Navigating the Pandemic: How California Courts are Responding to COVID-19

By Brigitte J. Khoury and Bill Sahachartsiri Legal Perspectives May 11, 2020

Navigating the Pandemic: How California Courts are Responding to COVID-19

In just a few weeks, the novel coronavirus’ spread has had an extraordinary impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.  The pandemic has hit home for several of us, including those in the legal profession.  For many attorneys, the world of work had shifted from the four walls of our office to the remote space of our living rooms. 

In fact, several attorneys and litigants have been scratching their heads wondering how this will impact new and existing cases.  This article will discuss the California court system’s response to today’s current events. 

Below are the key takeaways from the procedures and rules adopted by the Judicial Council of California (the policymaking body of the California state courts) and the federal district courts in California, to address the COVID-19 related shutdowns:

  1. Suspension of Jury Trials.
    • State  60-day suspension: California courts have issued extensions to civil matters and continued trials to later dates.  On March 23, 2020, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye suspended all superior court jury trials for 60 days.[1]  In a recent webinar, Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile, speculated that civil trials will not start up again until the August or September of 2020.[2]
    • Federal – varying timelines: Each federal district court in California has set its own timeline for the suspension of jury trials.  For example, to date, the Southern District of California set forth May 15, 2020 as its target date to resume jury trials,[3] while in the Central and Northern Districts, the courts are not calling in jurors for service until after June 1, 2020 or otherwise ordered by the court.[4]  Additionally, the Eastern District has set June 15, 2020 as the earliest potential return date.[5]
  2. Tolling of the Statute of Limitations for Civil Cases.
    • State: California courts have tolled the statute of limitations for all civil cases beginning on April 6, 2020.  The tolling period ends either 90 days after the Governor of California lifts the state of emergency, or when the Judicial Council amends or repeals the tolling.[6]
    • Federal: Although Federal courts have no statutory authority to toll statutes of limitations during emergencies, they have authority to exercise their inherent equitable powers on a case-by-case basis.  See, e.g., Retail Clerks Union Local 648 v. Hub Pharmacy, Inc., 707 F.2d 1030, 1033 (9th Cir. 1983) (“When federal courts borrow a state statute of limitations, they also apply the state’s tolling law if it is not inconsistent with federal law.”); see also Buckley v. Doha Bank Ltd., 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13769, at *4-*5 (S.D.N.Y. July 29, 2002) (“Because the equitable tolling doctrine is based on the general principles of equity and fairness, the unprecedented circumstances of the World Trade Center disaster and subsequent Court closure warrant relief from a strict application of the 90–day statute of limitations in this case.”).
  3. Use of Technology.
    • State: The Judicial Council now allows courts to require that civil proceedings be conducted remotely.  Conducting proceedings remotely includes, “the use of video, audio, and telephonic means for remote appearances; the electronic exchange and authentication of documentary evidence; e-filing and e-service; the use of remote interpreting; and the use of remote reporting and electronic recording to make the official record of an action or proceeding.”[7]
    • Federal: Similarly, each federal district court in California now authorizes judges to conduct hearings via telephone or videoconference when the judge believes it to be necessary.[8]

Despite these changes, there is much that has remained the same for litigators.  Civil cases in both state and federal courts are continuing to move forward with the use of electronic service, e-filings, and electronic discovery procedures.  For example:

  1. Service: For California state courts, effective April 17, 2020, parties represented by counsel are temporarily required to accept electronic service of notices and documents in all general civil proceedings if requested to do so by another party.[9]  The Northern District of California has temporarily suspended any requirement that personnel in the United States Marshals Service effect personal service of process, though the order does not apply to service of process by mail, waivers of service under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(d), or service by electronic means.[10]  Other California district courts have been silent on the issue.
  2. Filings: In the Los Angeles County and Orange County Superior Court, parties are still able to file discovery and other motions in certain matters, though scheduling of hearings on these motions is unavailable at this time.[11]  Other courts, such as the San Diego County Superior Court, have suspended the acceptance of e-File documents and limited available filings to only essential matters.[12]  Additionally, many superior courts are still accepting requests for emergency relief (g., emergency civil temporary injunctions) during the pandemic.  Correspondingly, the federal courts of California have encouraged the use of its online CM/ECF system for electronic filings.[13]
  3. Discovery: Parties are still encouraged to serve discovery requests/responses and meet and confer to move cases forward.  Furthermore, the use of technology has made remote/virtual depositions in lieu of an in-person deposition possible. 

While the Courts have made several changes since the beginning of the pandemic, we expect to see additional rules and guidance from the Courts in the upcoming weeks.  Attorneys and litigants should be aware of the proper timing for when they can, and should, file lawsuits to ensure their matter does not become untimely.  Likewise, litigants should expect an increase in lawsuits once any shelter-in-place orders are lifted due to the extension of statute of limitations deadlines. 

As courts continue to grapple with how to move forward, we understand that our clients, and businesses large and small, are facing numerous practical and legal challenges.  For any questions about the implications of these rules on your businesses or your potential and pending claims, please reach out to Gerard Fox Law P.C.

 

 

[1] Judicial Council of California, March 23, 2020 Statewide Order by Hon. Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, https://newsroom.courts.ca.gov/news/chief-justice-issues-statewide-order-suspending-jury-trials.

[2] Los Angeles County Bar Association COVID-19 Q&A Presentation with LASC Court Leadership, https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_cKb_PygoTXGUPxzVSRu9VA;  see also Brazile Sees Possible Resumption of Trials in Criminal Cases in June; Civil Cases Later, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, http://www.metnews.com/articles/2020/brazile041320.htm.

[3] Southern District of California, Order of the Chief Judge #24, https://www.casd.uscourts.gov/covid19.aspx.

[4] Central District of California, General Order No. 20-05, https://www.cacd.uscourts.gov/news/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance; Northern District of California, General Order No. 72-2, https://www.cand.uscourts.gov/notices/updated-notice-regarding-general-orders-court-operations-and-paper-filings-during-covid-19-public-health-emergency/.

[5] Eastern District of California, General Order 617, http://www.caed.uscourts.gov/caednew/index.cfm/news/covid-19-courthouse-closure-and-court-hearing-information/.

[6] Judicial Council of California, Appendix I: Emergency Rules Related to COVID-19, https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/appendix-i.pdf.

[7] Id.

[8] See, e.g., Central District of California, General Order No. 20-05, https://www.cacd.uscourts.gov/news/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance.

[9] Judicial Council of California, Appendix I: Emergency Rules Related to COVID-19, https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/appendix-i.pdf.

[10] Northern District of California, General Order No. 75, https://www.cand.uscourts.gov/notices/updated-notice-regarding-general-orders-court-operations-and-paper-filings-during-covid-19-public-health-emergency/.

[11] See, e.g., Los Angeles Superior Court’s Frequently Asked questions – Civil Litigation 4-22-2020, http://www.lacourt.org/newsmedia/ui/covid19NewsCenter.aspx; see also Orange County Superior Court’s Civil Limited, Unlimited, and Complex-Emergency Protocol and Rescheduled Hearing Plan, https://www.occourts.org/media-relations/civil.html.

[12] See, e.g., San Diego County Superior Court’s Services That May Be Provided By The San Diego Superior Court During the COVID-19 Pandemic (SDSC Form # ADM-385), http://www.sdcourt.ca.gov/portal/page?_pageid=55,2053814&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL.

[13] See, e.g., Central District of California’s COVID-19 Notice, https://www.cacd.uscourts.gov/news/covid-19-notice.

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