OCBA UPDATE: Oakland County Circuit Court appoints its first ombudsman

By Peter Alter

Working closely and collaboratively with the Oakland County Bar Association, the Oakland County Circuit Court has announced that effective December 1, 2011, Joel H. Serlin has been appointed as its first ombudsman to serve as a liaison between the bench and bar. The ombudsman program will operate as a pilot project for approximately six months, at which time the court will evaluate and consider whether to continue this program. Oakland County Circuit Court's Chief Judge Nanci Grant remarked:

"Our bench is excited to participate in the inaugural ombudsman program. We embrace the program, and the opportunity presented, as an illustration of the importance attached to the transparency and accountability of the bench and bar - to each other, of course, but more importantly to the administration of justice in Oakland County."

Mr. Serlin is a senior partner at the law firm of Seyburn, Kahn, Ginn, Bess, & Serlin PC and the chair of its Litigation Department. He has a stellar reputation as a lawyer, mediator and arbitrator. As ombudsman, he will seek to address and facilitate issues and concerns raised by attorneys regarding active matters before the court. Attorneys are encouraged to contact the ombudsman to address all such administrative or case management issues.

Those who know Mr. Serlin recognize that he is uniquely qualified to serve as ombudsman by virtue of the hundreds of mediations, arbitrations and receiverships that he has so ably handled over the last several decades. This is what Joel had to say about his appointment as the first ombudsman:

"I sincerely thank the bench and the bar for their confidence in selecting me as the first Oakland County Circuit Court Ombudsman. It is a distinct honor and privilege. I look forward to the opportunity to serve the bench and the bar in their efforts to better serve the citizens of Oakland County. My door will always be open to the bench and bar in their efforts to improve the practice of law and their service to the public."

Commenting on the appointment of Joel Serlin as the first ombudsman, Judge Grant stated:

"I have known Joel Serlin for more than 20 years. He is an excellent lawyer whose background, experience and temperament make him an outstanding choice to serve as the first ombudsman of this Court."

The concept of having an ombudsman was first proposed by the OCBA's Circuit Court Committee more than a year ago. Dan Quick, a member of both the OCBA board of directors and the Circuit Court Committee, championed the proposal and presented it to Chief Judge Grant. In turn, after discussion and consultation, Judge Grant received the overwhelming endorsement of the judges to proceed with the pilot program.

The purpose of the ombudsman program is to provide a discreet forum for the informal resolution of issues and matters in which there is no other established or preferred procedure to secure redress. The ombudsman will serve as a neutral, vested with the authority to act as an intermediary between attorneys and judicial officers, and other personnel. Simply, attorneys who litigate before the court now will have the option of remaining anonymous while trying to resolve sensitive issues. The ombudsman program hopefully will provide an outlet for delicate questions and issues that otherwise would have no appropriate outlet because lawyers may fear putting their clients' interests at risk. The ombudsman will serve as a filter - as someone to ask the judge or personnel in the judge's chambers - when neither side is eager to inquire about a sensitive matter or an issue that may have fallen between the cracks.

Interestingly, it appears that there is no other circuit court in the state of Michigan that has implemented an ombudsman program. However, the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan is one of less than a handful of federal courts in the nation that has an ombudsman. The ombudsman for the Eastern District of Michigan is George Bedrosian, who was appointed in 2005. Mr. Bedrosian has remarked, "[T]he confidential nature of my position is of paramount importance." In fact, he has indicated that he takes every precaution to maintain confidentiality and does not even keep written notes of his conversations or any information disclosed to him as an ombudsman. He, however, does maintain records for statistical purposes and periodically provides a statistical summary to the court. He estimates that the number of matters handled varies from as many as three per week to as few as three per month.

Quite obviously, the hallmarks of the ombudsman are confidentiality, neutrality, informality and independence. The ombudsman does not report to and is not an agent of the court or of the OCBA. To properly perform his job, which requires both the trust and respect of the bench and bar, Mr. Serlin will operate entirely outside of the judicial process so that he may effectively and efficiently address matters raised by attorneys.

Attorneys, but not parties, with active cases may contact the ombudsman to discuss matters within his purview. The subject matter of inquiries within the jurisdiction of the ombudsman may not include any substantive aspect of any case before the court. The ombudsman will determine whether each inquiry falls within the scope of his duties and, if so, counsel the attorney making the inquiry and determine jointly whether any action is appropriate. If, indeed, a contact with the court is deemed appropriate, the ombudsman, acting confidentially and without identifying the attorney who initiated the inquiry, will contact the appropriate judicial officer, administrative official or staff member regarding the matter. Of course, the ombudsman may explain to the attorney, depending on the particular case or situation, the likelihood (or lack of likelihood) that the court will be able to determine who is making the inquiry. In general, the ombudsman, using his discretion, will advise all counsel of record of his involvement and communication with the court. Upon conclusion of the matter, no record will be kept by the ombudsman regarding his handling of the matter or the inquiry and all related communications, once again, will be kept strictly confidential and not for use in any proceeding or otherwise.

The OCBA thanks Chief Judge Nanci Grant and the entire Circuit Court bench for adopting this pilot program. We are delighted and proud to once again work so effectively with the Oakland County Circuit Court to bring this innovative program and opportunity to the members of the bar.


Unsung Hero

The OCBA's "unsung hero" this month is Elias Escobedo, a past president of the Oakland County Bar Association and a member of the Family Law Assistance Project's (FLAP) Family Law Pro Bono Panel since 2004. Mr. Escobedo, who is fluent in Spanish, has represented many of FLAP's Spanish-speaking clients. In 2011, he already has closed two cases and is working on a third. Elias has also actively represented a number of clients who participated in or were referred by Cooley Law School's "Service to Soldiers" program. Recently, he represented the family of a serviceman who had been killed in Iraq and arranged for a probate estate to be opened and a guardianship to be provided for the serviceman's daughter. All of this needed to be done to make sure that the daughter, who is three years old, received her father's death benefits to which she was entitled. When asked why he so consistently and gladly handles these pro bono matters, he said simply and modestly, "It's part of my responsibility, both as a veteran and as a lawyer. It comes with the territory. The least I can do is give back a little of what I have received."


Peter M. Alter, a partner in the Southfield office of Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss, is the 79th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Published: Mon, Nov 28, 2011