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Federal court marks 10th anniversary of civil case resolution program

When you think of lawyers and lawsuits, images of courtroom confrontations and conflict tend to follow.

Even in civil suits, where the stakes may not be as high, it’s not uncommon to see attorneys stake out a position and dig in their heels.

But for more than a decade now, Buffalo’s federal court system has tried something different – taking those disputes out of the courtroom.

On Thursday, more than 50 judges and lawyers gathered downtown to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Alternative Dispute Resolution program, an initiative designed to mediate, not litigate, civil lawsuits.

“I wish we had more of them,” U.S. District Judge Jeremy D. Fogel, director of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., told the gathering.

Started in 2006 by then Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, the ADR program here is one of only nine in the country. It was created to encourage earlier and less costly resolutions to the growing number of local cases.

Under the program, newly filed civil suits are automatically referred to an impartial third party, a local attorney trained as a federal court mediator. Advocates say the program’s success is rooted in the ability of mediators to go beyond traditional settlement talks and to use creative strategies to meet the unique needs of parties on both sides of a dispute.

“It required a total, total culture change,” Skretny said of the program and the legal community’s initial skepticism.

The program also was seen at the time as an essential tool in a larger effort to reduce the local court system’s backlog of cases.

In 2014, the last full year of available statistics, the courts here received more new filings – 744 new cases per judge – than all but nine of the 94 court systems across the country.

One of the consequences of that is a backlog of civil and criminal cases that ranks among the worst in the nation. In addition, 14 percent of the civil cases here are more than three years old.

Barry L. Radlin, administrator of the ADR program, noted that of the 3,100 cases in Buffalo federal court, 2,600 are civil cases, many of them involving plaintiffs without lawyers, yet 70 percent of the cases that go to ADR are eventually settled.

“We’re hot stuff,” Radlin said of the local program and its reputation as a model for other court systems. “We’re helping the nation understand what this program can do.”