CDOLR’s Annual Visit to the New York County Commercial Division

By: Christopher Arcitio | Editor-in-Chief, with contributions from Gleny Pena and Amanda Tersigni, || Staff Members, Jeanelle Dawes | Managing Editor, Keith Olson | Class of 2018

On Friday, March 10, 2017, staff members from the Commercial Division Online Law Report (“CDOLR”) and students in Professor Daniel Wiig’s Litigation in New York’s Commercial Division course engaged in its annual visit to the New York County Commercial Division located at 60 Centre Street New York, NY 10007.

From the moment of its inception, CDOLR has served as the leading online secondary source for noteworthy decisions from the Commercial Division, the epicenter of complex business disputes. In addition to analyzing these decisions through CDOLR assignments every year, staff members annually visit the Commercial Division to meet the justices behind the decisions.

By way of introduction, the Commercial Division was established in 1993 in the Supreme Court, Civil Branch, NY County, with the aim of improving the efficiency and enhancing the quality of judicial treatment of commercial litigation matters that meet a high monetary threshold. After years of success coupled with strong recommendations from the New York State Bar Association and the Commercial Courts Task Force, the Commercial Division has now opened in a span of ten different jurisdictions.

Now, the Commercial Division serves as a forum for resolution of complicated commercial disputes with expert judges and efficient case management.

CDOLR Staff Members were fortunate enough to meet with the Honorable Barry Ostrager; the Honorable Charles E. Ramos; and the Honorable Saliann Scarpulla. Staff Members were also joined by First Department Court Attorney Clara Flebus and Principal Law Clerk Megan McHugh.

The justices began the lecture with a discussion of their respective paths to the bench and positive change in demographics in the legal profession.

Justice Ostrager is the newest member on the bench. In June of 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed the judge to the New York Court of Claims. He was later appointed to serve as an Acting New York Supreme Court Justice assigned to the Commercial Division. Before reaching the bench, Justice Ostrager spent his entire career at the law firm of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, LLP, achieving partner rank in 1980 and serving as Chair of the firm’s Litigation Department from 1999 to 2011.

Justice Scarpulla provided the female perspective during the visit. In 2001, Justice Scarpulla was successfully elected to the bench after a long, hard-fought race to the Civil Court. Eight years later, she was appointed as Acting Justice of the Supreme Court and, finally, elected to the Supreme Court in 2012. Before the bench, Justice Scarpulla worked as a Litigation Associate at Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn from 1988 to 1993, served as Senior Counsel in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s New York Legal Services Office, and then worked as the Principal Court Attorney for the Honorable Eileen Bransten.

Justice Ramos is the most senior judge on the Commercial Division, New York County. He was elected as a Judge of the Civil Court of New York in 1983. Five years later, Justice Ramos became an Acting Supreme Court Justice, working his way to Presiding Judge of the Civil Court in New York County until 1993. Now, he serves as a Senior Justice of the Commercial Division and lectures regularly at his alma mater, Fordham University School of Law School.

After the justices provided their respective backgrounds, Staffer Gleny Pena expressed her curiosity about whether each justice foresaw their path to the bench: “I asked if they foresaw for themselves becoming Judges at the beginning of their legal careers. I was interested in knowing if they set about their careers in such a way to better facilitate become Supreme Court Justices, a particular path.” Their answers demonstrated that law students don’t graduate necessarily knowing where their careers will take them. Justice Ostrager, for instance, said that his becoming a judge was a serendipitous moment in his life. Mr. Keith Olsen, student in the Litigation in New York’s Commercial Division course, found listening to each justice’s background “fascinating” because “they had taken very different paths within the practice of law, with each eventually finding themselves on the bench.”

As the justices shared their respective paths to the bench, they also noted the changing demographics in the legal profession from their early years as an attorney. Indeed, Justice Ostrager stressed that as the Chair of his old firm’s Litigation Department, he made sure to hire the most qualified candidates instead of a fellow partner’s son. As a female attorney, Justice Scarpulla was quick to point out that the legal profession today is still not sufficiently representative of the community. This comment was received well by Managing Editor Jeanelle Dawes, who found Justice Scarpulla to be “very passionate” because “[s]he really challenged almost everything that [Justice Ostrager] said.” As a future female attorney, Jeanelle thought this interplay “appealed to many of the women in the group.”

Despite this setback in the legal profession, the justices all agreed that the field of commercial litigation is an exciting and growing field to pursue as future attorneys. Two reasons were set forth to support this statement. First, the cases before the commercial division all involve complex matters that must meet a monetary threshold to be heard. In the words of Justice Scarpulla, there is “lots of money to be made in commercial cases.” Second, the cases more often than not involve matters that affect ordinary citizens. These matters range from issues related to life insurance policies and covenants not to compete. Indeed, Justice Ramos mentioned an interesting case before him, where a receptionist at a reputable online data company was required to consent to a covenant not-to-compete.

Towards the end of the lecture, staffers were invited to share their name, year, and area of interest. Each justice provided words of guidance as each staffer spoke. Through this experience, staffers felt personally connected with the justices.

As Staffer Amanda Tersigni left the courthouse that afternoon, she heeded the words of the justices and realized that “there are ample opportunities going into the legal profession and you truly do not know where your journey will take you. It is incredibly important to have goals that you continuously pursue, but you need to always keep your mind open and be advantageous towards new paths that life may direct you.”

Keith was pleased with the opportunity to interact with the justices. “As many of us will spend a significant amount of time in front of judges in our future careers, speaking with these judges made it clear that each judge that we encounter comes to our case with varying backgrounds,” an observation that is relevant to all future attorneys.

As a CDOLR member who has now attended two visits to the Commercial Division, I was excited to witness the new staffers enter the courthouse and interact with the judges whose decisions they analyzed, dissected, and synthesized in the form of case summary assignments. I believe the annual visit adds substantial value to the CDOLR assignments by capturing a face to the decision.

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