October 7, 2013

Shutdown causes first Maine court case to be put on hold

BY SCOTT DOLAN

BY SCOTT DOLAN

Portland Press Herald

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 federal court cases in Maine to be put on hold because of the government shutdown that shuttered many federal agencies.

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

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

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 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, have enough money to funds operations through this week. After that, the courts would have to restrict operations to a bare minimum and possibly force 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.

Even before the shutdown, federal courts were bracing for a second wave of budget cuts as a result of other congressional inaction. Sequestration, which cut funding across all levels of federal government, first went into effect on March 1. As part of the government shutdown debate, Congress was considering a new budget for fiscal year 2014 that could include even more cuts.

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