COVID-19, or what has come to be known as coronavirus, has changed the lives of millions of Americans in just the last 4 weeks. Traffic is almost non-existent and grocery store shelves are empty, as people are working from home and stocking up on nonperishable items. Restaurants and bars have closed down and public events have been canceled or postponed. Some areas of the country have been forced to stay in their homes to avoid contracting or spreading the virus in public places. Regardless of the source of the information, one thing is widely accepted: it is unclear how long this virus may require us to stay quarantined and away from large groups of people.
Because “social distancing” is one of the best ways to prevent the spread, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an Emergency Order to prevent large groups of people from coming to the courthouse for jury duty or hearing calendars. The Order applies to “all courts and clerk’s offices in the State as it relates to all judicial proceedings” and tolls or extends deadlines parties and lawyers would otherwise have to adhere to under Georgia law. Since issuing the Order, the Court has published several statements in attempts to answer any questions lawyers have about its effect. This blog unpacks what the Emergency Order says and what it means for civil litigants and clients alike.
Your statute of limitations period is tolled
The court suspended, tolled, extended, and otherwise granted relief from any deadlines or other time schedules or filing requirements. The Order specifically included that the time to file a lawsuit was extended. With a few exceptions, in a personal injury case, an injured person has 2 years after their injury to file a lawsuit. Under the Order, if the statute of limitations falls between the date of the order and April 14, 2020, the statute of limitations period is tolled until after April 14, 2020. The Court went on to say that when the order expires, “attorneys will have the same amount of time to file their documents that they had remaining at the time the order went into effect on March 14.” That means if the statute of limitations would have expired on March 20th, the plaintiff now has until April 20th to file their lawsuit.
Your brief isn’t due
In civil cases in Georgia’s state courts, almost all deadlines are set for 30- or 45-day increments. For example, defendants have 30 days to respond to a lawsuit and 45 days to respond to written questions called interrogatories which are served with the lawsuit. Plaintiffs and defendants alike have 30 days to respond to discovery requests not served with the lawsuit or motions and briefs filed be either side. With this order, those requirements disappear. Usually, failure by a party to respond to something in a timely manner could permit the opposing party to ask the court to force their response. However, now, courts are not holding litigants to those deadlines, so late responses will have to do for the party seeking them. The time to respond is extended in the same way the time to file a lawsuit is.
Your hearing may be canceled
Many of the courts around the Metro Atlanta area have cancelled hearings in their courtrooms. However, the Georgia Supreme Court left it up to each judge’s discretion whether they wanted to continue conducting hearings: only “other legal proceedings as determined to be necessary by the authorized judicial official” are postponed. Many judges are issuing orders that require the parties to confer with each other to discuss the issues that would have been argued at the hearing and submit a filing in lieu of attending. Others are simply postponing the hearing altogether.
Your case won’t be dismissed
Typically, failure to file something timely could result in sanctions—like a negative inference against a party’s argument or case expenses—or even dismissal. Judges have broad discretion in sanctioning parties for failing to make discovery or filing briefs on time. However, while the courts are operating under this Emergency Order, dismissal for failing to file something timely is an arrow taken out of the judge’s quiver. In its March 17, 2020 release further explaining the effect of the Order, the Supreme Court said, “failure to file certain documents that have specific deadlines, such as briefs, cannot be grounds for dismissing a case.” So, rest easy.
Can I still file something in a case?
At some point, cases will have to continue. The spread of COVID-19 and the safety measures necessary to limit its impact and toll on the population is likely to continue well past the Court’s April 14, 2020 deadline. So, what happens next? Can lawyers continue to file pleadings, motions, or briefs? In Georgia, yes they can. Georgia uses an e-filing system that does not require anyone to actually show up to the courthouse in person. So, the closure does not prevent filings.
Once you file, though, it is unclear what type of reaction you will get with each filing from the judge or opposing counsel. The lawyer on the other side of the case does not have to respond to the filing, even it would otherwise create a deadline for them. And judges may be limited as to what they can do from home. The Supreme Court “encourage[d] parties to continue to file briefs and other documents when practicable, as the Court is continuing to work on cases.”
When does this all end? For now, April 13, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. is the cutoff the Georgia Supreme Court. But the Court expressly ordered that the deadline could be extended.
Rafi Law Firm is still here for you if you or a loved one is injured. Call us at 404-800-9933 or click here to see how we can help during this time.