We are in unchartered waters as our country faces the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people have been laid off, millions more are dealing with reduction in work hours, and businesses that were once thriving are completely shut down.
Florida like many other states have issued emergency orders that significantly impact the way we do business – including our court system. The Florida Supreme Court has issued several administrative orders regarding court operations during this crisis. Administrative Order AOSC20-13 suspended all jury trials and limited access to courthouses through March 27, 2020. Just days later the Florida Supreme Court issued Administrative Order AOSC20-15 limiting in-person hearings to “essential and critical” hearings – primarily related to criminal proceedings, mental health and certain family matters – that require testimonial evidence. These directives were extended through April 15, 2020 by Administrative Order AOSC20-17, which also suspended the issuance of writs of possession, bringing evictions to halt. The orders further encouraged Chief Judges to cancel all non-essential hearings and utilize telephonic or other remote technology, where feasible, to conduct hearings. Federal courts have followed suit.
The administrative orders can be viewed on the Florida Supreme Court’s website, which also provides links to each county court’s operations and orders. Please note, the orders are updated and supplemented frequently in response to the quickly growing crisis.
At the time of writing this article, all Central Florida courthouses are closed to the general public. Some judges are handling hearings via telephone while others have cancelled all hearings through mid-April. Some counties have cancelled foreclosure sales while other counties have stayed all foreclosure proceedings. Many counties have even issued orders prohibiting some service of process through mid-April. Clients should expect that their cases will be delayed due to the courts’ limited functions.
The United States Congress just passed a two trillion-dollar relief bill that directs servicers of government backed mortgages to offer forbearances to those impacted by the pandemic. Litigants should expect local courts and judges to suspend or delay foreclosures and evictions even if they do not involve government backed mortgages. We have even experienced sheriff’s offices refusing to serve subpoenas or execute writs of possession that were already issued.
Clients should expect the delays to extend well past when court functions are fully restored. Rescheduling postponed hearings will be difficult in the short term. We expect available hearing dates to be limited due to litigants scrambling to reschedule a month’s worth, at least, of cancelled hearings once the moratorium is lifted. Litigants need to adjust their expectations of when their cases can be brought to conclusion.
Our office is monitoring each county’s directives closely. Like many, we were prepared for disruptions by employing technological tools, and implementing telecommuting policies and procedures with the health of our team and their families in mind. Although our team members are all working remotely, we are fully operational and are actively moving cases in counties where we have not been stayed.