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COVID-19 Update: New York Courts Reducing In-Court Operations and In-Person Traffic

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  • Posted on: Dec 9 2020

It goes without saying that the spread of the coronavirus is accelerating across the country. As noted in the lead paragraph of an article posted in yesterday’s online version of the Washington Post, titled “U.S. Surpasses 15 million Coronavirus Cases as Spread Accelerates” (here): 

It took about 100 days for the United States to record its first 1 million coronavirus cases, and 44 more passed before the country topped 2 million. But now, in the middle of the most severe surge yet, it has taken just five days to record one million infections, and on Tuesday, the country surpassed 15 million, more than anywhere else in the world by a wide margin. 

Although a vaccine is on the horizon, experts expect the virus will continue to rage during the next couple of months.

In New York, COVID-19 deaths have started to climb along with an increase in hospitalizations. More than 4,800 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized across the state, double the reported number on November 18, 2020, and the highest number of hospitalizations since May 22, 2020. As reported in the downstate news media, the growth in hospitalizations, while not yet at a critical level, “is worrisome” (here).

Governor Cuomo has warned that shutdowns in a given region will occur if hospitals in that region reach 90 percent capacity in the next three weeks. No region is presently close to that point, though Long Island and New York City are the nearest, with data showing only 18 percent and 19 percent of hospital beds available in those regions. Governor Cuomo wants at least 30 percent free.

With the foregoing in mind, on December 7, 2020, Chief Judge DiFiore advised that effective immediately, the court system was “implementing a number of steps to reduce in-court operations and limit the number of people trafficking through [the] courthouses” to help “prevent the spread of the virus.” (Here.)

Starting on December 7th, and continuing “until further notice,” the court system was reducing its “in-person staffing … to 40% or less in [the] courts outside New York City, and to 30% or less in [the] courts within the City.” Importantly, the court system would be “sharply limiting the number of in-person matters [it would] allow to proceed in [the] courts.” Chief Judge DiFiore said that “[n]onessential personal appearances in civil courts [were] being temporarily suspended, and only a small number of in-person essential and emergency matters [would] be heard in criminal, family, and housing court.” “By eliminating nonessential in-person appearances and encouraging virtual appearances whenever possible,” Chief Judge DiFiore explained, “we will be able to dramatically reduce the number of people coming into our buildings and thereby curtail the person-to-person contact that allows this horrific virus to spread.”

Chief Judge DiFiore noted that the court system’s “Administrative Judges and court managers [were] implementing these steps within a statewide framework and an established set of protocols.…” She further noted that the protocols would provide the Administrative Judges with the discretion “to make operational decisions that are tailored to the specific needs of their courts and the public health conditions demanding action in their localities.”

[Ed. Note: an example of such protocols can be found here. These protocols become effective today and will apply to all court operations in the Tenth Judicial District—Nassau County. ]

Chief Judge DiFiore said the court system was encouraging virtual appearances whenever possible and would “continue to focus on improving and expanding [its] virtual capacity, especially in the Family Court, where jurists and staff are already handling hundreds of matters remotely each day, including urgent filings involving child abuse and neglect, delinquency, support, custody, visitation and guardianship cases.”

She noted that the court system had “distributed hundreds of laptops and other remote technology statewide, and [was] upgrading and improving the virtual court process by, for example, installing voice recognition software to streamline the efficiency and improve the accuracy of virtual proceedings.” 

“Like the Family Court, our New York City Civil Court is also making outstanding use of remote technology to conduct its business,” said Chief Judge DiFiore. She highlighted the “dozens of virtual bench trials and [the] settling [of] large numbers of cases each week” in that court. As a result, “the pending inventory, especially in automobile no-fault cases where medical providers seek to recover damages from insurance providers for medical services rendered to their insureds” was favorably impacted. “Because the amounts in dispute are under $25,000 and witness testimony is limited, no-fault cases are especially well-suited for virtual resolution,” observed Chief Judge DiFiore.

The appellate courts have gone virtual until further notice. 

In the Appellate Division, First Department, the Court said that it will hold all oral arguments remotely via Microsoft Teams. No in-person oral arguments will be conducted (here). 

In the Second Department, oral arguments are presumed to be conducted virtually, although parties can request in-person argument, though any such request must be accompanied by an explanation as to why argument cannot be heard virtually (here). 

In the Third Department, the Court will be hearing oral arguments by videoconference (here). 

In the Fourth Department, oral argument in all matters in which argument had been requested for the Court’s November/December term, commencing November 30 and concluding December 10, will be held remotely via the Court’s remote argument platform (here).

This Blog will continue to update our readers on the latest COVID-19 developments affecting the New York court system. 

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