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As courts turn to e-filing, couriers get less work

The Providence Journal, May 11, 2008

By Edward Fitzpatrick

With a Red Sox cap on his head, a bag slung across his chest, and the tattoo of a bike messenger on his leg, Leo LaBelle Jr. pedals his fixed-gear bike into the flow of downtown traffic, surging past cars and trucks, heading for the marble columns of the state’s Licht Judicial Complex.

After stopping at the Superior Court clerk’s office to deliver a reply to a lawsuit, LaBelle zips over to One Citizens Plaza to pick up a document from the Adler Pollock & Sheehan law firm. He plucks the package from the reception desk and glances up at the lawyers who are sitting behind a glass wall, huddled around a long conference table, poring over piles of paper with serious looks on their faces.

“Do they look like they’re having fun?” LaBelle asks.

Seconds later, LaBelle is back on his bike, a blur of long sideburns and black socks emblazoned with red chili peppers, cranking from Kennedy Plaza to the secretary of state’s office on West River Street, near the main post office, in about four minutes.

For LaBelle, owner of Dash Delivery, the pace is part of the appeal.

But as quick as he is, LaBelle cannot outpace electronic filing, which is fast becoming the way for lawyers, litigants and businesses to submit documents to courts and government agencies such as the secretary of state’s office. E-filing, as it’s called, is a method of filing documents in electronic format, via e-mail or over the Internet, rather than in the traditional paper format.

In October 2003, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Rhode Island began using e-filing, although the new method didn’t become mandatory until January 2007, Clerk of the Court Susan Thurston says.

In August 2006, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island went to e-filing, Clerk of the Court David A. DiMarzio says.

In August 2007, the secretary of state’s office began accepting annual reports electronically from for-profit corporations, and 34 percent of those businesses filed electronically in the most recent reporting period, spokesman Chris Barnett says. The General Assembly is considering legislation that would allow nonprofits and limited liability companies to also file documents electronically, he says.

And now, the state court system is aiming to have an e-filing system fully implemented by December 2011, with the rollout beginning about a year before that date.

“This is the future,” says Robert T. Baynes, executive director of the state’s Judicial Technology Center.

So what does that mean for the future of bike messengers?

Nationwide, the number of couriers and messengers dropped from 134,370 in 1999 to 105,070 in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor. That category includes those who “pick up and carry messages, documents, packages and other items between offices or departments within an establishment or to other business concerns, traveling by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, automobile or public conveyance.” The category excludes truck drivers and delivery services.

The trend is reflected in Rhode Island, where the number of couriers and messengers dropped from 480 in 1999 to 400 in 2006.

Walter J. Marshall, the Boston-based regional economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, attributes the trend to the use of information technology such as e-mail, fax machines and the Internet. He notes he used e-mail to send The Journal statistics about couriers and messengers, whereas 15 years ago he might have mailed that information or used a courier.

LaBelle says about 80 percent of his business involves the courts and law firms. For example, the state’s high-profile lead paint litigation was a boon for his business, with 125 defense lawyers squaring off against state lawyers and literally filling two off-site garages with legal documents.

But Dash Delivery took a hit when Bankruptcy Court went electronic. While it had accounted for about 30 percent of business before, Bankruptcy Court now produces maybe one delivery a month, LaBelle says.

Then came e-filing in U.S. District Court, which had provided about 25 percent of the company’s business. Messengers still deliver to U.S. District Court on a regular basis, but the activity is down, LaBelle says.

State courts — including Superior Court, Family Court and District Court — now account for about one-third of Dash Delivery’s business. And, LaBelle says, “If Superior Court ever went fully electronic, we would be screwed.”

But even amid the embrace of the new technology, Dash Delivery continues delivering certain documents to courthouses and law firms. “We are down to only the important documents that need to be delivered by messenger,” LaBelle says. “That’s what we are doing now, and I don’t think that will go away.”

DiMarzio says that while many documents, such as motions and legal memos, are filed electronically in U.S. District Court, the charging documents in criminal cases and the initial complaints in civil cases are still filed in paper form. While those documents will probably be filed electronically at some point in the future, he says, “the bike messenger lives on for a few items.”

LaBelle says deliveries to the secretary of state’s office have remained steady. “We thought it was going to nosedive,” he says. “But it never slowed down.”

Also, Dash Delivery, which has two full-time employees and five part-timers, has branched out. About a year ago, the company began delivering blood samples and medical files on the campus of Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, and it is subcontracting for a larger company, Now Delivery, which otherwise uses cars.

LaBelle said it helps that his business is immune from high gas prices, and it helps that Dash Delivery is the lone Providence business that uses only bike messengers. “This is a one-horse town,” he says, “and I’m the one horse here.”

So in other words, Dash Delivery isn’t about to go the way of the pony express. “Will I always have seven messengers? I don’t know,” LaBelle says. “Will I be a messenger? Absolutely.”

LABELLE, 35, of Providence, has been a bike messenger for 13 years now. He is married, with an 8-year-old daughter and an 8-month-old son. And he is a businessman, with management duties and bills to pay.

But his staff meetings involve drinking iced coffee outside the Starbucks (he calls its “Four-bucks”) at One Financial Plaza (a Pawtucket native, he calls it the old Hospital Trust building). And his office is the seat of a 54-centimeter fixed-gear bike made by Circle A Cycles in Providence.

He likes the snap of meeting deadline. “My adrenaline — the kick for this — is getting the job done, the rush jobs,” he says.

He takes pride in the tools of his trade. His fixed-gear bike has no brakes. To stop, he shifts his weight to the front of the bike seat and puts some resistance on the forward motion of the pedals. He says maintenance is minimal and he can control the bike with precision. “Cars have brakes,” he notes, “and they still collide.”

He acknowledges thrill-seeking is part of what attracts him to the job. And he can’t give you a good reason why he — and most of the other riders — don’t wear helmets.

But he quickly comes up with a definition of the profession. “What is a bike messenger?” LaBelle says. “Someone who needs to live a little bit faster than the average person but also not to conform to suit and tie.”

That doesn’t mean you have to have tattoos. Messenger Nathan Turillo, 32, of Providence, has a variety of tattoos, including one with the words “Oh, Yeah!” above the red Kool-Aid Man, who is rendered with a bat in one hand, a torch in the other and a cigar in his mouth.

But messenger Kai Giardini, 24, of Providence, refuses to get a tattoo. “I don’t want to fall into the mainstream culture,” he says, smiling and wearing a T-shirt bearing the periodic table of the elements.

THE JOB has its challenges. Winter can be tough, and Turillo said he averages 37 miles per day.

But the job has its joys. “It’s worth working the whole winter to have days like this,” Giardini says as a brilliant, warm sun bathed South Main Street.

The job has its surprises. LaBelle recalls delivering a “yellow plastic suit” from the Miko Exoticwear store for “exotic dancers” to the Sportsman’s Inn on Fountain Street.

And the job has its dangers. Weybosset Street potholes come to mind, as do motorists who consider blinkers a sign of weakness. LaBelle displays a bump on the back of his right hand — a reminder of the Mercury Cougar that blew a red light and clipped his bike in 1996. He broke his hand, but with no health insurance, he didn’t get treatment, and the bone never mended correctly.

But LaBelle, who has health insurance now, has survived more than a decade in downtown traffic, and he expects his industry to survive e-filing.

“There’s always going to be a need for the messengers,” he says, sipping iced coffee. “I feel like we’ll always be here.”




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