By Sabina Mollot
On June 25, there will be a Democratic primary in New York City, albeit a quiet one in certain districts, mainly for delegates for judicial convention, county committee members and district leader positions. But in the fourth Municipal Court district — the area comprised of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, Gramercy, Kips Bay and Murray Hill — there is a race for Civil Court judge with two serious candidates.
One is West Midtown resident Grace Park, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, and the other is Upper East Sider Lynne Fischman-Uniman, who also practices law, in her case for nearly 40 years. Unlike other races, judicial candidates don’t need to live in the districts they’re running in and it’s quite possible that if elected, they will end up being assigned outside the area or even the borough, depending on where the demand for judges is.
Civil Court judges decide cases involving small claims of up to $25,000 and some housing cases, though sometimes they’re assigned at first to Family Court or Criminal Court.
As for why New Yorkers should care about a local race for the bench, Fischman-Uniman’s elevator pitch to voters has been that along with her experience in law, including teaching it at New York Law School, she is devoted to the betterment of the court process wherever possible.
“Every judge should not just decide cases, but help improve the system,” she said. “Mediation gets cases out of court. It gets people to resolve cases so there is no winner or loser. Psychologically this is so much better.”
If elected, she said she would recruit more mediators, including law students.
“There are so many mediators who would volunteer,” said Fischman-Uniman. “I volunteer hundreds of hours a year.”
She has been a volunteer mediator herself for the last 26 years.
That experience, she said has helped learn what it is that motivates people to litigate and that often there’s a personal component.
“When someone says, ‘I’m going to sue,’ I say, ‘Okay, you’d like a lawsuit, but what is it you want? Do you want an apology?’”
She gave an example of two men who’d emigrated from Italy and gone into the restaurant business together only to get into a dispute over payments regarding ownership interests not being paid in a timely fashion. They each sued one another and when the court referred their case to mediation, the situation was so volatile Fischman-Uniman had to speak with each man in separate conference rooms on different floors. After meeting with them both, she heard what wasn’t being said.
“They wanted to be friends again.”
After re-structuring the ownership interest payments over a five-year period, and instructing the two men to work on their relationship, the attorney later learned that they’d bought another restaurant together.
Other volunteer work Fischman-Uniman has done is in advocacy. The candidate’s bio states that she counsels single parents on navigating life with special needs children and mentors women both outside and within the legal profession. She also does student and peer mentoring through different organizations.
“I’ve been in the trenches as an advocate,” she said.
This included becoming an early member of the Time’s Up Legal Fund to advise women of their rights.
Fischman-Uniman said she was motivated to help women tell their stories whether related to sexual assault or harassment or non-sexual workplace abuse in part due to her own experiences, having begun her career at a time when there were far fewer female attorneys.
“I know what it is to have a judge dismiss you and to be called shrill,” said Fischman-Uniman. “To have adversaries say, ‘Don’t get hysterical.’ To be in a conference room leading a negotiation and someone says, ‘Are you ordering lunch?’ These things have happened and I learned from each one of them. The real lesson is don’t let them happen to other people now.”
As an attorney, Fischman-Uniman said her primary concern in these situations is discerning what clients’ goals there, as sometimes it isn’t clear as it would seem in a complaint on paper.
“Some people want revenge. That’s a legitimate goal. Some people want a good recommendation. That’s a legitimate goal. So we have to tailor our advice to the individual.”
She’s also been an arbitrator, another court function that requires keen listening skills, she noted, in particular with people don’t have an attorney.
“They don’t know what’s important legally. So you have to listen to everything. It’s usually the last thing they say.”
Fischman-Uniman is 64, which means that if elected to the bench, a position with a 10-year-term, for her it would be just six years, since Civil Court judges must leave their positions at the age of 70. However, she could get appointed in the State Supreme Court, which would be a promotion.
As for her age, “I think it’s an asset for a judge,” she said. “Every day we get older and every day we get smarter.” Besides, as far as she’s concerned 64 is the new 54. “Whether it’s modern medicine or whether we’re learning to live better, 70 is not old.”
Additionally, the candidate said she’s wanted to become a judge practically since becoming an attorney. She also wanted to work in criminal law, though that ended up not working out when despite getting interviews with firms, she had no offers.
“I was always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” she said.
Instead she began her career in tax law for the federal Department of the Treasury, but knew not after very long that she’d rather be litigating. She then moved on to a private law firm, although she was still doing tax law there, too. It wasn’t until a few years later that she got an opportunity to litigate at a firm called Shea & Gould. She later led an entire litigation department and eventually became partner at the New York office of a Texas-based firm called Andrew Kurth Kenyon LLP. She remained there for 27 years, leaving in 2018 for a smaller firm called Allegaert Berger & Vogel.
Since February of this year, Fischman-Uniman’s been active in her campaign, which has received a handful of endorsements.
While her opponent has outpaced her in that department, getting nine current and former politicians, Fischman-Uniman is no slouch, having gotten half a dozen. They include the blessing of Congress Member Carolyn Maloney, former Mayor David Dinkins and Manhattan Assembly Members Dan Quart and Rebecca Seawright. She also has the support of a few Democratic clubs.
Though the candidate lives on the Upper East Side, she considers Gramercy her second home, mainly since she’s been a member of The Brotherhood Synagogue on East 20th Street since the 1980s. (Her longterm loyalty was the result of the temple making room for her on Rosh Hashanah for free despite her never having been there before. This was right after another Manhattan house of worship had offered to do the same thing for her for $3,000.)
“The Gramercy-Stuyvesant area has been a part of my life almost as long as I’ve been in the city,” said Fischman-Uniman. Both her now-grown children, daughter Emily and son Nate, were bar and mat mitzvahed at Brotherhood.
Fischman-Uniman grew up in Brooklyn in an Orthodox Jewish household, where her parents strongly encouraged her to get into either law or medicine. After choosing the former, she received her education at New York University, Brooklyn Law School and NYU Law.