On March 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declared a statewide judicial emergency on account of COVID-19. Two days later, on March 18, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf announced that all but “life-sustaining” businesses in Pennsylvania must shut down immediately.
In response, the Supreme Court directed that all courts are generally closed to the public (except for emergencies) subject to general and specific directives and exceptions. The Court extended the judicial emergency and closure of the courts first through April 30th, and later through June 1, 2020. There is no indication at this time that the closures of the courts will be extended by the Supreme Court after June 1st.
It is now left to the local courts to determine when and how to open to the public while simultaneously safeguarding the health and safety of court personnel, court users, and members of the public in light of the risks posed by the COVID-19 virus. Many local courts will begin to open on June 1, 2020.
While the physical office of Walsh Pancio closed its doors on March 19, 2020, the attorneys and staff were able to easily transition to working remotely. The attorneys immediately reviewed their calendars and began to reschedule previous in-person depositions as virtual depositions. We continued to conduct discovery, and file pleadings and motions. We also continued to conduct mediations, arbitrations, and settlement conferences remotely. We were prepared for a situation like this and stepped up when the time arrived. Throughout the statewide shutdown we continuously keep our clients informed and updated.
We wanted to take advantage of not having to be in court so that when the courts to open, we are ready to hit the ground running and serve our clients. Importantly, the attorneys at Walsh Pancio have continued to educate themselves on COVID-19 and the impact it will have on the legal community and the clients we serve. We took part in CLEs and even hosted our own CLE on the closing of courts and the statewide shutdown. We are more prepared than ever to serve our clients. If you need legal services, we are available to assist you – no matter the issue.
The attorneys at Walsh Pancio have been following the developments as the local courts plan to reopen to better serve our clients. We compiled the “need-to-know” and the “interesting” so you are better able to inform your clients what to expect.
What should attorneys and general court users expect beginning June 1, 2020?
By Order dated May 14, 2020, President Judge Thomas G. Parisi extended the judicial emergency to at least June 1, 2020. On June 1st, the Common Pleas and MDJ Courts will be reopened to the public.
President Judge Parisi postponed all jury trials until at least June 15, 2020. However, the court has begun to mail out jury summonses to potential jurors for upcoming trial dates. The summonses will contain designated reporting dates beginning June 15, 2020. These summonses are mailed in anticipation of the court’s ability to safely resume jury trials. This should not be taken as a guarantee.
If you are summoned for jury trial, check the court’s website frequently, and contact jury services to confirm that you are still required to appear. If you are an attorney, stay in constant contact with the assigned judge’s chambers and your client.
Anyone entering the courthouse must wear a mask or they will be denied entrance. Expect the enforcement of “social distancing” throughout the courthouse. For example, the number of people permitted on an elevator or in a hallway could be limited. Make sure to give yourself extra time to enter the courthouse with these new safety precautions in place.
Beginning June 1st, the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas and Magisterial District Judges (MDJ) courts will be open during normal business hours to conduct business.
Anyone who enters the courthouse or MDJ shall wear protective face masks upon entry, and shall continue to do so in all public or common areas of the courthouse. Patrons also must maintain social distancing and comply with all safety directives issued by the court.
According to the Bucks County entry protocol, there will be two tents at the base of the stairs and ramp of the main entrance to the courthouse where security officers will be stationed to ensure social distancing and to provide masks to those who arrive without one. They will also provide clear plastic bags to each person to place their belongings in that need to be scanned to prevent the contamination of the plastic containers.
There are also new security procedures when going to the Bucks County Courthouse. There will be markings on the floor for social distancing in the scanner line. The number of persons waiting to be scanned will depend on the available social distancing space at the entrance. As a result, plan for extra time to enter the courthouse.
There will be Sheriff’s representatives on the third and fourth floor of the Justice Center to monitor the hallways and address the needs of the courtrooms. The courtrooms will be sanitized during lunch breaks. If anyone exhibits signs of illness, they will be placed in a specified “Quarantine Room.” The courtroom will then be decontaminated before being used again.
Like other counties discussed herein, Bucks County suspended time calculations for purposed of time computation relevant to court cases or other judicial business, as well as time deadlines through May 31, 2020. Any legal papers or pleadings which were required to be filed between March 19, 2020 and May 31, 2020, will be deemed to have been timely filed if they are filed by June 1, 2020, or on a later date determined by the local court or the Supreme Court. The court also tolled judicial timelines from March 19, 2020 through May 8, 2020 pertaining to termination petitions.
Jury trials will not re-start in Bucks County until August 3, 2020 at the earliest.
In Chester County, the courts are closed to the public until May 31, 2020. Beginning June 2nd, all functions of the Common Pleas and MDJ courts are to be fully restored. Jury trials will begin no later than August 3, 2020.
As expected, safety protocols have been established. Everyone entering the Justice Center must wear a mask, and temperatures will be taken upon entering. Social distancing must always be practiced. The number of people permitted in the elevator will be extremely limited.
As with most of the counties surrounding Philadelphia, Delaware County extended its judicial emergency to June 1st. However, all calculations for purposes of time computation relevant to court cases or other judicial business, as well as time deadlines, were only suspended through May 11, 2020. Parties to a case, whether pro se or represented, were also required to meaningfully engage in good faith discovery. As such, if a Motion to Compel is filed against you, do not expect the court to deny the Motion based simply on the fact the courts were in limited operation.
If you had a civil arbitration listed up to June 1st, it will be rescheduled no more than 90 to 120 days after June 1st. If you had a civil bench or jury trial scheduled on or before June 1st, that will be rescheduled by the assigned judge. All matters comprising of civil miscellaneous lists will be rescheduled by Court Administration in a staggered manner 3-4 months after June 1st.
President Judge David Ashworth extended the judicial emergency to May 31st in Lancaster County.
All criminal jury trials scheduled for June 2020 were continued to July 2020. Criminal non-jury trials, however, may be scheduled with the permission of the President Judge. Civil jury trials scheduled for June 2020 are to be rescheduled by the presiding judge after consultation with the President Judge. Civil non-jury trials may be scheduled with permission of the President Judge.
All legal filings required to be filed between March 18, 2020 and April 30, 2020 will be deemed timely if they were filed within 60 days of the original filing date. Any legal filings required to be filed between May 1st and May 31st will be deemed timely if they are filed within 30 days of the original filing date.
If you practice criminal law in Lancaster County, the court has implemented a virtual guilty plea program.
Jury service is cancelled until June 30, 2020.
The Lehigh County courthouse is closed to the public through May 31, 2020.
Regarding the civil division, civil motions court will re-start after May 31st; arbitration. Jury and non-jury trials were continued through and including May 31st and will be given a new date. Hearings, arguments, and conferences not conducted by the assigned judge during the judicial emergency will be given a new date after May 31st utilizing advanced communication technology.
Time calculations for the purpose of time computations relevant to court cases and other judicial business, as well as time deadlines, were suspended through May 31st. Any legal papers, including original service, required to be filed or effective between March 17, 2020 and May 31, 2020 will be deemed to be timely filed, if they are filed by June 22, 2020, or on a later date as permitted by court order, subject to constitutional restrictions, statute of limitations or appellate court direction.
If you practice law in Montgomery County, expect to see drastic changes.
Beginning June 1, 2020, like the other courts, Montgomery County courts will be open to conduct business. However, other buildings and offices, including One Montgomery Plaza, the Juvenile Court Facility, and Domestic Relations Office, will remain closed to the public until further notice.
The tolling of time requirements, time limitations or filing deadlines imposed by court order or local rules during the period covered by the judicial emergency will expire. As such, legal papers or pleadings which were required to be filed between March 12, 2020 and June 15, 2020, shall be deemed to have been filed timely if they are filed by close of business on June 15, 2020.
The court has placed its protocols for each division on its website. Beginning June 1, 2020, in the civil division, all proceedings that cannot be resolved on the paper/filings will be conducted remotely. Those virtual hearings will be conducted via Zoom and have specified procedures. Attorneys are strongly encouraged to review those protocols promptly.
For all Case Management Orders or Rule 212 Conference Orders issued prior to March 12, 2020, the deadlines are extended for 3 months. That will be a welcomed reprieve for parties in cases that were approaching discovery deadlines.
If your practice involves dependency and/or delinquency, or if you are an MCAP, beginning June 1, 2020 juvenile division matters will be conducted remotely. The Court will conduct these hearings via Zoom. Placement reviews, delinquency reviews, and agreed dependency permanency reviews will be reviewed on written filings or papers. For some, this may be a welcoming change, as most placement reviews, delinquency reviews, and agreed dependency permanency reviews can be accomplished by agreement. If you practice family law in Montgomery County, your hearings will be held virtually for the foreseeable future as well.
Jury trials in Montgomery County are also postponed and may not re-start for many months.
Access to the courthouse will be limited to the main street entrance only. All individuals must comply with the established county health screening requirements. Individuals entering the courthouse must maintain appropriate social distancing, wear protective face masks, and comply with all safety directives provided by the court or county staff. Plan for an additional 30 minutes to enter the courthouse.
Unlike the other counties mentioned above, Northampton County is extremely specific. Please visit the County’s website for exact guidance for your case.
Time calculations for the purposes of time computations relevant to Northampton County local rules are suspended from April 14, 2020 to May 31, 2020.
The Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County has provided numerous notices to the Philadelphia Bar Association regarding its procedures moving forward. We strongly encourage specific review of the same.
In Philadelphia, all jury trials are cancelled through September 8, 2020. Unless counsel is notified specifically to the contrary, all in person criminal, civil, orphans’ court, municipal court and traffic court trials, hearings, and conferences scheduled through July 6, 2020 are administratively cancelled and shall be rescheduled.
In the civil division, make sure to check the docket for new arbitration hearing dates if you had an arbitration hearing scheduled between March 17, 2020 and April 13, 2020. Also look for rescheduling notices if you had a scheduled arbitration hearing between April 14, 2020 and May 29, 2020. All matters currently scheduled for Arbitration hearings in June of 2020 will have a virtual or remote settlement conference with a Judge Pro Tempore as opposed to an Arbitration hearing during the month of June. Civil matters previously listed for a settlement conference but postponed as a result of the judicial emergency will be relisted for a new settlement conference before a Judge Pro Tempore, who will have the ability and necessary technology to conduct conferences remotely.
Case management conferences are waived in any civil case previously scheduled for a case management conference between Tuesday, March 17, 2020 and Monday, June 1, 2020. In lieu of the conference, a Case Management Order will be issued assigning the case to either the Expedited, Standard or Complex case management track. We expect conferences to re-start again after June 1,2020.
In Philadelphia County, the suspension of time requirements, time limitations or filing deadlines expired on May 11, 2020. A notable exception to this rule is that a default judgement cannot be entered before June 15, 2020. In addition, any Notice of Intent required by Pa.R.C.P. 237.1 filed before May 11, 2020, must be refiled.
Recognizing that no party should gain an advantage as a result of the pending judicial emergency and that appropriate equitable considerations must be applied, the Court has adopted a protocol for extraordinary relief by agreement of the parties. No discovery deadline shall extend beyond September 8, 2020. However, in any Case Management Order in which the Discovery deadline ends subsequent to March 1, 2020, the parties may agree to extend the discovery deadline until July 6, 2020, August 3, 2020 or September 8, 2020 at their discretion by filing an appropriate praecipe.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania first gave the President Judges of each local court that authority to suspend time calculations within its judicial district, which included the suspension of Rule of Criminal Procedure 600.
When the Supreme Court closed all Pennsylvania courts to the public on March 18th, it suspended all time calculations for purposes of time computation relevant to court cases or other judicial business. After extending the end date for these purposes twice, the Supreme Court has made clear that all events, legal papers or pleadings which were required to be filed between March 19, 2020 and May 8, 2020, generally are deemed to have been filed timely if they are filed by the close of business on May 11, 2020. However, President Judges in individual counties have discretion to enforce deadlines prior to May 11, 2020, in the critical-functions arena as defined by the Supreme Court. As discussed previously, they also have the discretion to extend the deadline by which all papers must be filed to be considered timely.
Parties should also note that the Supreme Court supplemented its emergency order to add to the non-exclusive list of essential functions the “[c]ommencement of a civil action, by praecipe for writ of summons, for purposes of tolling statute of limitations.” As such, the judicial emergency did not toll the statute of limitations. The Court did make clear, however, that the requirement of service of original process was suspended until the judicial emergency was lifted. When the court re-opens, and service of original process begins again, be sure to check the court’s docket to make sure the plaintiff timely filed the praecipe for writ of summons.
The Supreme Court also made it clear – and encouraged – parties to continue conducting discovery. The judicial emergency itself may not provide a winning argument when faced with a Motion to Compel. The Supreme Court expected parties to continue moving cases.
While the courts are reopening, things will look very different. By all accounts, COVID-19 has most likely changed the practice of law, at least for the foreseeable future. There will be kinks in the beginning as everyone adjusts to the new normal. A lot of issues will now be resolved either on the papers or remotely by the Court. Depositions will most likely continue to be conducted remotely as people continue to practice social distancing. A lot of cases will now be resolved through ADR, instead of jury trials. Everyone is adapting to the “new normal.” Through it all, continue to work together and be cordial. We will get through this together.