By William J. Gallitto

On March 18, 2020, to help curb the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), the Maine Supreme Judicial Court took the extraordinary step of immediately cancelling until May 1, 2020, both scheduling and hearing the following types of cases: 

  1. Evictions and landlord/tenant disputes
  2. Disclosures
  3. Foreclosures
  4. Small claims
  5. Medical malpractice proceedings including medical review panel hearings
  6. Family matters, except for video mediations by agreement.
  7. Adoptions
  8. Juvenile matters (unless the juvenile is being detained)
  9. Criminal matters (unless a defendant is in-custody)
  10. Civil jury trials
  11. All other nonjury civil matters including civil violations
  12. All actions to recover personal property
  13. All traffic tickets
  14. Grand Jury proceedings

Currently, the only civil cases currently being heard are:

  1. Protection from abuse requests and hearings
  2. Protection from harassment requests and hearings
  3. Child protection petitions and hearings
  4. Mental health requests and hearings
  5. Emergency guardianships
  6. Hearings granted on motion

Unless a case falls within one of the six listed categories, there must be “urgent and compelling reasons” for the court to hold the trial or hearing before May 1, 2020. 

Further complicating this mandate is the recently announced reduction in courthouse hours and the number of individuals allowed inside courthouses.  For example, during the week of March 23, most courts throughout Maine are scheduled to be open for a half day only.  Some courts, including York County Superior Court, are closed to the public entirely that week.  Moreover, in reducing the number of individuals in courthouses, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has stated that these changes “will affect the scheduling and hearing of cases”.  The trial court website encourages all individuals who have any business with the court to call to ensure that they are open, as the impact of this disease is constantly changing.  Litigants in the handful of cases being heard should expect delays in their case being heard and a truncated court schedule.

While these and other mandated changes are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, they have also had a significant impact on pending cases, which are still subject to existing Scheduling Orders and require timely attention to deadlines, discovery and motion practice.  Now, more than ever, written discovery, video conference depositions, and virtual mediations and arbitrations have heightened importance and prominence in the litigation process.  Virtual or telephonic mediations are becoming almost routine.  The mechanics and legal issues associated with video depositions are not stopping discovery in cases which are near a discovery deadline.  For example, if a court reporter and a witness are in the same location, swearing in the witness is not an issue, but if that is not possible, must a notary must be brought in to swear the witness in?  Even eliminating the long-standing requirement of physically signing legal documents filed in state court has been discussed among litigators, most of whom are working from home, to bring the state in line with federal courts, which have allowed electronic signatures for decades.  The restrictions stemming from COVID-19 have forced a sometimes-antiquated profession to adapt to modern times and circumstances.  Litigators are working to find the “new normal” with no sure end to these restrictions in sight.  Clients in litigation cases should expect delays in scheduling hearings and trials, but be prepared to confront the new challenges and complexities social distancing has had on the legal profession.               

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