By: Christopher C. Johnson, Johnson Jackson PLLC
Since it first came across our radar in early 2020, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our everyday lives. Nothing has escaped its impact and insistence that we adapt to a “new normal,” however temporary that might be. This includes our court system – the mechanism by which we decide guilt from innocence and impart liability.
Fortunately, many jurisdictions throughout the United States spent the decade prior to the pandemic moving toward online electronic filing systems (“e-filing”). This allowed judges and practitioners in many jurisdictions to continue working to some extent during the initial lockdown. However, that is not the case everywhere. And, even in those jurisdictions with robust and well-utilized e-filing systems, the in-person proceedings became a challenge. Courts had to grapple with, on the one hand, developing a new method of holding proceedings remotely that would provide parties with due process while, on the other hand, ensuring that cases continued forward to avoid the entire system grinding to a halt.
It is commonplace now for courts to hold status conferences, hearings, and some have even held entire jury trials using a video conferencing platform like Zoom. Other courts, like those in Florida, are beginning to hold trials in person again. That comes with its own sets of challenges – including bringing in fewer potential jurors to permit social distancing, which can limit the number of trials that can occur in a given week.
With all that said, despite the best and most creative efforts of those in the legal profession, COVID-19 has managed to slow down the process quite a bit. This is especially true in those jurisdictions with higher-volume filings that saw a tremendous amount of backlog during lockdowns and in federal court systems where judges handle both criminal and civil cases and must prioritize the criminal cases that have been on hold. To combat the backlog, judges have started emphasizing early mediation efforts with some mandating those efforts to whittle down their dockets as much as possible.
Like the court system, employers have seen their fair share of problems created by the pandemic. During the peaks of the pandemic, filings of EPL claims had dipped – likely due to increasing unemployment. But as more Americans head back to work and the aftermath of COVID-19’s impact on the employer-employee relationship is untangled, the general consensus is that the number of claims is going to rise. But whether that comes to fruition is difficult to determine with any certainty. Several obvious changes caused by COVID-19 will likely lead to an increase in claims, e.g., vaccine mandates and employees’ interest in continuing to work from home. On the other hand, as more employers emphasize remote work, the lack of employee interaction might cause a decrease in certain claims, e.g. hostile work environment.
Ultimately, the answer to how all of this will impact EPL claims long term requires the most overused lawyer response – it depends. What we do know is that the system as a whole has been hit with an unprecedented backlog and around every corner is the potential for even more delay. But technology has allowed the court system to continue forward and cases are being resolved every day. It appears we are well on our way to business as (new) usual – at least for now.