Gilstrap Sets Court Rules For Dealing With Coronavirus

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (March 3, 2020, 11:29 PM EST) -- U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap on Tuesday ordered attorneys and parties to promptly notify opposing counsel if it's reasonably suspected — "while erring on the side of caution" — that a hearing, trial or disposition may expose an individual to the new COVID-19 virus, citing the Texas federal court's duty to protect individuals in the midst of the outbreak.

In particular, the Texas federal judge ordered attorneys or parties to communicate if court proceedings could cause someone to come into contact with an individual exposed to or infected with the virus, according to a standing order filed in the Eastern District of Texas. They should also disclose to opposing counsel if a hearing, trial or deposition would require travel to or from the U.S. or a country impacted by the virus, Judge Gilstrap said.

Judge Gilstrap said he was being "mindful of the court's duty to ensure 'just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding' as well as its duty to protect parties, court staff, witnesses, corporate representatives and practitioners who appear before it and the community in which it sits."

The virus can cause fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Most cases are mild, but some can become severe and lead to death. So far, the virus has infected 90,800 people globally and killed 3,100, according to the World Health Organization.

In his order, Judge Gilstrap pointed to the WHO's Jan. 30 declaration that the COVID-19 outbreak is a public health emergency as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's determination that the virus presents a serious public health threat.

He also referred to travel restrictions and advisories issued by the U.S. Department of State and President Donald Trump, ordering attorneys and parties to communicate if court activities may cause an individual to "travel or act in a manner contrary to the guidance" of the CDC or other foreign or domestic health authority.

If such notice is given, then the parties should promptly meet and discuss the appropriate means to conduct a hearing, trial or deposition "in a manner consistent with all applicable domestic and foreign regulations and health authority guidance," Judge Gilstrap said. He suggested turning to video conferencing, calling on alternative witnesses, representatives, attorneys or sources of proof, and considering whether a delay in the litigation would alleviate the concern.

A joint notice or motion outlining the parties' concern and plan should then be filed with the court no later than two weeks before any hearing, trial or deposition, the judge said.

Tuesday's order immediately applies to all cases assigned to Judge Gilstrap as well as any cases referred to magistrate judges. It's to remain in effect indefinitely.

The standing order comes as global and domestic fears surrounding COVID-19 heighten. Also on Tuesday, a Manhattan attorney with the firm Lewis & Garbuz PC was the second person diagnosed with the disease in New York. The unnamed attorney, who lives in Westchester County, is the first case of community spread of the disease in the state, public officials said.

A number of large, global law firms have already begun taking precautions as the virus spreads. In London, Baker McKenzie temporarily closed its office last week and asked employees to work from home, a move it later said was prompted by an employee being tested for the virus. The office reopened after the employee tested negative.

Meanwhile, Latham & Watkins LLP announced last week that it was canceling its upcoming partnership meeting in New York amid virus concerns.

--Additional reporting by Emma Cueto, Cara Bayles and Michele Gorman. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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