Feb. 10, 2021
Nonprofit coalition sues LA courts for in-person proceedings
Filed by Public Counsel, the Inner City Law Center and Bet Tzedek Legal Services, the suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, requesting Los Angeles County courthouses close to all in-person appearances in traffic and unlawful detainer matters.
A coalition of public interest law firms sued Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday, arguing the court's practice of conducting in-person hearings during the coronavirus pandemic is "reckless" and "needlessly endangers people's lives."
Filed by Public Counsel, the Inner City Law Center and Bet Tzedek Legal Services, the lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, requesting Los Angeles County courthouses close to all in-person appearances in traffic and unlawful detainer matters.
"These matters were properly deferred for months due to the risks of courtroom appearances, yet indefensibly proceed now in person even as conditions are exponentially more dangerous than they were during the court's closure," the complaint reads, referring to when the court closed in March.
The suit comes after the death of two court interpreters and a traffic clerk who contracted the coronavirus and died last month.
A total of 20 staff members at the Metropolitan Courthouse and 61 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles tested positive for COVID-19 recently, according to data from the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department referenced in the complaint. A court spokeswoman recently stated that at least 445 Los Angeles County court employees have tested positive for COVID-19, also according to the complaint.
The court's communications director, Ann E. Donlan, said in an email: "The court never comments on pending litigation. However, we anticipate that all matters brought by litigants each day across this County will be heard safely and fairly because of our commitment to equal access to justice."
Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor issued a statement in January saying he was deeply saddened by the deaths of the court employees, and that the court has put various safety measures in place since the pandemic began.
"With these losses, we are reminded of the devastating nature of this pandemic and its impact on our county," Taylor said. "We are the largest court in the nation. ... 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."
The LA County court system is the largest in the nation with 511 judges, 73 commissioners, over 5,000 staff members and nearly 600 active courtrooms.
Over the course of the pandemic, LA Superior Court leaders directed "significant resources" to retrofit courtrooms, to purchase personal protective equipment for the public and staff, and to expand remote audio and video access capabilities in all courtrooms, according to Taylor's statement.
However, despite the court putting up signs to inform sick visitors not to enter, Tuesday's lawsuit stated the court "does not engage in symptom checking or contact tracing," at the entrance of the courthouse. Public Counsel v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, (L.A. Sup. Ct., filed Feb. 9, 2021).
Due to the physical layout of the courthouse buildings, it is impossible to maintain 6 feet from others at all times when navigating hallways and courtrooms, according to the lawsuit.
Asked during a news conference Tuesday why plaintiff attorneys chose to focus on halting in-person appearances in traffic and unlawful detainer proceedings, Bet Tzedek President and CEO Diego Cartagena said based on his firm's analysis, the proceedings mentioned in the complaint were the only ones where bench officers across the county were requiring litigants to appear in person.
"In our analysis of other departments and other courthouses, that requirement factor has not been in place and so we are also taking into consideration the differences in the nature of the proceedings and whether or not there are serious individual and constitutional rights at play," Cartagena said.
"These proceedings where our attorneys have been asked to appear in person are not essential proceedings at all," he said. "These are matters such as cracked windshields, which do not need to be addressed at this moment in time."