Hurricane Sandy couldn't stop legal machine

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The legal community was far from immune from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which forced courts to close their doors, oral arguments to be canceled and law firms to shutter their offices up and down the East Coast.

In some respects, Sandy was no match for the technology and continuity plans that firms and courts have in place, and, in some instances, the sheer will of attorneys to close a deal. Even so, Sandy caused backlogs in cases and potential prison overcrowding, Pennsylvania's chief justice said, as a result of the lost courtroom time.

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said last week the biggest impact at that point from the storm for the state judiciary appeared to be delays in cases from closing down prothonotaries' offices and courthouses. The storm will "hurt the system with less efficient disposition of cases," he said.

For the appellate courts, the prothonotary for the Eastern and Middle Districts of Pennsylvania was closed Monday and Tuesday. The prothonotary for the Western District closed Tuesday, but not Monday. The First Judicial District also closed Monday and Tuesday.

Closing the courts has a huge impact, Justice Castille said, because rescheduling cases, especially in high-volume Philadelphia, results in a ripple effect of delays. In terms of criminal cases, delays in those listings increase prison overcrowding and raise the likelihood that the system will run afoul of speedy trial rules for defendants, the chief justice said.

But the circumstances of an act of God, or force majeure, will likely make it so that delays attributable to storm Sandy can be excluded and not result in criminal defendants' rights to speedy trials being violated, or in civil plaintiffs running afoul of the statute of limitations.

The Philadelphia and Harrisburg offices of Pennsylvania's trio of appellate courts were closed last Monday and Tuesday. The Supreme and Commonwealth courts had no arguments scheduled for those days, but the Superior Court had to push back an argument session scheduled to take place in Philadelphia at Drexel University.

According to President Judge Correale F. Stevens, the court pushed that panel's session back until the end of November.

"All three of the federal district courts in Pennsylvania were open for business on Wednesday, after having lost two days to the hurricane.

The last time that the Western District was faced with severe weather, as Pittsburgh was buried under two feet of snow, it fell at the end of the week, said Robert V. Barth Jr., the clerk of the court. When a storm comes at the start of the week, it throws off the court's schedule, he said, noting that two trials were postponed due to Sandy.

As for law firms, last Monday and Tuesday, Reed Smith's offices were in "closed mode," though staff could go in if they were able to get to the offices. The closure affected the firm's Philadelphia; New York; Princeton, N.J.; Wilmington, Del.; Falls Church, Va.; and Washington locations, but not its Pittsburgh headquarters.

Reed Smith's Global Customer Centre in Pittsburgh answered the telephones and handed other matters for the closed locations.

Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's business continuity committee monitored the storm over the weekend and decided Sunday to close the firm's New York, Newark, N.J., Princeton, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Washington and Virginia offices. All offices reopened Wednesday.

The lawyers and other client service professionals in those offices were able to work remotely. Buchanan Ingersoll said lawyers and staff from unaffected locations were able to assist.

In Newark, Pittsburgh-based K&L Gates closed its office indefinitely; the neighborhood was strewn with fallen trees and power lines. The firm, which has 44 attorneys in Newark, was renting conference center space in a nearby Hilton hotel for attorneys who needed it.

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