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Divorcing couples and criminal suspects find cases stuck in backlog in Wayne County Clerk's office

Posted at 7:25 PM, Sep 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 19:25:19-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Clients who are divorcing their husbands or wives are finding themselves unable to sell homes or watching refinancing deals sail away because of a backlog of cases at the Wayne County Clerk's office where they're struggling with a shortage of workers.

Attorney Celeste Dunn, who handles divorces and general civil cases, said the problem is right out of the gate.

"There are filings, our pleadings, our complaints are sitting in limbo," said Dunn. "And you call to see if we're on the docket and the court's chambers doesn't have it. So it's a, it's a real problem. And the backlog seems to be growing."

Dunn said she has not noticed the problem in the courts in Oakland and Macomb counties.

"I need to get in front of judges to make the decisions. That's how the system works and it's, it's not functioning," Dunn added.

In a statement, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett told 7 Action News that her office has 75 vacancies, which accounts for 26% of her staff.

"The staff shortage has caused a major impact which has fostered a stressful work environment," she wrote.

The shortage includes clerks assigned to judges in civil and criminal courts.

"What if I have a case where I've got to try to find a witness and two years later, they've moved to California and I can't find them?" said criminal defense attorney Charles Longstreet. "It affects my ability to defend the client."

Longstreet said the problem started March 16, 2020. And when everything shut down for the pandemic, pending criminal cases were put on hold and everything began to back up as new cases continued to roll in. Add a worker shortage, an unusually high number of CCW (carrying concealed weapon) cases, and the justice system began to take on water.

Longstreet said there are defendants who have been held in jail since 2019 or have remained on a tether for an extraordinary amount of time.

"You may have people who lose employment because they have a pending case, and employers say, 'Well, as long as you have a pending case, you can't work. So now you've got this person who can't get a job because they have a pending matter and it may not go for a year or two."

And the worker shortage is not just at the clerk's office. There's a shortage of assistant prosecutors in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office where the starting pay for many attorneys is $55,000, which is about $10,000 less than the starting pay for lawyers at prosecutor offices in Oakland and Macomb counties.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy said, in a statement, "We are working to reduce the caseloads and get assistance to the staff. In keeping with that, we have expanded our search from Southeast Michigan to a nationwide search to recruit new staff members."

Worthy added that Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is aware of their current salary and retention issues and that he's working with them to address the matters.

The following is Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett's full statement:

The Office of the Wayne County Clerk currently has 75 vacancies, which attributes to 26% of our staff. There is a great need for candidates in all divisions. We've reached out to retirees and are working with County Personnel to fill the vacant positions. This is all occurring during a time when we've been faced with an unprecedented demand for services in this new normal. The staff shortage has caused a major impact which has fostered a stressful work environment. I will continue to advocate to fill the vacancies and support the needs of the employees who have worked on-site daily, since the beginning of the pandemic.