As this year’s state budget negotiations come to a climax, the court system is dealing with an increasingly restive workforce. The rising tensions were evident when more than 100 court clerks at 60 Centre Street rallied at a meeting last week to support one of their own, who had refused to open a judge’s courtroom because no court officer was present.
Tensions among court clerks and other court employees have been rising since budgetary restrictions first forced the Office of Court Administration to start reducing staff with an early retirement incentive program in 2010. With its members straining to do more work with less people, the New York Court Clerks Association filed suit last December seeking overtime pay for its thinned ranks.
The early retirement program was followed in 2011 with forced layoffs after Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature cut the court system’s budget request by $170 million. As a result, Supreme Court citywide has 263 fewer clerks today than it had at the end of 2010, a decline of 15 percent. Throughout the state, the courts have lost 1,900 employees.
“My members are outraged that for the last three years they have struggled with increased workloads caused by staff shortages,” said Joe Walsh, the president of the court clerks association. “Now that the situation has crystallized into a public safety issue it has reached a flashpoint. ”
The Supreme Court is similarly struggling with fewer court officers. At the time of the incident last week in Justice Anil Singh’s courtroom, three other courtrooms at 60 Centre Street had no court officers assigned to them, according to Patrick Cullen, the president of the 1,350-member New York Supreme Court Officers Association.
Cullen said that since 2010, attrition has resulted in the loss of 150 court officers in Supreme Courts in New York City and the mid-Hudson Valley. The problem of having not enough court officers to cover courtrooms has been “pervasive” over the last few years, he added.
A crisis in Justice Singh’s courtroom was averted when the clerk, who had refused to open his courtroom, relented after an administrative judge intervened, according to the New York Post.
Even so, anger continues to boil beneath the surface as illustrated by the clerks union’s lawsuit in New York Court Clerks Association v. Unified Court System of the State of New York, 13-7691. In its complaint, which has been assigned to Southern District Judge Robert W. Sweet, the union analyzed information contained in court system computers to show that clerks often work extra hours during the week and over weekends to keep up with an increasing flow of cases, according to the complaint.
One clerk alone has worked 133 extra hours without any compensation, according to that analysis. The union’s examination of work performed by 22 clerks revealed that 18 of them had worked extra hours without any compensation, let alone time-and-a-half overtime pay as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
That information was culled from OCA’s Universal Case Management System, which contains a time stamp for every piece of work a clerk enters into the system, explained Walsh, the clerk union president. OCA voluntarily extracted the data for the 22 employees at the union’s request but then balked at providing more information, Walsh said.
As sympathetic as the clerks’ plight seems, the union faces substantial factual and procedural hurdles in its lawsuit. OCA contends that any extra hours worked by the clerks were done as volunteers, and the clerks are not entitled to overtime unless they first receive permission to work extra time from their supervisors. Also, the union, faced with adverse rulings prohibiting federal courts from awarding monetary damages against states, has dropped its claims for monetary damages and injunctive relief, and is only seeking a prospective declaratory judgment.
The union described OCA’s position in its complaint as a subterfuge, claiming that the court system had “created a climate where clerks felt compelled to work past normal hours in order to finish their work, and court managers, under pressure to have the work done, allowed it to happen.”
Whether any relief for the staff shortages is on the horizon hinges on the outcome of budget negotiations in Albany. The court system’s budget request for the state fiscal year starting on April 1 calls for a $44.2 million budget increase to $1.81 billion. That 2.5 percent increase is necessary to put the courts on the “road to recovery” Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti told a joint Senate-Assembly budget hearing in February, according to the New York Law Journal.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has criticized the court system’s budget request, saying it should be limited to 2 percent. The shaving of .5 percent off the courts’ request would cost the court system $9 million, which could hamper it in achieving on the “road-to-recovery” goals: the ending of a hiring freeze which has, with only very limited exceptions, prevented the court system from replacing any workers who depart.