Agresti retiring as Erie bankruptcy judge; federal appeals court to pick successor

In October 2003, lawyer Thomas P. Agresti was selected for a singular job in northwestern Pennsylvania. He was named an Erie-based judge on U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Pittsburgh-based Western District of Pennsylvania.

Nineteen years later, Agresti is retiring. His successor — whoever that might be — will also work at the federal courthouse on Perry Square in downtown Erie.

Agresti, 71, said he is stepping down on Feb. 10. His departure spurred the Bankruptcy Court to accept applications for his successor, to be "seated in Erie," the court's official notice said. The deadline is Oct. 19, according to the notice, a version of which has been published in the Erie Times-News over the past several 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 by the time he leaves office.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will make the pick based on recommendations from a merit selection committee. The panel is to interview candidates in Erie, according to the application form. The panel is being formed, Agresti said.

The 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 started on Saturday, according to a court order filed on Thursday.

The federal circuit courts appoint bankruptcy judges, who serve renewable 14-year terms. By law, the salary for bankruptcy judges for 2022 is $205,528, or 92% of the $223,400 salary of a federal district judge.

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Federal judges have no mandatory retirement age. But after nearly 20 years as a bankruptcy judge and 28 years as a lawyer in private practice in Erie before that, Agresti said he is ready to end his legal career.

"It is just time," Agresti said. "I've had a good run. It goes fast."

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

"I want give someone else an opportunity," Agresti said of retiring as a judge.

Judge will be in Erie Division of Western District of Pa.

Agresti said he is pleased that his successor will represent the Erie Division of 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 that originate in seven counties in northwestern Pennsylvania: 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, all the residents from the counties in northwestern Pennsylvania would have to travel to Pittsburgh — "a big inconvenience," Agresti said.

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

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

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

Agresti is the third person to serve as a bankruptcy judge in Erie since Congress created the position of bankruptcy judge in 1978, according to a history of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Erie. Before then, bankruptcy cases fell under the jurisdiction of referees, appointed to two-year terms.

The first bankruptcy judge in Erie was William Washabaugh, who served from 1978 to 1985. Succeeding him was 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 bankruptcy judge in October 2003, and he took the oath of office 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 family into law in Erie

Agresti is from a prominent family of Erie lawyers. Agresti's father, Richard, and Agresti's uncle, Joseph, started the Agresti & Agresti firm in the 1930s. Joseph Agresti was the oldest full-time practicing lawyer in Erie County when he died at 89 in 2001. Richard Agresti died at 83 in 1993.

Thomas Agresti was a partner in the family firm when he was named bankruptcy judge.

He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1976 and he started his private practice in Erie in 1978. He also worked as an assistant district attorney for Erie County from 1980 to 1987.

Agresti started handling bankruptcy cases in 1982 as one of five court-appointed trustees for Erie bankruptcy filings. The trustees supervise the bankruptcies and distribute the assets to pay creditors. Bankruptcy judges make the final decisions.

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The 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 bankruptcy trustee.

Agresti maintained his private practice while he was a trustee. In an interview in 2002, a year before he was named bankruptcy judge, he recounted how he became a bankruptcy trustee — the position that eventually led to him being appointed a bankruptcy judge.

"In 1982, I was an assistant district attorney in Erie and I went to a Wednesday noon discussion group of lawyers," Agresti said. "Judge William Washabaugh was there and I was seated next to him. He asked me what I was doing. He said, 'Why don't you join the private panel of trustees?'

"My dad and uncle thought it was a good idea. I submitted an application and three months later I was selected."

Contact Ed Palattella at Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: U.S. Bankruptcy Court: Thomas P. Agresti retiring as Erie judge