Savvy Over 60: Paula Feroleto

Mar 6, 2019

During the housing crisis a decade ago, an estimated one-third of civil filings in New York State Supreme Court were foreclosures. "It was huge numbers," remembers the Hon. Paula Feroleto, "so the court had to adapt how cases were treated." Today issues like the opioids crisis, jailing people with mental illness and Buffalo's influx of refugees are requiring new thinking. As Administrative Judge of the Eighth Judicial District, Feroleto's role is to supervise all 95 judges and 850 employees in Western New York's 22 courts while preserving justice for all.

Western New York now has the first Opioid Intervention Drug Court in the nation. How did that come about?

We have someone who's Project Director, overseeing all our drug courts. When the opioid crisis hit, we noticed it was very stressful on Resource Coordinators because so many people they'd be working with would die. He said, "We've got to do something. This isn't the same kind of drug. We're not able to keep these people alive." There was a grant opportunity that came up and he came to me and said, "Why don't we try to do something different. We've got to think outside the box."

I think that's where the life lesson "you've got to always keep learning" comes from. Because things don't stay static. Life changes so much, you've got to be able to see where there's a need and change the way you're doing things.

So we worked on the grant and talked with Judge (Tom) Amadeo, Chief City Court Judge, who's a good judge of people, personalities and workloads. We also talked with Judge (Robert) Russell, who's done a wonderful job with our veterans and our drug courts. He sees hundreds and hundreds of people every week who come through there. And this was going to be a really time-consuming court, this Opioid Intervention Court. We were going to have people coming in every single day. So Judge (Craig) Hannah was asked to do the court.

Our goal was just to keep people alive.

So we got it started. Everyone was getting excited across New York State and we were like, "Let's just see if it works," because our goal was just to keep people alive. It was pretty soon that we could see people were staying alive. I can't tell you how many courts have come in to see what we're doing there and try to model after Buffalo. And we're doing this with what we had in the courts. The grant is really for the medical treatment team, not court personnel. That's also where it's important to have partnerships - the District Attorney's Office, the Public Defender's Office, Save the Michaels has stepped up, BestSelf. You really need a team, you need people to buy in, you need people to take the risk.

What other areas of the court need to change with the times?

I would say the state courts have been behind the federal courts in what's called e-filing. In other words, attorneys can file their lawsuits from their offices and they come up on the court docket. The federal courts were doing this before the year 2000. We're now at 2019 and our largest eight counties are up, but some of our smaller counties are just starting. It's hard, but technology costs money and people to update it. It's a huge budget item.

We don't want people to be afraid to come to court if they need to be protected.

For the refugee population, we need interpreters, but some of the languages that we're seeing are very challenging to get interpreters. We've had more than 20 languages over the last year. Very diverse. There's also a lot of ethics involved with interpreting. You can't know a person you interpret, and it's so important you are saying exactly what the person is saying and asking the questions exactly how they're worded.

I think in the courts we're just concerned they know they can come to court if there's an issue, especially in family abuse situations. We don't want people to be afraid to come to court if they need to be protected. The courts can only do so much. We're not social workers. You try to do as much as you can, but you can't overstep either.

There weren't as many females in law when you were starting your career, so who were your role models?

I looked to my mother. She graduated from medical school in 1956 among very few women. I didn't really know the discrimination my mother faced until years later, because she didn't talk about it, but none of the hospitals wanted to hire her except the Catholic hospital. I think just seeing all that she accomplished was that role model for me, that you can do what you want to do in your life.

Many say today's social media and politics have created a meaner climate than in past years. Have tactics changed in the courtroom?

I think the best attorneys are the ones that are civil to each other, and I think jurors appreciate that and like to see that. Put on your case and get to your point. Now, after 2001, you're right, with some of the language and rhetoric in terms of religion. I had a witness who was going to use a Koran instead of a Bible and I said, "Let's just treat everyone the same. We don't have to use either. Why don't we just have everyone affirm." Even if people don't think they have preconceived ideas about someone or religion, we want to make sure everyone is treated the same throughout a trial. So now I prefer to have everyone just swear or affirm.

I had an interesting experience in the courtroom once. An expert doctor on the stand had examined the plaintiff for the defense, who had three doctor experts, one of which was a woman. He was giving opinions about what the other doctors had done, and the two male doctors he referred to as "doctor" and the female doctor he referred to by her first name. And I'm sitting up there, "This is driving me crazy." But there's a jury there, so I'm like, "What am I gonna do about this? This is so improper." But when there was a break, the plaintiff's attorney took care of it right away. He said, "Doctor, I noticed you referred to these two as such and you referred to Dr. so as Diane. I could just tell the women jurors had steam coming out of their ears. I think it goes toward their credibility. Let's say it worked very well to the plaintiff attorney's advantage.

The stress that is on the judges. There are so many difficult cases, you just keep trying.

You have to be really careful about not influencing the jury with your opinions. They're the finders of fact. Now, if someone were to do something to the other attorney that was blatant, for example, make a demeaning comment to a woman attorney or based on race, religion, anything - and I've never had to do that, but - you would stop the proceedings, excuse the jury, then say something to the attorney. If a witness had said something, I also would have stopped the proceedings, excused the jury and reprimanded the witness and say, "You can't speak like that in court." It's a really fine line.

What advice do you give new lawyers?

Never stop learning. Never be afraid to try something new. Volunteer. We have a lot of organizations: the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Neighborhood Legal Services. We have the Attorney of the Morning program in City Court. It's tough, you're on your feet, there's a lot of people, you're doing landlord-tenant, but if you want to get up to courage to go to court, think on your feet, it's a great program. This is why you went to law school because you can help people.

You have amazing issues. Our Family Courts, especially, are so touching: youngsters who are abused and neglected and taken away from their parents. So you worry about these youngsters, if they'll be okay. The stress that is on the judges when you're dealing with their lives. There are so many difficult cases, You just keep trying. Some of it is you just have to take a deep breath, stand up, go for a walk and clear your head. You see someone and smile and hopefully they smile back. Saying a kind word can be so positive and impact your day. It's never dull, but sometimes I long for a dull day.

Flats or heels?

Flats. I used to wear heels, but I'm over that. I had to laugh yesterday. I think it was 3 p.m. before I sat at my desk. I do run around quite a bit during the day.

NOTE: Content has been edited. Details can be found in the audio clips. Listen Wednesday mornings throughout March on WBFO and watch online for more "Savvy Over 60." #SavvyWomenOver60