December 20, 2021

On Friday, Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson was suspended by the New York State Office of Court Administration (“OCA”), the entity that oversees court functions throughout the state. "Based on serious allegations of bias and discrimination, confirmed by an investigation by our Inspector General, Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson has been relieved of her case docket, effective immediately, and the matter referred to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for further action as they deem appropriate,” said a spokesman for OCA. 

As If 2021 Wasn't Enough . . .

The past two years saw mounting problems for the already-overwhelmed King’s County Surrogate’s Court. COVID-19 brought cases to a standstill in March 2020. The court struggled but ultimately rose to the challenge of implementing efiling and video appearances, thus avoiding the dangers of crowded courthouses. However, Judge Thompson, one of two Surrogate's in Brooklyn, did not issue citations from approximately March 2020 to November 2021. Without these citations, parties to estate proceedings were unable to provide the necessary notice to commence those proceedings, meaning few new cases on Thompson's docket could be administered. The Judge and her staff were, however, addressing pending cases and emergency applications.

The other Surrogate, stalwart judge Margarita Lopez Torres, has been issuing citations since late 2020. Judge Lopez Torres, who was elected to two terms as Surrogate, is slated to retire at the end of the year. Surrogate-elect Rosemarie Montalbano will fill the seat and is greeted with great optimism by the trusts and estates community. However, as with all judges filling new positions, there will be a learning curve. Another rare bright spot is Patricia Halsey as Acting Chief Clerk, whose recent appointment is hoped by many to become permanent.

Kings County is the most populous county in New York and naturally has the most deaths and estate proceedings. Even before the pandemic, the Kings County Surrogate's Court was severely understaffed, with only about two-thirds of positions filled. As these issues mounted, the processing speed of estate applications in Brooklyn slowed severely. In some cases, applications at the clerk level have reportedly been sitting, unprocessed, between eight and eighteen months.

Amid the frustration of the Trusts and Estates Bar, the Brooklyn Bar Association convened with Judge Thompson earlier in the year to assess the scope of the issues and then requested assistance from the State’s Chief Administrative Judge to address the delays and staffing shortages. Shortly thereafter, Judge Thompson began issuing citations, at least one staff position was approved to be filled, and Kings County Administrative Judge Lawrence Knipel was appointed Acting Surrogate for the narrow purpose of issuing citations. The delays are not reported to be associated with Judge Thompson's suspension.

What Will the New Year Bring?

This afternoon, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for NYC Courts, Hon. Deborah Kaplan, appointed Hon. Carol Robinson Edmead, Justice of the New York County Supreme Court, as Acting Surrogate of Kings County, effective immediately. Delays are still expected to mount as the Acting Surrogate takes over an already-backlogged docket. However, OCA has quickly taken this critical first step.  

Daniel R. Antonelli
Representing trust & estate clients with an emphasis on estate litigation in the New York City Metro Area.
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Michael Ann Rago 12/20/2021 07:56 PM
So what will happen to Citations that Judge Thompson has already issued?
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Daniel Antonelli 12/21/2021 01:30 PM
@Michael No information has been formally released to the trusts and estates community that I'm aware of. I hear the Acting Surrogate is starting today, so it's possible that pending citations might be heard on the return date.
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lesley benjamin 12/23/2021 02:10 PM
This court is the worst. I have a file there since 2018 (yes four years and cannot be excuted.
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Daniel Antonelli 12/23/2021 02:20 PM
@Lesley Kings has certainly seen its share of problems. If you email me ([email protected]) I can share some tactics that have been helpful in moving cases.
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Daniel Antonelli 12/23/2021 02:25 PM
I appeared virtually today before Judge Edmead on a citation issued by Surrogate Thompson. Things appear to be moving.
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Roy Selinger 01/11/2022 07:34 PM
The Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson is far worse. I am embroiled in a case for about 8 years during which Judge Nora Anderson has been made no rulings or decisions. I am told the Court is still working on it, this 6 years before the word COVID entered into the vernacular so that is a weak excuse.
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Anita T. 01/25/2022 04:34 PM
We filed since late 2018 after the passing of a relative. All heirs of this estate getting frustrated, I am now in foreclosure and there is an additional 130K added on to the balance of the way overdue mortgage . We have been waiting too long for this to get resolved and the seller and Realtor are harassing me. I cannot pay 2 mortgages during a pandemic. Hope this ends soon. Any advice?
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Daniel Antonelli 02/07/2022 08:18 PM
@AnitaT - If it's any consolation, you're not alone. There is a huge backlog, but the good news is that the Kings County Surrogates appear to be making big strides toward attacking the backlog. Since you're facing foreclosure, you should consider filing an affirmation of urgency. Describe the circumstances, specifically the foreclosure and the harm it's doing, namely the build up of arrears. Then, the Court might expedite review of your application.
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Daniel Antonelli 02/07/2022 08:21 PM
@Michael Ann Rago - Judge Thompson's citations are being heard by Acting Surrogate Edmead, which by this point you've probably already learned. Both Surrogate's are hearing cases on a weekly basis. They've also combined their law departments with respect to addressing the backlog.
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npetrikov 02/12/2022 04:01 AM
The promotion of Patricia Halsey to Acting Chief Clerk is the best news I've heard in years. She has always impressed as skilled, courteous, and helpful. Surrogate's Court practice can seem arcane and maddening to an outsider (and even an insider, I'll bet!), but Ms. Halsey has never "come the high priestess" with me, but has sincerely tried to educate me, so that both the Court and the bar can keep the cases moving and serve the public. As I say, good news!
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Daniel Antonelli 02/18/2022 09:38 AM
@npetrikov - I agree with you 100%. We're very lucky to have Ms. Halsey as our Acting Chief Clerk, and I hope her position is made permanent.
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Samantha rivers 04/27/2022 02:35 AM
What was the bias and discrimination?
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Alan Scialpi 05/04/2022 05:07 AM
I was just told after 3 years of waiting for some sort of progress. That the court wants all heirs to start over. To sign and submit a new petition.
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Daniel Antonelli 05/06/2022 12:50 PM
@Samantha Rivers - I haven't heard any more details as to the alleged bias and discrimination, but presumably the Inspector General's report will become public at some point.
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Daniel Antonelli 05/06/2022 12:51 PM
@Alan Scialpi - If we can be of any assistance, please contact us at 212-227-2424.
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MichaelAnn 05/06/2022 04:08 PM
I haven't read anything good about Judge Edmead in Bkky Surrogate Court. Does anyone have a comment about her handling of cases? Last thing we need is another bias judge.
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Daniel Antonelli 05/06/2022 05:16 PM
@Michael Ann - I've only heard good things. Our attorneys have appeared before her just a few times on the jurisdiction calendar, but but nothing more substantive. As to uncontested matters, we've seen decrees get issued within a reasonable amount of time (all things considered). Colleagues who have appeared before Judge Edmead on motions, etc. have been very positive. Also, we should take into consideration that the Acting Surrogate came from the commercial division (I believe), and is building her Surrogate's Court experience.
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jredondo 09/07/2022 01:45 PM
Has anyone seen cases speed up? We filed (our attorney tells us) more than 18 months and no update, our case doesn't ever appear on the online search
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Daniel Antonelli 09/19/2022 12:25 PM
@jredondo We have seen cases get processed more quickly, but it's relative, and different departments are operating at different speeds depending on their volume. For example, a colleague was told to wait 12 weeks before a file number would be assigned in probate; however, I've seen applications move more quickly than that in probate and more slowly than that in administration. If you've seen no progress in 18 months something is wrong and you should visit the department in person or contact chambers (see the Kings County Surrogate's Court website).
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