LA Courts Criticized For COVID-19 Policies, Interpreter's Death

By Craig Clough
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Law360 (January 15, 2021, 9:16 PM EST) -- The nonprofit Court Watch Los Angeles on Friday said Los Angeles Superior Court's lax COVID-19 safety protocols led to an interpreter dying from the virus, alleging his death is the result of "incoherent" COVID-19 policies that punish employees for attempting to quarantine after a possible exposure.

Interpreter Sergio Cafaro died Tuesday after the virus spread among a group of interpreters and other staff at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the group said in a statement posted to its Twitter account.

The outbreak was avoidable and the result of Cafaro and other interpreters not being given permission to quarantine with paid sick leave for 14 days after two other LASC staff tested positive, the group said. 

"Mr. Cafaro's death was preventable, and the circumstances of his infection are just one example of Los Angeles Superior Court's dangerous COVID-19 policies," Court Watch Los Angeles said. "At 10 months into this pandemic, it is clear that Los Angeles Superior Court's COVID-19 policies have prioritized keeping courthouses staffed and running over keeping people safe."

In a statement issued Saturday, LASC said that a traffic clerk also died recently from COVID-19, but defended its virus protocols and said it has "proactively protected its employees" throughout the pandemic. The court also said it has a policy that employees who have tested positive, exhibited symptoms, or been exposed someone with symptoms, must quarantine.

"With these losses, we are reminded of the devastating nature of this pandemic and its impact on our county," Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor said. "We are the largest court in the nation, and are reminded that every one of us who is dedicated to justice is precious. And while we continue to implement extensive safety measures in all of our 38 courthouses, none of us is immune to this plague on our nation."

Court Watch L.A. says it is a volunteer organization formed by several social justice groups intent on holding "prosecutors and judges in the criminal courts accountable for their actions," according to its website. The group says it has over 200 volunteers who attend court hearings to document possible injustices, racial disparities or other problems.

According to the group's statement, LASC does not screen members of the public for COVID-19 before they enter the building, does not properly inform court staff and other employees about possible exposure, and routinely denies requests from employees to quarantine with pay after a possible exposure.

The exposure that led to Cafaro's death began in late November after a COVID-19 positive member of the public appeared in a courtroom with symptoms, and two employees who were present later tested positive, according to Court Watch L.A.

The interpreter who was in the courtroom that day was not informed of the exposure but learned about it "through word of mouth" on Dec. 7, and the interpreter's request to quarantine at home with pay was denied by the Interpreter Services Division, Court Watch L.A. said.

That interpreter continued to come to work for three more days before testing positive on Dec. 10, Court Watch L.A. said.

After the exposure, 18 interpreters asked to quarantine with pay for 14 days, but the Interpreter Services Division only granted the request to some, while others received partial time off and others received no time off despite doctor's notes outlining their need to quarantine, Court Watch L.A. said.

"We ask LASC: Was the denial of these interpreters' requests to quarantine rooted in a public health determination, or the fact that the courthouse would not be able to operate without interpreters present," Court Watch L.A. said.

One of three who took no time off was Cafaro, who tested positive for the virus on Dec. 21, three days after he began feeling sick, Court Watch L.A. said.

"His death was very likely caused by a confluence of Los Angeles Superior Court practices, from their failure to screen members of the public entering the courthouse, to their refusal to inform all staff who are actually exposed to COVID-19 of their exposure, to their refusal to allow staff who have been exposed to quarantine," Court Watch L.A. said.

The group also said the LASC interpreters through their union asked LASC to properly inform employees when there had been a possible exposure and allow for paid quarantines when there has been exposure.

In its statement, LASC also said that Judge Taylor "urged the public to be aware that inaccurate, insensitive and exploitative information often circulates on social media and emphasized the court has endeavored to be transparent" about public health and safety protections in its courthouses.

Court Watch L.A. said it is calling on the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office and the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to stop charging low-level offenses and stop pursuing pretrial detention and incarceration during the pandemic.

Family of Cafaro could not be reached for comment. The Los Angeles City Attorney's Office and the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

Update: This story has been updated with comments from Los Angeles Superior Court and LASC Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor.

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