to date to prepare for the automation of the equitable distribution scheduling system, the new local equitable distribution rule, and the new Court procedures to effectuate the new rule.
Equitable Distribution Rule Change
– After working with the Family Law Section Chairs, Christian V. Badali in 2013 and Sarinia M. Feinman in 2014 for over a year, as well as the ED Sub-Committee of the Family Law Section, President Judge Furber and I signed NEW Local Rule 1920.73(c), which was certified by the Prothonotary, Mark Levy, on May 20, 2014. This Rule was to become effective 30 days after it was published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin
on June 7, 2014. Thus, the new Rule became effective as of Monday, July 7, 2014, but the new ED Fee ($400.00) that accompanies the Rule will not become effective until Monday, August 4, 2014, as the Prothonotary needed more time to get all of the computer programming and forms in place.
The new Local Rule includes a slightly modified Form for the Praecipe to Transmit the Record, and completely new Form for a Motion for Entry of Grounds Order and Appointment of Equitable Distribution Master. In an effort to avoid the extreme backup in the ED process, in order to obtain a Grounds Order and proceed to an ED Master, beginning on August 4th, you will have to pay the $400.00 fee to get to the Master. Further, as part of the new Rule, you will not be able to get scheduled before an ED Master until you certify that your discovery is completed and you are ready to have a meaningful conference and/or hearing with the Master to work towards settlement of the case. The hope is that this will force parties to come prepared to the first conference before the Master with an informed knowledge of the assets and liabilities that comprise the marital estate, so that the parties can discuss settlement or be able to schedule a timely hearing. Moreover,the new Rule should reduce the number of Pro Se filers who are simply seeking to divide up personal property where there are no other marital assets. In summary, the new Rule will ensure that only those cases that really need the Masters’ attention will have to be scheduled, thereby resulting in less delay and a reduced inventory for the ED Masters.
Date of Separation Issues
– Another change that has been enacted is the elimination of Special Masters being assigned to deal with date of separation issues that arise in divorce cases. It came to the Court’s attention, via the Chair of the Family Law Section, Sarinia M. Feinman, that there was no clear path of what was to occur procedurally once a full hearing was held before a Special Master regarding date of separation and Exceptions were filed to the Special Master’s Recommendation. There were no clear rules outlining whether this would be a De Novo Hearing or Oral Argument before the assigned Judge.
I discovered that Pro Se parties and/or cases with counsel were having full “on the record” hearings before the Special Master only to be potentially obliged to have another full hearing before the assigned Judge. This not only seemed like a waste of time and money for the clients, but also for the Special
Masters and Judges. Therefore, since there are no state or local rules designating special masters for date of separation issues, moving forward, if a date of separation issue arises, the assigned Judge will hear that issue from the outset, and Special Masters will no longer be utilized for this purpose, so as to promote efficiency for everyone and limit the delay.
If you would like to hear more about the new ED process that went into effect as of July 7th, please attend the Family Law Section Meeting and luncheon on Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at noon for a Town Hall Meeting, where there will also be an opportunity for feedback and questions from practitioners.
Special thanks to Cheryl Leslie, Erin Carter, our Equitable Distribution Masters, Gordon M. Mair and Bruce L. Goldenberg, and the Family Law Section’s Equitable Distribution Sub-Committee for their hard work, assistance and cooperation in updating our Equitable Distribution System.
– Overwhelmingly, the biggest request I received from the family lawyers was to create a Family Court
Motions Court. One of the greatest challenges we face is crafting procedures for a dedicated Motions
Court while maintaining the integrity of our “One Judge – One Family” policy which ensures that one
judge is assigned to a family throughout the case. The advantage to our “One Judge – One Family” system
is that we have a unique perspective of our individual families and can enter comprehensive orders rather
than having litigants appear before a different judge every time they enter the Courthouse.
Presently, family judges conduct short list conferences which are scheduled four to six weeks after a petition is filed. Parties can file emergency petitions seeking a quicker disposition of matters; however, judges are often inundated with petitions that do not rise to the level of an emergency and they have to weed out the real emergencies from the cases that can wait for a short list date.
A dedicated Motions Court would allow judges to hear certain matters on their cases much more quickly and efficiently. The benefits to a motions court system are threefold; parties can resolve problems quickly as a matter could be scheduled within days, orders will be issued that same day from the bench, and judges will reduce their short list matters which will allow more timely listings for protracted cases.
Although the details of the Motions Court are still being worked out with a local rule anticipated to go into effect in early 2015, you can expect that the matters handled in Motions Court will be those that are appropriate for decisions to be made from the bench and those matters that take no more than 10 minutes to argue on both sides. As of now, my Motions Court dates for the remainder of this year will be as follows: July 30; August 27; September 10 & 24; October 15 & 20; November 12 & 26; and December 10 & 22. Commencing in January of 2015, my Motions Court will generally be scheduled on the second and
fourth Wednesdays of the month. The Honorable Gail A. Weilheimer will also be participating in the Motions Court, and she will be providing her Motions Court dates in the near future. Some of the other Family Court Judges have expressed an interest in the new Motions Court rule, so that they may also participate in this program for their cases.
Special thanks to Cheryl Leslie, Joel B. Bernbaum, chair of the Family Law Section Motions Court sub-committee, as well as the other members of the sub-committee for their hard work, assistance and cooperation in assisting to get the Family Motions Court underway.
FRIEND OF THE COURT
– Presiding over Protection from Abuse (“PFA”) cases is one of the more challenging opportunities the family judge faces. There are well over forty cases per week and the litigants are angry, scared or emotionally drained. We are extremely fortunate to have the presence of Carol Horvitz and the volunteers from the Women’s Center who lend assistance and guidance to the Court. However, it quickly became apparent to me that a majority of the cases involved deteriorating familial relationships rather than
domestic abuse. The volunteers are wonderful at working with the parties to encourage settlements; however they are limited to what kind of advice they can give as they are not attorneys. I have observed numerous lost opportunities to direct Pro Se litigants toward the Lawyer Referral Service for consultations or to Domestic Relations or Court Administration to file family petitions.
I originally teamed up with Joo Park and Harry Byrne, co-chairs of the Pro Bono Committee, to discuss putting together a group of volunteers to represent Pro Se litigants in PFA Court. Our project got a big boost when Sharron L. Rex, a former Custody Conciliator in Montgomery County, offered to help launch a PFA volunteer program. The MBA has also expressed an interest in teaming up with the Temple University
Beasley School of Law to enact a third-year student volunteer program for PFA Court.
Additionally, we are in the process of observing similar programs in both Allegheny and Bucks Counties and have received insightful input from Legal Aid representatives and the Women’s Center. With the help of a talented group of people, we are currently in the process of developing a “Friend of the Court” program, whereby both plaintiffs and defendants may receive free representation in our weekly PFA Court by licensed attorneys or students working under the guidance of a licensed attorney. The goal is to provide training to the volunteers in exchange for CLE credits who will, in turn, donate their time
and efforts to representing both plaintiffs and defendants and lend guidance to steer Pro Se litigants away from PFA Court and toward the services they need to resolve their domestic disputes. Although there are many factors yet to be determined such as funding, office space, and administration, we are very
excited about this program and hope to see a working model in the late fall.
– Gary Kline, Director of the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Office (“DRO”), has been recognized by the Commonwealth on an annual basis for the record amount of past due support collected by his office. To ensure thatthe trend continues, we have been collaborating on ways to decrease the number of contempt hearings that the judges have to hear on a weekly basis and put pressure on the defendants to force them to pay up. Every Friday morning, the DRO officers wheel over large boxes filled to the brim with the files representing the obligors who failed to pay their monthly support orders. Defendants often have multiple cases with large arrears and many are repeat offenders.
In a project aimed at reducing delinquent child support among the most egregious payers, DRO has selected specific cases and assigned them to Judge Barrett and me. The goal for the officer in DRO is to have the case removed from the general Friday contempt list by obtaining an initial payment on the support obligation. The defendants are contacted after being scheduled and told this is their last chance to comply before seeing a judge. If a payment is obtained, the case is removed from the list and scheduled for the next court list before the assigned judge. The case is then monitored for the next several months’ payments and the cycle continues until such time as the payments are received for four to six months consecutively, or the defendant obtains employment and a wage attachment is issued. If a hearing is necessary, the assigned judge has the option of finding the defendant in contempt and ordering incarceration or placing them in the monthly monitoring program. The key for the program to be a success is the rapid access directly to the court in front of the assigned judge, who is familiar with the party and the history of nonpayment.
Another benefit is that the program will reduce the Friday lists and eliminate multiple judges making decisions on the same group of delinquent obligors. Although the program is still in its infancy, to date, more than 70% of the cases identified have made regular payments.
In addition to the new support monitoring program, our new Sheriff, Russell Bono, has committed the resources of his office to the ongoing collection of outstanding child support.
The Sheriff has turned up the pressure on support delinquents by conducting routine roundups which are covered by the media and have resulted in the collection of thousands of dollars in a short period. Moreover, Gary Kline was happy to report that Montgomery County has the lowest number of DRO bench warrants it has ever recorded, and has over 100 less than the closest similarly sized county in the region.
Gary Kline reported 267 outstanding warrants at this time (which includes defendants who reside outside of the state) as compared to 800 a few years ago. Way to go Gary Kline and Sheriff Bono!
-There are still so many things to do! We will continue to assess programs and staff duties to improve Family Court Services. We will continue to identify any problems as they arise and strive to find solutions for those problems, so as to promote efficiency and expediency in the Court system.
Many thanks to Court Administrator Michael R. Kehs and President Judge William J. Furber, Jr. who kept his promise and supported the new changes, and a special thanks to Sarinia M. Feinman, of the law firm of Vetrano & Vetrano, for her incredible contributions, support, and hard work.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the Honorable Rhonda Lee Daniele for her many years of service as Administrative Judge of Family Court. I have gained new found respect for her and wish to thank her for all of her hard work.
This article is pure disinformation and misdirection.