Sarasota Civil Bench in 3rd Zoom Town Hall

Sarasota Civil Bench updates bar members in 3rd Zoom Town Hall

The Sarasota Circuit Civil bench hosted its third Zoom Town Hall on May 21 for the Manatee County and Sarasota County Bar associations. Chief Judge Kimberly C. Bonner joined circuit civil Judges Hunter Carroll, Andrea McHugh, Maria Ruhl, Stephen Walker, Magistrate Deborah Bailey, and special guest Sarasota County Clerk of Circuit Court Karen Rushing, as they updated the more than 180 participants logged in on the status of the civil division.

Chief Judge Bonner kicked off the Town Hall with an update on the work of Continuity of Court Operations Workgroup. She explained the severity and threat of the virus dictates the reopening phases. “We don’t want to contribute to the spread of the virus,” she said so it’s important that the court has the proper safety measures in place. Judge Bonner said Phase 2 starts in June and there will be some face-to-face hearings but most hearings will continue to take place remotely.

Judge Bonner said the workgroup has suggested prioritizing hearings during Phase 2 with due process matters topping the list. This, of course, would affect many civil cases and there will be slower progress getting face-to-face hearings in civil courtrooms. On a somewhat positive note, the Trial Court Budget Commission has approved extending Zoom licenses so videoconferencing will be around for the near future. Which is good news for the Zoom Town Hall participants, 97% of whom voted “yes” when polled if they would consider Zoom hearings after the threat of the virus subsides.

As for Phase 2 safety measures, Judge Bonner said the workgroup has proposed everyone should wear masks during in-person court proceedings, including judges. Masks will be required in all public areas and social distancing will continue throughout court facilities, which means smaller, staggered dockets.

Judge Carroll told the group that the court has the flexibility to address the jury backlog and assured everyone that their issues will be heard. He advised attorneys to call the judicial assistants if there is no available hearing time on JACS. He reminded the bar that the court takes a dim view to anyone that would use the COVID pandemic as a strategy to delay a case.

Steps that the Sarasota judges are taking to address civil cases:

  • Combining jury and non-jury trial periods in 2020 and 2021
  • Non-binding, court-ordered arbitration
  • Potential for increased case management of cases; and
  • Attempting to get non-jury cases to trial now

Steps attorneys can take:

  • Understand we will not return completely to “how things used to be”
  • Set hearings now
  • Do not wait until the eve of trial to ask for time
  • Continue with mediations, including by Zoom
  • Have confidence in Zoom

When it comes to trial scheduling, Judge Carroll said the Sarasota Circuit Civil division judges would use the same criteria it has always used when deciding which trials comes first:

  • Age of case
  • Uniqueness of issues
  • Witness/attorney availability
  • Judicial resources
  • Facility resources

Judges will evaluate cases within the same trial period. Bumped cases will not necessarily be scheduled first; nor will cases automatically roll to the next jury trial period.

Also with the imminent backlog of criminal cases, civil judges may be called to hear criminal trials.

Judge Carroll said Magistrate Deborah Bailey has tried cases and she’s available to do so now if all parties agree.

Judge Walker recapped the federal and state executive orders and Florida’s Supreme Court administrative orders that temporarily govern foreclosures during the COVID-19 pandemic. He reminded participants that all administrative orders issued by both the Florida Supreme Court and the Twelfth Circuit can be found on the court’s COVID-19 information page.

Judge McHugh dug deeper into the question: Will judges force litigants to “Zoom” rather than appear in-person? She delved into AOSC20-23, Amendment 1, which says the Florida Supreme Court deemed everything that happens in a civil courtroom, except jury trials, appropriate to proceed by remote technology, unless it violates the Constitution, a rule, statute, or law, or there is a lack of resources or staff. Judge McHugh said she considers depos and out-of-court preparation to be something that can also happen remotely. She acknowledged that Zoom hearings with witnesses can be difficult but you can see even less of a person’s face if they’re in a courtroom wearing a mask.

Attorneys and their clients can be prepared for in-person hearings during Phase 2 by knowing what to expect when they enter the courthouse:

  • Temperature checks prior to entering.
  • Social distancing, which means the entry process will be considerably slower. Plan to arrive early to make sure you clear the health screenings and security screenings.
  • Masks at all times.
  • There will be restrictions of submitting physical documents.

Judge McHugh mentioned for those wondering about how the rules of sequestration work with electronic hearings, the statewide workgroup published a guide for conducting evidentiary hearings remotely. You can find this guide, and others, online at flcourts.org.

Judge Ruhl presented updates on South County, including construction photos as they prepare the job site for the new court building. For those interested in following the progress of the new court facility in Venice, Sarasota County has created a website.

TROs, emergency motions to appoint guardians, and DNR requests – all hearings that are allowed to be conducted in-person under Phases 1 and 2 – Judge Ruhl said she’s had some success handling them remotely. She said she could hear DNR requests by motion without a hearing if the documents are complete.

Judge Ruhl said Zoom hearings are necessary but tough; she said she personally prefers telephone hearings and will require them in the future to the extent she is allowed. She left the participants with this very important suggestion: Frequently update your Zoom app.

Magistrate Bailey said she has hearing time available all the way through July 2. She mentioned her requirements are listed on the Civil Division webpage but you have to scroll to the bottom to find them. She said attorneys could help her assistant, Donna, with scheduling by verifying that Zoom meeting IDs and passwords are correct on notices of hearing prior to distribution.

She also said she has the ability to record her Zoom hearings. Attorneys and litigants are free to hire a court reporter to also appear remotely, but there is a seamless transfer of her hearings to DCR archives for audio requests if there is no court reporter present.

Sarasota Clerk of Court Karen Rushing updated the group concerning the status of Clerk operations. She noted that her office is funded in large part by various fees, and several of them, including moving traffic violations are down significantly. Despite the looming financial issue, her office has been able to continue to process filings the same day as receipt. Clerk Rushing has indicated that the new federal CARES act impacts her office from a staffing perspective. She also was appreciative of the continued partnership with the courts.

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