LA Judge Sued Over 'Super-Spreader' Hearings Amid Virus

By Craig Clough
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Law360 (February 9, 2021, 10:41 PM EST) -- Five nonprofit legal service organizations sued the Los Angeles County Superior Court's presiding judge Tuesday, claiming he's violating the state constitutional rights of attorneys and litigants by requiring them to appear in person for traffic and eviction hearings when the county is the "epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic."

The lawsuit filed by Public Counsel and other groups seeks an order preventing the court's presiding judge and the clerk of the court system from holding in-person traffic and unlawful detainer hearings during the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to continue with the hearings while the Los Angeles area experiences one of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths in the nation is creating "super-spreader" events that disproportionately impact people of color and those with low-incomes, the legal groups said.

"The court's facilities are built and administered in a way that makes it impossible to maintain a safe social distance of six feet or more, particularly within crowded and poorly ventilated courtrooms and hallways," the groups said.

A series of orders from the presiding judge have acknowledged the dangers COVID-19 presents to visitors of the Los Angeles County court system, the groups said while pointing to an order in March completely shutting down the courts and others that gradually reopened some services. Judge Kevin C. Brazile was the court's presiding judge in 2020, with Judge Eric. C. Taylor serving in the role since Jan. 1.

The decision to proceed with traffic and unlawful detainer hearings flies in the face of the advice of some public health experts who have dubbed LA "the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic," according to the legal groups, which added the county recently surpassed 15,000 deaths related to the pandemic.

Court Communications Director Ann E. Donlan said in a statement that the court does not comment on pending litigation, but that "we anticipate that all matters brought by litigants each day across the county will be heard safely and fairly because of our commitment to equal access to justice."

The legal groups also noted that three Los Angeles County Superior Court employees have recently died from COVID-19, and it is believed they contracted the virus at work.

"There is no public information suggesting that any public health expert has approved the procedures or practices in place in Los Angeles Superior Court courthouses, nor has the court administration claimed that any public health experts regularly monitor for safety court proceedings that have since fall 2020 required in-person appearances by litigants and their counsel," the groups said.

Los Angeles County imposes "severe consequences" on litigants who do not appear in court for traffic or unlawful detainer orders, and there are no exceptions, even for people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the groups said.

"The communities we serve are already suffering the worst consequences of this pandemic, with rates of serious illness and death several times higher than those in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods," Trinidad Ocampo, supervising attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, said in a statement. "The Los Angeles Superior Court, as the guardian of justice, should be trying to mitigate these inequalities, not exacerbate them."

The lawsuit includes claims for creating a public nuisance and a dangerous condition of public property.

The legal groups are represented by counsel from Public Counsel, Inner City Law Center, Bet Tzedek, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is Public Counsel et al. v. Presiding Judge, Superior Court of Los Angeles County et al., case number 21STCV05124, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles County.

--Editing by Michael Watanabe.

Update: The story has been updated with a case number.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the court's current presiding judge. The error has been corrected

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