L.A. Lawyers’ Suit Says In-Court Hearings Hold Risk of Covid (1)

Feb. 9, 2021, 7:45 PMUpdated: Feb. 10, 2021, 9:55 PM

In-person hearings for traffic violations and evictions in Los Angeles Superior Court put both litigants and attorneys at high risk of contracting Covid-19 in the courtroom and violate the California constitution, a lawsuit filed Tuesday in that court alleges.

Public Counsel and other groups filed a complaint describing how hundreds of county residents gather indoors in unventilated buildings across the county. They seek an injunction blocking county courthouses from permitting and mandating in-person appearances.

Many judges across the U.S. have taken to holding hearings remotely during the pandemic. But certain types of hearings in Los Angeles, such as traffic court arraignments, require in-person attendance and can’t be rescheduled, Public Counsel says. That leaves litigants with a choice between going to court and risking exposure or receiving a misdemeanor citation, it says.

Adherence to public health guidelines like social distancing isn’t possible in county courtrooms, and the court’s safety plan is both inadequate and not strongly enforced, the complaint says. The county lacks a uniformly established protocol for rescheduling hearings for those who have been exposed to Covid-19 or have tested positive for the virus.

The groups allege violations of the due process and equal protection clauses of the California constitution and various state statutes.

Failure to close court facilities to in-person appearances deprives attorneys and litigants of the chance to participate in court proceedings free from health risks, the lawsuit alleges. This can subject them to discrimination on the basis of physical disability or medical condition, the complaint says.

Litigants facing traffic infractions and evictions have no meaningful right to a hearing or counsel when they must put themselves and their lawyers at risk of severe illness or death to exercise that right, the plaintiffs assert.

“Criminal trials in Los Angeles County courthouses continue to be postponed, with the latest extension entered on January 29, 2021 and lasting through at least February 26, 2021,” the complaint says. “Yet continuously since August 2020, litigants and their attorneys have been required to appear in-person to conduct trials on matters as minor as cracked windshield citations.”

In a press conference Tuesday attorneys from the organizations described their experiences in in both traffic and eviction courts, including court staff mocking mask mandates, judges and bailiffs failing to wear masks, and no social distancing.

Public Counsel staff attorney Jesselyn Friley said the organization hopes to settle the case without a court hearing. “Closing the courts is the only way to respond safely and fairly to this crisis,” Friley said.

Causes of Action: Public nuisance; dangerous condition of public property; California Government Code; due process; equal protection; taxpayer claim.

Relief: Injunctive relief; declaratory relief; attorneys’ fees; costs.

Response: The LA Superior Court didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

The case is Public Counsel v. Los Angeles County Superior Court Clerk, Cal. Super. Ct., No. 21STCV05124, 2/9/21.

(Updates Feb. 9 story with docket number.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Allsup in San Francisco at mallsup@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

To read more articles log in.

Learn more about a Bloomberg Law subscription.