Environmental clean-ups, major construction disputes and sexual-harassment complaints are among a growing list of issues that have led to an increasingly clogged Civil Court docket in New Jersey.
Fortunately, they're also three of the specialities of the Office of Dispute Settlement (ODS), a state agency within the Office of the Public Defender that aims to steer legal opponents to out-of-court settlements before their cases can drag endlessly through the maze of civil litigation.
From its origins as a neighborhood justice center in the mid-1970s, through its inclusion in the Office of the Public Advocate in the 1980s and now, as an integral part of the Office of the Public Defender, ODS has diversified over the years to offer mediation services in just about every category of civil law.
Although under the auspices of the Office of the Public Defender, ODS differs from the role most often associated with that agency. By statute, ODS serves as a neutral third party whose sole role is to mediate civil cases in hopes of keeping them out of court.
With its end goal of saving thousands, even millions, in litigation costs and court time, ODS has mediated cases involving public housing developments in Newark and an Exxon oil spill in the Arthur Kill, even a 40-party, $500 million environmental insurance-coverage dispute.
"We've grown from doing a handful of cases to handling over 200 a year," said Eric Max, who has directed the agency since 1988, when it was still part of the Public Advocate's office. "We've also grown in the types of cases we do. It used to be primarily public-policy cases, but now it's all kinds of civil cases."
Far from jealously guarding its expertise, the office also offers training in dispute resolution techniques to court and government entities throughout the state, including Superior Court judges, the Attorney General's Office and the Department of Environmental Protection.
"As much demand as there is in the courts for our ODS services, the office still remains something of an unknown to the general public," New Jersey Public Defender Ivelisse Torres said. "I guess you could say it's our undiscovered jewel. People probably wouldn't think of something like ODS when they think of the Public Defender, but it's a service we are very proud of."
News outlets interested in learning more about ODS's expanding role in the courts can arrange an interview with Eric Max by contacting Jeff Beach, Public Information Officer for the Office of the Public Defender, at (609) 777-1862.
Following is a list of judges and attorneys who have been involved in ODS-mediated cases and could provide their views of the service.
Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli - (201) 795-6736
- (609) 896-2222