COVID-19 and its Effect on Florida State Courts
As you can imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only had an impact on everyday life, but its effects have permeated into the court system. In Florida, Marshall Dennehey has four office locations: Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. These offices are located in the Thirteenth, Fourth, Ninth and Seventeenth Judicial Circuits, which encompass the following counties: Broward, Clay, Duval, Nassau, Orange and Hillsborough.
Each Circuit has imposed certain procedures in navigating the court system in light of the state of Florida’s Safer at Home Order imposed by Governor DeSantis. The Safer at Home Order imposed by the Governor took effect on April 3 and is currently set to expire on April 30, 2020. Many mayors and county leaders have imposed their own versions of this order in addition to implementing controls to ensure that it is followed. Some municipalities and counties have gone to great lengths to impose strict controls. For example, if a person is caught breaking quarantine in violation of the Governor’s order, they could be charged with a second degree misdemeanor, which could include the imposition of fines and jail time. Some municipalities have gone so far is to impose requirements to wear face-masks in public places or risk arrest and fines.
As litigators, it is important to understand and appreciate the various administrative orders imposed within the 20 Judicial Circuits located in Florida. What follows is a brief summary of the orders of the Judicial Circuits where our Florida offices are located.
For example, the Fourth Judicial Circuit has suspended circuit and county court civil jury trials and jury selections in Duval County. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Duval County, Admin Order No. 2020-06, dated March 17, 2020. This order took effect on March 17, 2020, and as of the date of the order, Chief Judge Mahon suspended all circuit and county court civil jury trials through May 1, 2020. On April 17, 2020, Judge Mahon ordered access to the Duval County courthouse be restricted until otherwise ordered by the court and that no member of the general public is allowed to enter the courthouse subject to specific circumstances. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Duval County, Second Amended Admin Order No. 2020-09, dated April 17, 2020. This order further restricted in-person attendance at scheduled court proceedings for those not required to be completed telephonically, which typically do not apply to insurance defense type matters, such as guardianship hearings. Judge Mahon further entered an order restricting the video recording of court proceedings without express permission from the chief judge or presiding judge. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Duval County, Admin Order 2020-12, dated April 1, 2020. This includes recording of teleconferencing, video conferencing or other similar electronic method. All hearings are being conducted via telephone or video conference, including ex parte hearings. Setting cases for trial is only done through email. Any person who believes an in-person hearing is necessary may file a request with the judge, and such requests will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Further, individual judges may continue evidentiary hearings and non-jury trials that are not time sensitive.
Nassau County has ordered all Circuit Court civil hearing be completed telephonically or through video conferencing means through Zoom or Skype. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Nassau County, Admin Order 2020-1, dated March 17, 2020. This requires that any exhibits for hearing be provided to the court no later than 24 hours prior to the hearing either via email or hand delivery. All county court cases have similar restrictions. All trials have been suspended through Friday, May 2020. Nassau County has also restricted access to the Robert M. Foster Justice Center and the Historic Courthouse in Fernandina Beach. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Nassau County, Admin Order 2020-3, dated March 19, 2020. These restrictions were extended through Friday, April 17, 2020, Fourth Judicial Circuit, Nassau County, Admin Order 2020-7, dated March 30, 2020, and later extended through May 29, 2020, which means no jury trial will be conducted until at least May 30, 2020. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Nassau County, Admin Order 2020-13, dated April 9, 2020. As of April 15, 2020, any persons attempting to enter the Nassau County courthouse are also subject to screening, such as having their temperature taken and will be asked a series of questions. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Nassau County, Admin Order 2020-19, dated April 15, 2020.
Clay County has also enacted specific emergency procedures, such as requiring all hearings in civil matters be completed over the phone or via video conferencing. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Clay County, Admin Order, March 17, 2020. All videoconferencing must use the Zoom applications, and all trials are set via email. Clay County has also enacted access requirements to obtain access to the courthouse. Fourth Judicial Circuit, Clay County, Admin Order, March 23, 2020. Access to the Clay County courthouse is restricted and members of the public can only enter upon specific circumstances. Should a member of the public have a valid reason to enter, that person must present to the security checkpoint by showing a photo ID and that person’s name must appear on the current date’s court docket.
The Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in currently in Phase II of its mitigation efforts relating to COVID 19. Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, Hillsborough County, Admin Order S-2020-023, dated April 15, 2020. This order suspended jury selection in all cases until further order of the chief judge, and there are no in-person hearings unless ordered by the court. For civil matters filed with the court, all proceedings may be conducted via telephone or video conferencing or by submission of motions and written responses with legal analysis. Notably, this order does nothing to limit discovery, including depositions. The Sheriff is also authorized to stay execution until further notice of writs of execution, levies, replevins, regular summonses and legal documents, among others.
The Ninth Judicial Circuit, in enacting Administrative Order No. 2020-06-02, limited access to the courthouse to just counsel for parties and court employees. Notably, this order prohibits parties, witnesses, spectators or family members from attending proceedings until emergency conditions pass, except as permitted by the presiding judge or chief judge. Ninth Judicial Circuit, Orange County, Admin Order 2020-06-02, dated April 14, 2020. All jury trials through May 29, 2020, are postponed until further notice, and this restriction applies to jury selection as well. All mediations for small claims and county civil are suspended through May 29, 2020, and all court proceedings scheduled to occur at the outlying locations in Winter Park Apopka and Ocoee are cancelled and shall be rescheduled after the public emergency has been resolved.
The Seventeenth Judicial Circuit also restricted access to the courts for those who recently travelled to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran. Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County, Admin Order 2020-20-Temp, dated March 12, 2020. On March 13, 2020, the court suspended jury trials and jury operations until further order of the court. Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County, Admin Order 2020-21-Temp, dated March 13, 2020. However, the court updated its guidance and suspended jury trials through Friday, May 29, 2020. Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County, Admin Order 2020-32-Temp, dated April 6, 2020. Notably, the updated order states that mediations may only be canceled with permission of the presiding judge.
Notably, the Florida Supreme Court, which has been the driving force of many of the judicial circuits enacting the orders briefly described above, issued an order to create a working group to recommend ways for a staged return to full court operations. Admin Order SC20-38, dated April 21, 2020. As of right now and in line with the aforementioned, the Florida Supreme Court has suspended jury trials through the month of May. Admin Order SC20-23, dated April 6, 2020. Because the working group appointed by the Florida Supreme Court expires June 30, 2020, we should fully expect that jury trials will be continued beyond May 2020.
Given the ever evolving procedural landscape as a result of COVID 19, litigants and attorneys should fully expect continued changes in various Florida court procedures. Applicable administrative orders can be found on the various court websites, and attorneys should continue to monitor these to ensure they are in compliance with the evolving guidelines, particularly as it relates to local rules and individuals judge’s procedures.
*Sean is an associate in our Jacksonville, Florida office. He can be reached at 904.358.4211 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 2020 is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2020 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.