At this point, after nearly three months of practicing law virtually from home, I think it’s fair to say that what was once novel and experimental has become a kind of new norm for the future.
Sure, state courts in New York, including the Commercial Division, have been returning slowly-but-surely to in-person operations over the last couple weeks, particularly upstate where Syracuse, Binghamton, Rochester, Buffalo, and the surrounding counties officially have entered Phase II of Governor Cuomo’s reopening protocols.
But make no mistake, as long as health and safety remain the priorities — and as well they should — physical interaction in the courthouse will continue to be minimized while virtual interaction is maximized. As Chief Judge Janet DiFiore remarked earlier this week:
As we progress toward fuller in-person court operations across the State, our foremost priority remains protecting the health and safety of all those who work in and visit our court facilities.
As it stands, only essential family matters will be conducted in-person. Criminal, juvenile-delinquency, and mental-hygiene proceedings, as well as all other “non-essential” matters, will continue to be held virtually. Mediation and all other ADR proceedings also will continue to be conducted virtually.
No strangers to technological innovation, Commercial Division judges around the state have been embracing the new virtual norm with optimism, if not enthusiasm. A few weeks ago, on May 11, NYSBA’s Commercial and Federal Litigation Section sponsored a “Virtual Town Hall” discussion via Zoom during which Commercial Division Justices Saliann Scarpulla (NY County), Timothy Driscoll (Nassau County), and Deborah Karalunas (Onondaga County) reported on the status of litigating in the Commercial Division during COVID-19 and the methods being employed to move their cases forward. Here are some highlights on a just a few topics from the program:
- The Transition to Virtual Proceedings Generally. The move to virtual courtroom practice, along with all the associated technology (primarily Skype for Business), will require much patience on the part of the bench and bar alike. Expect some bumps in the road and be prepared to deal with them cooperatively. Judges are welcoming and even encouraging lawyer input. Everyone needs to be sensitive to the reality of a general unwillingness to get back to the courthouse on the part of judges and other court staff.
- Virtual Evidentiary Hearings. Judges for the most part are encouraging virtual evidentiary hearings and, for those that have conducted them, are finding that they proceed fairly seamlessly. Managing exhibits remains a challenge, however, especially for document-intensive cases involving lengthy contracts, etc. Again, patience and cooperation is required.
- Settlement and ADR. Judges across the board actively (and successfully) are encouraging parties to settle their cases through court settlement conferences and/or the court’s mediation/ADR programs. Specifically, Justice Scarpulla has been encouraging settlement by reminding lawyers that their clients should not expect to receive a trial date any time soon. Justice Driscoll personally has been conducting three-room Skype settlement conferences. And Justice Karalunas has been emailing lawyers directly, encouraging them to resolve their cases by settlement conference or mediation.
Next week, on June 8, the Business & Commercial Law Committee of the Westchester County Bar Association will be presenting a similar program entitled “Litigating in the Westchester Commercial Division During COVID-19: A Virtual Town Hall Discussion.” Westchester Commercial Division Justices Linda Jamieson and Gretchen Walsh will be on hand to address questions concerning, among other topics, the virtual practices and procedures being implemented in their courtrooms, upticks in ADR and settlement, and the recently-instituted gradual reopening of the courthouse on Martin Luther King Boulevard in White Plains. Register for the program here and join us for the discussion!