Like schools, businesses, and other institutions, courts have adjusted hours, limited activities, and enacted mask, social distancing, and other requirements to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Yet, judicial officials have also recognized the need for parties to have their legal disputes, rights, and responsibilities addressed. For the most part, COVID-19 has not closed the doors to lawsuits. However, you and your lawyer will need to utilize technology, exercise patience, and be open to resolving your case without a trial.
Filing the Lawsuit
Many jurisdictions, including the federal courts, permit electronic filings of complaints and other pleadings. Also, due to the pandemic, many states have extended statutes of limitations and similar filing deadlines and have altered requirements for in-person verification of signatures by notaries.
However, lawsuits to evict tenants or other occupiers of apartments, buildings, or land have been a constant subject of temporary suspensions. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has enacted a moratorium effective through December 31, 2020, on evictions of tenants based upon a failure to pay rent. Specifically, those tenants who sign a declaration under penalty of perjury of certain circumstances are protected from eviction. The moratorium includes the commencement of eviction lawsuits.
During a lawsuit, you and your opponent get to ask each other written questions and request documents. These interrogatories and requests for production of documents require little, if any, face-to-face contact. The technology that allows a plethora of virtual activities also stores many of the documents requested. In fact, many discovery requests seek emails, electronic versions of copies, and social media posts. Cloud-based computing and digital transmission often eliminate the need to meet physically to bring or copy paper documents. Lawyers can discuss responses with their clients and objections from opposing lawyers.
Depositions involve witnesses and parties answering questions, often leading ones, under oath. The statements made in these examinations can facilitate pretrial dismissals or serious efforts to settle cases. However, live, in-person depositions do not promote the social distancing measures urged by health and other officials. In a normal deposition, the participants sit close and exchange exhibits among each other.
Remote litigation depositions rely upon applications such as Zoom or video products developed for or used by court reporters. Parties may electronically introduce and transmit to the reporter and other participants digital versions of exhibits. If the parties agree, the anticipated exhibits can reach the reporter and opposing parties before the deposition itself. The video features of remote depositions give your lawyer the benefits of seeing how a witness or opposing party reacts to and answers various questions.
The necessity of social distancing has placed significant limits on jury trials. Suspensions on civil jury trials remain in many jurisdictions. Where courts have resumed jury trials, the backlog may delay your day in court.
Video meeting technology has facilitated remote hearings. That means courts are conducting hearings on pretrial matters such as motions to dismiss cases, compel the production of documents, change the venue, and amend pleadings. The full merits of your case are more likely to be reached in a bench trial. When judges sit as fact-finders and verdict-makers, you don’t need the space for juries or the time it takes to select juries, argue before them, and have legal arguments heard outside of a jury’s presence.
The coronavirus pandemic has not brought civil cases to a halt. However, the challenges presented by the highly contagious virus and social distancing may delay the completion of cases. It might prompt parties to more readily consider settling cases or find alternative means of communicating.
Author information: Anita Ginsburg is a freelance writer from Denver, CO. She studied at Colorado State University and now writes articles about health, business, family, and finance. A mother of two, she enjoys traveling with her family whenever she isn’t writing. You can follow her on Twitter @anitaginsburg.