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Quadriplegic lawyer a new asset to Family Court

Mindi and Mike Lobuzzetta were foster parents ready to accept a newborn child into their care two years ago when the birth mother delivered the baby at Women and Children's Hospital under an assumed name and took off with him as soon as she was ready to leave the hospital.

The frantic Buffalo  couple turned to Shannon Filbert for help finding the infant.

Filbert, the Legal Aid lawyer assigned to protect the baby's interests, assured them she would do everything she could to find the mother and child. She reached out to police, had arrest warrants drawn up and contacted the Lobuzettas day and night with updates.

"She was relentless," Mindi Lobuzzetta said.

Filbert has lived as a quadriplegic since her spine snapped when she 16, but as the Lobuzzettas and others who have dealt with her know, that has not affected what they call her determined and powerful presence.

"I could sleep knowing she was doing everything she needed to do," Lobuzzetta said.

Filbert, 35, spent years as a Legal Aid attorney for children. In 2015, she won election as West Seneca town justice. And in her latest promotion, she is now the only law clerk with a physical disability in the Western New York court system.

Two weeks ago, she started working for Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, whose courtroom processes roughly 2,400 cases a year.

"When the position for confidential law clerk opened up, I said, 'You know what, she would be terrific as my right hand,'" Judge Rodwin said. "She understands what it's like to deal with adversity and deal with situations you have to work to overcome. I think that's an amazing asset for someone in a Family Court situation."

Shannon Filbert with Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, doing a last-minute review of adoption paperwork before the proceedings. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Rodwin also noticed that parents seemed to be more comfortable working with Filbert than other lawyers. While never a pushover, she never came across as intimidating or threatening.

"I could see a comfort level with the moms and dads and the kids that came into the courtroom that was unusual and very productive to resolving the case," she said.

Lobuzzetta agreed.

"She's ready to be loud and talk and laugh," she said. "You immediately feel comfortable. She's not judging you."

Working through a disability

Filbert seems to operate her motorized wheelchair at only one speed – fast. Those attempting to walk with her on their way to court often find themselves falling behind.

"If I run over your toes, it's on purpose," she called behind her as she whizzed down the hall. "I know where my wheels are at all times."

Filbert described her paralysis as a little better than that of the late actor Christopher Reeve. She can breathe on her own and shrug her shoulders. She's not hesitant, reluctant or unhappy to talk about being quadriplegic. As far as she's concerned, it's a fact of life.

"There are always days when I'll be down," she said. "But honestly, I've got a great attitude. It is what it is, and nothing I do is going to change it."

So she works on what she can.

Colleagues and assistants leave court with Shannon Filbert. Behind her is assistant Jen Wohlfeil, and attroney Nina Potycz. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

She makes extensive use of voice-activated technology, maintains a rigid organizational system and relies on an assistant to serve as her hands and to help her do everything from using the bathroom and dressing to taking a drink of water. Medicaid helps pay for some of the costs.

She's also rewired her brain to remember everything important. Writing things down isn't an easy option. She has an iron-trap memory for family law. She also memorized the working schedules of colleagues and judges.

"She has an amazing brain," said Cindy Bielinski, who works four 10-hour days a week as Filbert's primary assistant.

When Filbert was elected a West Seneca town judge two years ago, the judge's bench was reconstructed so she could wheel herself behind it. She transferred to Night Court after taking the law clerk position. At Family Court, her desk was raised several inches so that her wheelchair could roll beneath it.

Otherwise, she and Bielinski or another assisant work as a streamlined team to tackle the work at hand with minimal fuss. On the way to a small court conference room, Bielinski reached into the open mouth of Filbert's hot-pink Kate Spade bag, slung around the back of her wheelchair, and grabbed a set of keys to unlock the door.

Then Filbert rolled into the room and watched carefully as lawyer Dan Hartman pulled out multiple sets of documents and explained them to a pair of adoptive parents. Filbert worked to commit the order of the documents to memory so that she could soon take over that process.

Shannon Filbert meets with parents Brad and Julie Smith and attorney Nina Potycz to sign paperwork and to ask some questions before the court proceeding to finalize an adoption. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The long road

There was a time when Filbert's memory wasn't nearly that good. She was a dancer and a cheerleader. She imagined a future career filled with physical activity. Doing complex math problems inside her own mind seemed an unfathomable feat when she was 16.

Until the crash.

She was a passenger in a friend's car heading to school. The road was slippery. The car's tires were poor.

"We fishtailed into a house," said Filbert, who was a junior at West Seneca East High School at the time. "I didn't think I'd have a future. I thought it was over. Everything was over."

She spent five months in rehab in Atlanta but was lucky enough to have an aunt tutor her over the summer so she could catch up with her school work and graduate on time.

Her parents moved into a more handicapped-accessible house. Her mother also informed her that she could either keep feeling sorry for herself or do the work necessary to achieve her life goals.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my friends and family," she said.

Filbert graduated with honors from college. She moved on to the University at Buffalo School of Law and passed the bar on her first try.

Navigating the working world

Filbert interned in the Erie County District Attorney's Office when Rodwin led the Domestic Violence Bureau there. After Filbert graduated from law school at UB, she attempted to get hired as a prosecutor by the District Attorney's Office, but despite Rodwin's recommendation, Filbert was not extended an offer.

So she began picking up pro bono work, representing the poor as part of the Western New York Law Center's Volunteer Lawyers Project. When an opening at the Legal Aid Bureau became available, she applied and was soon representing children in county abuse and neglect cases.

Cases involving child victims of sexual and physical abuse, even sibling deaths, came to Filbert's desk. And Filbert brought them before Judge Rodwin.

Filbert sits by Judge Lisa Block Rodwin during adoption proceedings. The parents from left are Brad and Julie Smith with their adopted daughter Taya. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"I was shocked and thrilled to see that she was assigned to my courtroom," Rodwin said. "She never once said, 'Judge, I've got more than I can handle. Please don't assign any more cases to me.' She was always ready for the next challenge."

Filbert called the cases she received "eye-opening" and emotionally draining. Even in the courtroom, she said, she watched parents scream and swear at the judge, and witnessed teenagers overturn tables. Adoption cases are usually the only cases that are happy affairs in Family Court.

Lobuzzetta recalled how Filbert served as a valuable intermediary and eventually helped the couple adopt two children from the same mother after having fostered the children for several years. The adoption of Carter, the baby who disappeared for 10 days until the mother finally surrendered him, was completed earlier this year.

"If you're in this for the right reason, you're not going to be turned away by the fact that she's in a wheelchair," Lobuzzetta said of Filbert. "If anything, you see her determination. She's got a pretty powerful presence."

The present

Now, as Rodwin's law clerk, Filbert and her assistant spend the end of every day reviewing cases and decompressing. Sometimes, they disagree. Filbert's role is not just to negotiate agreements between parties for Judge Rodwin, but also to make sure Rodwin's decisions are bulletproof.

"A lot of the job is keeping my judge safe and sane," Filbert said. "To make sure she doesn't get appealed or overturned."

She's good at that, said Rodwin, who is known for her powerhouse personality.

"We trust each other," she said. "We don't always agree. I think that's an important thing to say, 'Judge, I think you're heading down the wrong path.'  You don't want a yes man in that position. You need a strong person."

Once the adoption proceedings were official, Judge Rodwin donned an elf hat and brought gifts to Taya, held by adoptive mother Julie Smith,  as law clerk Shannon Filbert looks on at right. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Filbert aspires to eventually become a full-time judge.

Those who've worked with her said she would be good at that. She knows all about overcoming obstacles.

Annmarie Jurado, who volunteers as a child advocate, recalled how Filbert worked with her on the adoption of her own two foster children, both of whom were born addicted to methadone. She said what others who've worked with Filbert said: After awhile, you forget the wheelchair. It's Filbert who focuses your attention.

"There's no one better than she at listening, at being fair, at listening to all parties in the case," said Jurado, who eventually volunteered to help Filbert campaign for her West Seneca judgeship.

Jurado was thrilled to hear from a reporter that Filbert had gained a new full-time position as Rodwin's law clerk.

"She's always in my thoughts and prayers," Jurado said. "She deserves it."

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