COVID-19’s impact on the U.S. judiciary and litigation

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and escalating restrictions on Americans to stay at home as much as possible, U.S. courts at the state and federal levels are implementing emergency procedures in recognition of social distancing.

Because the U.S. judiciary is decentralized, no single contingency plan applies and each court is responsible for its own practices and procedures. As a result, the adjustments are varied and include restrictions on courthouse access, hearing and trial adjournments, deadline extensions, and allowance of remote appearances. It is important for litigants and their counsel to stay attuned to developments that are changing frequently by checking court websites, dockets and contacting the court as necessary.

Major changes to date

The federal judiciary, including the 94 U.S. federal trial courts, has been urged by its chief administrator to implement the following recommendations to protect public safety:

  • Permit as many employees as is practicable to telework.
  • Postpone all courthouse proceedings with more than 10 people, such as naturalization ceremonies.
  • Conduct in-person court proceedings only when absolutely necessary. Utilize videoconferencing or audioconferencing capabilities where practicable.
  • Conduct jury proceedings only in exceptional circumstances.
  • Limit the number of family members who attend proceedings.
  • Stagger scheduling of critical court proceedings to reduce the number of people in seating galleries, wells of courtrooms, conference rooms, and public waiting areas; and
  • Limit staff at critical courtroom proceedings to fewer than 10 people and ensure that they are at least six feet apart.

Numerous federal courthouses have closed upon having confirmed exposure to COVID-19, while most have suspended jury trials for the time being and are increasingly limiting operations to emergency proceedings. Some districts have already announced closures through at least May 1.

Likewise, many U.S. state courts have suspended trials and are enacting additional procedural allowances to contend with COVID-19 disruptions. In New York, for example, statutes of limitations, and all procedural deadlines in pending legal actions, are currently tolled until April 19, 2020.

Moreover, New York state courts will not accept, until further order, filings in any non-essential matter—including in any commercial matter. Judges are authorized to designate a matter “essential” on a case-by-case basis, so a party seeking emergency relief, such as a temporary restraining order, will have to make an application to the court to permit the filing.

All New York courts will be conducting virtual court proceedings using Skype for essential and emergency cases and the court administration is working on plans to expand virtual operations to commercial and other non-essential matters in the near future.

Navigating the changes and looking ahead

The rules relating to court access, document filing and relief from limitations periods and other legal deadlines differ by jurisdiction. Because these rules are being updated and revised on a daily basis, it is important to verify the rules for a specific jurisdiction in real time.

An organization that anticipates having urgent need of court assistance in the coming weeks—such as an application for expedited relief that may be precipitated by the crisis—should coordinate with the relevant court administration as early as possible to ensure the court will hear the matter, to arrange logistics for hearing by video or teleconference as necessary, and for the electronic filing of materials as permitted or required by the court.

New York’s suspension of limitations periods is just one of many within a patchwork of jurisdiction-specific measures designed to protect parties from losing their rights. However, with ad hoc changes come a new set of litigation risks and potentially unintended consequences. The changes put a premium on careful case monitoring and follow-up to meet adjusted deadlines, filing and remote access requirements. Especially in this time of workplace dispersal, stress and distraction, it is critical for parties and their counsel to remain diligent in tracking these changes for the foreseeable future.

Read all our coronavirus-related updates on our COVID-19 guidance for organizations resource page.

To discuss these issues, please contact the author(s).

This publication is a general discussion of certain legal and related developments and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you require legal advice, we would be pleased to discuss the issues in this publication with you, in the context of your particular circumstances.

For permission to republish this or any other publication, contact Janelle Weed.

© 2021 by Torys LLP.
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