October 7, 2013

First wave of federal court cases in Maine delayed by shutdown

Courts are spared the full brunt of the government shutdown, but judiciary money runs out next week

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Pamela Manning’s lawsuit accusing her former Westbrook employer, Kohl’s Department Stores Inc., of discriminating against her for being a diabetic is one of the first few federal court cases in Maine to be put on hold because of the government shutdown.

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U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II said his office will continue to prosecute violent crimes and cases in which there are arrests regardless of how long the shutdown continues, but other types of cases might have to be considered on a “case by case basis.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Federal defender David Beneman has opted not to rehire a receptionist, runs the office without a paralegal and has cut training, technology and office supplies after a budget cut of about 20 percent imposed by sequestration.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The U.S. Department of Justice and the federal courts remain open, but Manning is represented in her case by attorneys with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal employees who have been furloughed.

“EEOC lawyers are prohibited from engaging in any litigation activities in the present circumstances,” her lead attorney, Adela Santos, said in a motion to continue Manning’s case, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The delay in that case and other civil cases in Maine’s federal courts, where U.S. attorneys have already started filing motions for delay, could be the start of an effort to postpone more cases if the congressional standoff in Washington continues beyond this week. That’s when the courts’ funding runs out. If the shutdown continues, the federal court and offices may have to start triaging their caseloads, focusing their efforts on criminal cases involving violent crimes and arrests, but putting on hold civil cases and less time-sensitive cases.

The move would come on top of budget cuts that the federal courts in Maine have already seen as a result of sequestration earlier this year, which they weathered by not filling open positions, laying off some staff and putting off technology upgrades.

Attempts to reach Manning through her attorney were unsuccessful. Santos’ phone at her New York City office went straight to voice mail, and an email to Santos generated an automated email response:

“Due to the lapse in appropriations for the federal government, I am on furlough and I am unable to work. I will not be available to respond to your email until the federal government has been funded.”

The federal judiciary, which oversees federal courts in the District of Maine, has enough money to fund operations through this week. After that, the courts would have to restrict operations to a bare minimum and possibly require staffers to work without being paid.

The clerk of U.S. District Court in Maine, Christa Berry, has said that starting next week, the court will have to cut back operations. Berry said she doesn’t expect to announce the court’s final plan until later this week. But attorneys in other civil cases in Maine have already started filing motions to halt court proceedings.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed motions to delay at least two pending civil matters in which its lawyers represent one side: One is a lawsuit filed by a Princeton resident who slipped on snow and fell outside the Indian Township Health Center, in which the United States, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the center are defendants. The other is a case in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has intervened to enforce a $78 million judgment by a Maine state court against the Chicago owners of the Elsemore Estates housing development in Dixfield.

Federal courts are required by law to speedily process criminal matters, with or without funding, but civil cases fall under different rules. U.S. Bankruptcy Court will also continue processing cases, even without funding, and employees would be expected to work without pay.

Thomas Delahanty II, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine, said his office will continue to prosecute violent crimes and cases in which there are arrests regardless of how long the shutdown continues, but other types of cases might have to be considered on a “case by case basis.”

“On the civil side, we are in the process of filing motions to continue and asking the courts for extensions to deadlines. If they are not approved by the courts, we would have to address those cases,” Delahanty said. “On the criminal side – and this could change (this) week – they are handling cases as normal.”

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