Litigation attorneys perform much of their work outside the courthouse. There is law to research, documents to review, and motions to write – all of which can be completed remotely with the right technology. But sooner or later, litigation makes it way to the courthouse for a motion hearing or a trial. As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the country, trials have been postponed, depositions canceled, and discovery deadlines ignored. What are we – and our clients – to do while the nation weather’s the storm inside our homes?
New legislation on litigation deadlines
Fortunately, the legislature and judiciary have reacted quickly to the developing pandemic and provided much needed guidance. On March 27, 2020, Governor DeWine signed H.B. 197 into law, effectively tolling all statutes of limitations and other deadlines under Ohio law until the state of emergency is lifted or July 30, 2020 – whichever comes sooner.
How do the extensions work?
Statutes of limitation prevent a litigant from having her claims heard in court if she files her case beyond the statutory deadline. In Ohio, for example, an individual has one year from the date of discovering a medical malpractice claim to file a lawsuit. If the would-be-plaintiff files after the expiration of the one-year-period, her case will be dismissed no matter how compelling or meritorious it may appear.
So, how do the new tolling provisions impact our hypothetical med-mal plaintiff? Let’s assume she discovered the malpractice on May 9, 2019. She would then have until May 9, 2020 to file her lawsuit. H.B. 197 now tolls the deadline, retroactive to March 9, 2020 when Governor DeWine issued the state of emergency. Let’s assume the state of emergency is lifted on June 1, 2020. In that case, none of the days between March 9, 2020 and June 1, 2020 will count against our plaintiff. She had two months remaining to file her case when the state of emergency was issued, and she continues to have two months to file from the date the order is lifted. In this scenario, our plaintiff has until August 1, 2020 to file her case.
Changes to Civil and Local Rules affect deadlines
But, in addition to statutory deadlines imposed by the state legislature, the practice of litigation is governed by a litany of deadlines imposed by the judiciary. The Rules of Civil Procedure allow defendants 28 days in which to file a response to a complaint. Local county courts have rules that establish how long a litigant has to file a response to a motion. Each judge sets a calendar order for each case, specifying when discovery is to be completed, dispositive motions are to be filed, experts are to be identified, and when trial is to take place. The list goes on.
To address these issues, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued its own order on March 27, 2020 which tolls the time requirements set forth in all rules promulgated by the State’s high court. The Supreme Court’s Order also applies retroactively to March 9, 2020. Thus, if a defendant’s response to a complaint was due on March 16, 2020, that response will now be due one week after the Court’s Order expires.
What’s happening in practice?
Trial court judges and attorneys are also working to address specific issues on a case-by-case basis. For instance, some in-person hearings can be handled on conference calls, allowing the parties to advance the case where practical. But if your case involves a health care provider, or an entity crippled by the pandemic, the case will likely be put on hold for the duration of the fight.
In my practice alone, I have had two trials, three mediations, and several depositions all postponed indefinitely. Fortunately, the Finney Law Firm has invested significant resources in technology over the last few years which has allowed us to adapt our practice to meet the needs of our clients while working remotely. We are leveraging cloud-based technology to review and edit documents, obtain electronic signatures, and host video conferences with our clients and colleagues. We can conduct depositions remotely, using videoconferencing technology, when opposing counsel and the particular circumstances of the case allow.
If your case can be advanced in this time, we have the means and wherewithal to do so. Hopefully, sooner than later, we will be able to passionately advocate for our clients in the courts. Until then we are committed to helping our clients navigate the pandemic, and their cases, in these trying times.