Action News Investigation: Major delays in Philadelphia's federal court

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Imagine waiting five years, eight years, or even longer to get justice.

An Action News Investigation has uncovered major delays taking place in Philadelphia's federal court with wait times so long, they fail to meet the court's own standards for a speedy trial.

We aren't talking about just one case, or two cases.

A federal judicial survey from September of last year found 422 cases in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania have dragged out three or more years without a trial or decision. And Action News found one judge had a large chunk of the cases.

Eric Orange and Steven Mozdzierz are just two of nearly 100 plaintiffs who have been waiting and waiting for justice.

"It seems to me that after seven years it's crazy. Give me some kind of action on it," Orange said.

"It's taken a great toll on me," Mozdzierz said.

Mozdzierz is a former Marine who had three surgeries on his knees following his seven years in combat.

"I got up out of my chair and I fell to the floor. I couldn't stand on my own legs. I had surgery one time it didn't work, I had surgery again, didn't work. All this time it was on long term disability," Mozdzierz said.

But he says his disability payments suddenly stopped in 2005. After fighting the insurance company he filed a lawsuit six years ago in Federal court. The case was assigned to Judge Barclay Surrick.

"My life was, I want to say hell but it was rough, it was very rough," Mozdzierz said.

Mozdzierz says he almost lost everything, including his house and to this day, he is still waiting to see if the judge will award him those disability payments as he struggles to make ends meet.

"I don't want to rattle the cage if you will because he's the one that's going to determine the outcome," Mozdzierz said.

"It seems as if he's not doing anything," Eric Orange said.

In 2007, Orange also filed a lawsuit, to gain control of a website he started, LocalWineEvents.com.

"As a tax payer we pay guys to handle situation like this. For it to just go nowhere, it just doesn't seem right," Orange said.

Orange's lawsuit languished in front of Judge Surrick for seven years, and he says potentially cost him a lucrative offer to buy the site. Orange has now given up and withdrawn his case.

"There are probably other cases that are sitting and doing nothing as well," Orange said.

Action News reviewed records showing in September of last year Judge Surrick had 79 outstanding cases that had been sitting with no resolution for three or more years. 112 motions hadn't been ruled on for more than six months.

It's important to note, half of the outstanding cases are multijurisdictional and out of his control.

Judge Surrick would not speak with us on camera, but via telephone explained some of the delays may have been caused by him sitting on two high profile cases, including the Kaboni Savage murder trial that took more than a year. He told us he would look into the backlog and since we contacted Surrick, he has set new deadlines to move forward with the Mozidiez case.

"Justice delayed is justice denied. And we frankly have far too many folks who are not getting their day in court in this country," Delaware Senator Chris Coons said.

Senator Coons sits on the US Senate Federal Judiciary Committee and believes the system is flawed.

"We have very long, unacceptably long wait times for motions, for hearings, for resolutions. In America, that is just not right," Coons said.

Coons blames cuts in federal funding for these delays he says are system wide.

It is important to point out the 65% of the judges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania have three or fewer cases that have been outstanding for three years or more.

The court's own delay reduction plan says cases should be heard within one year of being filed and says the Chief Judge should reassign cases if a judge falls behind on his or her work.

But that did not happen in Surrick's case.

When we contacted Chief Judge Petrese Tucker, she failed to return our multiple calls.
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