John Meagher chairs the Insurance Practice Group at Shutts & Bowen.
Florida attorneys over the past week have been slogging their way through successive announcements about courtroom closures while law firms roll out new work rules to ensure safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, an order by Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady to suspend most jury trials in the state for two weeks took effect. But by Thursday, Canady moved to extend the time frames of all his previous coronavirus orders by a minimum of another three weeks.
In addition, the high court’s oral arguments for April have been pushed back to June, legal deadlines have been extended and courts are emphasizing the use of electronic technology to conduct legal proceedings whenever possible.
“Members of the Bar are stepping up to the plate in implementing Chief Justice Charles Canady’s statewide orders about the public health emergency,” Craig Waters, director of the state Supreme Court’s Public Information Office, told the Florida Record in an email.
These efforts to keep essential court operations functioning while minimizing the spread of the coronavirus are the result of 18 years of crisis planning that began after the 9/11 attacks, according to Waters.
“This is a serious emergency,” he said. “But Florida’s legal professionals understand its seriousness and are working together to make the system work as well as possible.”
Some law firms have been allowing attorneys to work remotely from home while limiting any unnecessary travel during the health emergency.
“It’s a very fluid situation with an ever-changing landscape with regard to what the courts are allowing in order to cope with the Covid-19 virus,” John Meagher, the managing partner of the Miami office of Shutts & Bowen LLP, told the Florida Record.
The Supreme Court is now allowing notaries not to be physically present with witnesses when they are sworn in, Meagher said. That allows the law firm to move forward with depositions during the crisis, he said.
“Video conferences have been set up in the firm’s offices so we can accomplish that,” said Meagher.
.At the same time, encrypted communications and other security requirements have allowed attorneys at the firm’s eight Florida offices to be able to keep client information confidential when they work from home, he said.
“The vast majority of our attorneys are working remotely, not in the office,” Meagher said. “In Miami, we had a hurricane plan set up many years ago, with very good technology … so desktops are wherever we are.”
In addition, Shutts & Bowen has prohibited employee travel between their offices.
“If one person were to go from one to another and were to test positive for the virus, that’s two offices that are closed,” he said.
Employees who do need to show up to work in the Miami office have to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to reduce the chance that they could spread the virus, according to Meagher.
The firm also just received word from Florida’s 11th Circuit court, which covers Miami-Dade County, that all judicial deadlines and time limits set by orders, rules and statutes have been suspended until April 20.
“Due to the fact that courts … have lifted deadlines for responses, the day-to-day pressure of litigation is lessened,” he said. But many circuits in the states have announced different rules, so the firm’s litigators are taking a look at those issues as well, according to Meagher.
“I do think that all of the courts during the national emergency will be erring on the side of caution, and I don’t think they will be draconian in their responses,” he said.
Robert Sniffen, the managing partner at Sniffen & Spellman P.A. in Tallahassee, said he expects state court litigation to be slow in the wake of the courts’ coronavirus orders, but much of his firm’s litigation is now in federal court. As of March 18, the federal courts remain open.
“Since federal courts utilize electronic filing of documents and pleadings unless or until they are closed or decide to limit activity, as the Florida Supreme Court has done, litigation will continue,” Sniffen told the Record in an email.
He stressed that the real impact on attorneys has to do with pressures felt by their clients, as well as cases in active litigation.
“Clients have a lot on their plate right now, which impacts their ability to participate in litigation events such as discovery, document production, depositions and similar activities,” Sniffen said.
Only a few of the firm’s employees are now working from home, and most continue to work at the office, he said.
“We have leveraged our technology resources to ensure those working at home can effectively deliver services to clients,” Sniffen said.
Some employers have been in constant contact with the law firm as they respond to issues relating to how workplaces are to function during the health emergency, he said.
“Our phones have been ringing off the hook, and our email boxes have been filled with questions from clients about the virus,” Sniffen said. “Most of the questions deal with human resources issues and the impact of decisions that must be made on employees.”
Other large law firms in Florida have announced that they have scaled back to only essential services during the crises and have followed the federal government’s guidance about encouraging social distancing to reduce transmission of the virus.