Thomas P. Agresti Retiring as Erie Judge

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In October 2003, attorney Thomas P. Agresti was selected for a singular job in northwestern Pennsylvania. He was appointed as an Erie-based judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, based in Pittsburgh.

Nineteen years later, Agresti retires. His successor, whoever he is, will also work at the federal courthouse in Perry Square in downtown Erie.

Agresti, 71, said he would step down on February 10. His departure prompted the bankruptcy court to accept nominations for his successor to be “seated in Erie,” according to the court’s official notice. The deadline is Oct. 19, according to the notice, a version of which appeared in the Erie Times-News in the past few days.

Agresti was sworn in as a judge in April 2004, about six months after his selection was announced. He said the plan is to have a new judge in place when he leaves office.

The 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals will make the selection based on the recommendations of a merit selection committee. The panel must interview applicants to Erie, in accordance with the application form. The panel is being formed, Agresti said.

Final interviews will take place in Philadelphia, where the 3rd Circuit is based, according to the application.

The transfer of Agresti’s cases to other bankruptcy judges in the Western District of Pennsylvania began Saturday, according to a court order filed Thursday.

Federal circuit courts appoint bankruptcy judges, whose terms are renewable for 14 years. By law, the salary for bankruptcy judges for 2022 is $205,528, or 92% of a federal district judge’s $223,400 salary.

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Federal judges do not have a mandatory retirement age. But after nearly 20 years as a bankruptcy judge and 28 years as an attorney in private practice in Erie before that, Agresti said he was ready to end his legal career.

“It’s just time,” Agresti said. “I had a good race. It’s going fast.”

Agresti, of Millcreek Township, said he has no firm plans for retirement other than that he would like to travel and has no intention of practicing law or hearing business as a retired bankruptcy judge, known as a recall judge.

“I want to give someone else an opportunity,” Agresti said of his retirement as a judge.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court of Erie is located in the renovated old Erie County Main Library building on Perry Square, left.  The building is part of the Federal Courthouse complex, pictured August 21, 2019, which includes the Federal Courthouse, right.

The judge will be in the Erie Division of the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Agresti said he’s glad his successor is representing the Erie Division of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The Western Division has four bankruptcy judges — three based in Pittsburgh and one in Erie. The Erie judge hears cases from seven northwestern Pennsylvania counties: Erie, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Crawford, Venango and Warren. The Western District of Pennsylvania also has a division in Johnstown.

Without a bankruptcy judge in Erie, everyone in Pennsylvania’s northwest counties would have to go to Pittsburgh — “a big inconvenience,” Agresti said.

The Erie-based bankruptcy judge also hears some cases from the Pittsburgh area. Agresti said his current caseload is made up of 75% cases from northwestern Pennsylvania and 25% cases from Pittsburgh.

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In 2021, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania saw a total of 3,923 cases filed, up from 5,022 in 2020, according to court statistics. The breakdown for the 2,021 cases was 2,743, Pittsburgh; 698, Erie; 482 Johnstown.

When Agresti took office as a judge in 2003, the Western District of Pennsylvania had a much larger number of bankruptcy cases. The total number of bankruptcy cases filed in the District in 2003 was 19,287, including 3,151 in the Erie Division. Erie deposits peaked at 5,373 in 2005.

Agresti is the third person to serve as a bankruptcy judge in Erie since Congress created the office of bankruptcy judge in 1978, according to a history of U.S. bankruptcy court in Erie. Previously, bankruptcy cases were handled by arbitrators, appointed for a two-year term.

The first bankruptcy judge in Erie was William Washabaugh, who served from 1978 to 1985. He was succeeded by Warren W. Bentz, who started in 1985, retired in 1999 and continued to hear cases on a recall basis until 2009. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals selected Agresti as its bankruptcy judge in October 2003, and he was sworn in on April 5, 2004.

Agresti initially only heard Pittsburgh cases as a bankruptcy judge, while Bentz continued to hear Erie cases to help with the overall caseload. Agresti also served as Chief Bankruptcy Judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania for a time.

Agresti followed his family into law in Erie

Agresti comes from a prominent Erie family of lawyers. Agresti’s father, Richard, and Agresti’s uncle, Joseph, founded the firm Agresti & Agresti in the 1930s. Joseph Agresti was Erie County’s oldest full-time practicing attorney when he died aged 89 in 2001. Richard Agresti died aged 83 in 1993.

Thomas Agresti was a partner in the family business when he was appointed bankruptcy judge.

He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1976 and began his private practice in Erie in 1978. He also served as an assistant Erie County District Attorney from 1980 to 1987.

Agresti began handling the bankruptcy cases in 1982 as one of five court-appointed administrators for Erie’s bankruptcy filings. Trustees monitor bankruptcies and distribute assets to pay creditors. Bankruptcy judges make the final decisions.

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Trustees sometimes run bankrupt businesses while they reorganize under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. In the early 1990s, Agresti operated what was then the Granada Garden apartment complex in Millcreek for three years as a trustee in bankruptcy.

Agresti maintained his private practice while serving as trustee. In a 2002 interview, a year before he was appointed bankruptcy judge, he recounted how he became a trustee in bankruptcy – the position that eventually led to his appointment as a bankruptcy judge.

“In 1982, I was an assistant district attorney in Erie and I went to a lawyers’ focus group on Wednesday noon,” Agresti said. “Judge William Washabaugh was there and I was sitting next to him. He asked me what I was doing. He said, ‘Why don’t you join the private group of administrators?

“My father and my uncle thought it was a good idea. I submitted an application and three months later I was selected.”

Contact Ed Palattella at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

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