NY Courts Report 2 Dozen COVID-19 Cases, Adding DA, Juror

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360, New York (March 24, 2020, 7:43 PM EDT) -- As the coronavirus outbreak expands, New York state courts reported 24 COVID-19 diagnoses as of Tuesday, including judges, attorneys, a witness, an inmate, a juror and, most recently, the Suffolk County district attorney.

State court officials have quietly posted reports of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus after appearing in courthouses since March 11. The largest concentration has been five infected individuals who were inside the Queens County courthouse at some point, including the first-known judge, Justice Margaret McGowan, and first New York state juror with COVID-19.

Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney, tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday, according to court officials who posted the information on Tuesday. Sini was present at arraignments on March 16 and at a trial before Judge John Collins over the next two days.

The DA's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the 12 people whose diagnoses have been announced since Sunday was a female juror who tested positive for the virus after serving on a multiweek negligence trial in Queens Supreme Court that ran from Feb. 28 to March 18 with Justice Cheree A. Buggs presiding.

Richard M. Winograd, attorney for plaintiff Mauro Rojas who brought claims that he was electrocuted on the job, told Law360 on Tuesday that no one was pleased to be coming to the courthouse during the coronavirus outbreak last week.

"It was like the 'Twilight Zone,'" said Winograd. "I never saw anything like it. I'm going into this cavernous courthouse. There's no one there. No parking attendant — I'm parking for free."

The approximately 30-year-old juror stayed on throughout the case until the very last day, when the judge delivered some bad news for the attorneys — juror No. 4 had a severe cough and thought she may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

"The judge came out and said, 'Gentlemen, I think we're going to have to declare a mistrial,'" Winograd recalled. But attorneys on both sides said they wanted to push through to the end, having come so far already.

"Judge Buggs was caught between a rock and a hard place," said Leonard M. Cascone, a defense attorney at the trial, noting the standing order from the chief judge was that ongoing trials continue. Judge Buggs "took it very, very seriously," directing the court officers to get gloves and masks to any jurors or attorneys that wanted them — although no one accepted.

"The judge was really upset with having to continue the trial," Winograd said, noting that the justice has two young children herself.

Justice Buggs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When the judge polled the jurors, asking who would feel comfortable staying, three more left. In the end, only five jurors remained to deliberate for several hours on Wednesday and Thursday before delivering a verdict.

"They didn't look happy when they left, that's for sure. They were like prisoners there," Winograd said. "They were just angry and fed up with the whole thing at this point."

Winograd won a verdict for his client, but believes the damages portion was tainted by coronavirus fears on the jury panel. "It seems like it was a compromise verdict because of the circumstance," he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, neither Cascone nor Winograd said court officials had notified them about the juror's COVID-19 diagnosis. Neither legal team is currently showing coronavirus symptoms, they said, despite sharing a room with the infected juror for nearly three weeks.

"I'm concerned for the jurors," Cascone said. "The other jurors were much closer to her."

The court provided no information about whether or not the other jurors had been tested for the virus.

Chief Judge Janet Difiore has implored anyone who spent time in the courts to reveal infections so officials can notify those who may have come in contact with the virus and order the cleaning of courthouses that may have been contaminated.

"With each passing day, we hear of more members of our court family who have tested positive and fallen ill," the chief judge said Monday. "All of you are very much in our thoughts, and we hope and pray for your well-being."

When asked about the new reports of coronavirus among courthouse visitors, state courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said the reports are likely "peaking" because the tests date back a week prior and traffic in the courts has greatly diminished since the recent orders were put in place.

The New York state court system has progressively ramped up restrictions on court appearances, with all new jury trials postponed on March 13 and all "nonessential" proceedings suspended on March 15. In a new order on Sunday evening, the chief judge halted all new filings, citing Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Friday order to toll the statute of limitations through April 19.

New York City criminal courts will start "virtually" arraigning defendants on Wednesday without any parties in the courtroom — defendant, attorneys and judge will all participate from separate locations. Some civil appearances also continue via teleconference or videoconference at judges' discretion.

Approximately 90% of the state court system's 16,000 employees are either not working or working remotely due to the health emergency posed by the coronavirus, according to Chalfen.

New York state authorities reported 14,904 positive COVID-19 cases in New York City and 25,665 cases statewide as of 2:49 p.m. on Tuesday.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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

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