Adventures at City Court

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By: Steve Dahlberg ‘23

The Buffalo City Court building, which hulks over Delaware Avenue downtown, was for me this summer the site of some interesting observations.

I hadn’t had much court experience before this, save from mediation sessions at Small Claims Courts in the suburbs for my clinic. Because it was mediation, we ultimately had very little interaction before the court. But the Buffalo City Court was a whole different story altogether. My placement, with the Western New York Law Center, allowed me to tag along with my supervising attorneys when they handled consumer debt cases through the Attorney of the Morning Program.

Twice a week we were on call at Special Term. What I noticed first off was the barely controlled chaos under which City Court functioned. Court began at 9:30, and the judge always showed up on time, but the schedule seemed to operate on some haphazard time frame that I never quite figured out. One of the most startling things was the commingling of criminal and civil cases. Because City Court hears everything, a typical day’s docket would be a criminal arraignment for breaking and entering, followed by one of our consumer debt cases.  Then, a dozen or so cops would show up en masse and confer at the prosecutor’s table for some reason, then all leave together. Next, another consumer debt case might be called, followed by a dog bite case. Attorneys would flit in and out and talk to the clerk even while the judge was hearing arguments on a different case. Yet, everything seemed to wrap up on time. I suppose everyone gets used to the way things are, and they find a way to make it work.

Another surprising thing was the actual architecture of the court. The design of the court does not encourage discussion or settlement between the parties. Yet almost every case, in the end, involved discussion. That is something that’s really not taught at law school: that it’s often in your client’s best interest to just talk to opposing counsel.

For us, that meant my supervising attorney talking to opposing counsel out in the hall. There is no privacy in the hall, so there are often several huddles of attorneys going on at once, talking in hushed tones. Our cases were almost always strong, because most consumer debt collection firms file hundreds of lawsuits all at once, but none of them carefully.  They hope the defendant ignores the summons and complaint, and all the plaintiff’s attorney will have to do is nail down a default judgment. But if the defendant happens to get an attorney, there is usually so much wrong with the complaint, even from a basic civil procedure point of view, that the defendant can usually knock the suit down or at least get a very favorable settlement. And many, many City Court cases end up settling.

Considering how often this happens, one would think that the court would put more tables in the largely empty hall. Instead, the only level surface is usually a windowsill or a wall, and I’ve seen many settlements negotiated and signed on top of a drinking fountain, or a clipboard balanced on someone’s knee.

Still, things get done, somehow!

I’m grateful to my supervising attorney, Paulette Campbell, to the University at Buffalo School of Law, and everyone at the Western New York Law Center for my fellowship and all of my experiences this summer.  I am especially grateful that they showed me how things truly work every day at City Court. Even though it’s chaotic there, they always seem to find a way to get a win for our clients.

Name: Steve Dahlberg ‘23

Name of Fellowship: WNYLC Summer Fellowship

Placement: Western New York Law Center

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “I’ve seen many settlements negotiated and signed on top of a drinking fountain, or a clipboard balanced on someone’s knee.”