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Law360 (May 20, 2020, 3:27 PM EDT) -- New York will allow new lawsuits to be electronically filed statewide starting Monday, reopening the high-traffic courts of New York City and surrounding counties to new "nonessential" matters for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down.
In a brief memo addressed to all state trial court justices and judges Wednesday afternoon, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks announced that following the physical return of judges and staff to upstate courthouses in 30 counties, the state court system will allow new e-filed cases — even as court staff in the harder-hit downstate areas continue to conduct business remotely.
"This expanded use of NYSCEF will permit a significant broadening of civil litigation in a manner that continues to ensure the highest measure of health and safety to judges, court personnel, and the public," Judge Marks wrote in the memo, ticking off a list of included counties: Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, Westchester and New York City's five boroughs.
The judge stressed that due to the limited in-court activities in the downstate regions, the fresh lawsuits will generally need to be filed through the online system and not in paper form, noting that "this restoration of NYSCEF usage will be limited to cases in which represented parties file and serve all papers electronically."
However, unrepresented litigants will be allowed to continue to file, serve and be served papers the old-fashioned way. Only courts that use e-filing are accepting new filings, a court official clarified, so the order will not affect the restrictions on criminal matters, lower civil court matters, or housing court.
"This is a tremendous milestone in the expansion of New York's virtual courts and great news for litigators and the public," New York State Bar Association President Henry M. Greenberg told Law360 in a statement. "It is a giant leap in our return to a new normal."
E-filing of new lawsuits has already begun in 23 upstate counties, where they opened their courthouses Monday, and where another seven opened their doors today.
State court spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360 that another part of the impetus to reopen the downstate courts to new nonessential matters were reports that certain New York City attorneys were planning to file cases in small upstate counties rather than wait for their home county to reopen.
"Cortland County definitely got queries from civil litigators in New York City about new filings," Chalfen said, referring to the county of 50,000 residents south of Syracuse.
With the exception of New York City, Long Island and the Hudson Valley, in-person operations will resume elsewhere in the Empire State by next Tuesday, Chalfen said.
This next phase of the reopening plan comes after the court system has seen 178 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its court employees, Chalfen told Law360 on Wednesday, including 17 judges, three of whom have died: Supreme Court Justices Noach Dear, Johnny Lee Baynes and Steven Milligram.
When asked why the court planned to digitally reopen the downstate region to new lawsuits over Memorial Day — a federal holiday — the state courts spokesman said that the e-filing system would be operating nonstop no matter which day they allowed new filings.
"It's 24/7," Chalfen told Law360. "Monday's a Monday. Why make it a Tuesday?"
--Editing by Adam LoBelia.
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