Judge Denies Pro Bono Firms’ Request to Halt Traffic, Eviction Hearings in LA County Court

Los Angeles County continues to report hundreds of new Covid-19 cases daily, but a superior court judge denied law firms’ request to stop traffic and eviction hearings while the pandemic is still a threat.

The Stanley Mosk Courthouse of the LA County Superior Court (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

(CN) — A lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Superior Court over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic spilled Monday into the Orange County Superior Court, where a judge denied a request to temporarily halt all traffic and eviction hearings during the pandemic. 

Earlier this month, a group of legal aid and pro bono law firms sued LA Superior Court, arguing traffic and unlawful detainer or eviction court hearings should temporarily cease until Covid-19 is no longer a threat to the public.

“I read that, and I thought, ‘Wow, that may be years,’” said Orange County Superior Court Judge William Claster in a hearing Monday.

LA has been hit particularly hard during the Covid-19 pandemic and a surge in late November brought thousands of new cases each day. The unrelenting number of new cases pushed hospitals to the breaking point and did not let up for two months.

The group of law firms that sued the court argue their clients and attorneys cannot safely distance themselves from others in crowded courtrooms, which are unsafe environments where they may catch Covid-19, and believe that their clients would be prejudiced by the court’s phone hearing system because there is a fee to use it. The pro bono law firm Public Counsel, lead plaintiff in the case, says it represents clients who are mainly low-income, Black and Latino residents. These clients are often ordered to appear in person for traffic violations or to fight their evictions. 

At the start of the pandemic, LA County Superior Court temporarily closed several departments when little was known about Covid-19. Since then, LA County Superior Court has modified hundreds of courtrooms across the county to allow for people to physically distance and appear remotely. But Public Counsel argues that hundreds of court staff have been infected with the virus and an untold number of citizens have probably caught the virus inside crowded courtrooms.

The pro bono law firms note that three court employees recently died from Covid-19.

LA County’s attorney, Alison Beanum with Clyde & Co, said the courts and county health officials have been working closely during the pandemic, but the situation is fluid.

“We are working hand in hand with the health officer,” said Beanum. 

She argued the recent death of a traffic court clerk was not relevant to the motion.

“The plaintiffs have not and cannot establish that that court reporter contracted Covid through exposure at a courthouse,” Beanum said.

Public Counsel asked for a temporary emergency closure of all traffic and eviction hearings in LA County to try and stem the spread of the virus and protect their clients. LA County Superior Court reassigned the case to Orange County in the interest of impartiality.

On Monday, Claster said he was not deaf to the concerns the pro bono law firms documented in their declarations but believes their request was overbroad. Claster asked who would decide when the time had come that Covid-19 was no longer a threat.

“How does the injunction ever end?” Claster asked the plaintiffs if he were to issue an emergency order based on their request. “You’re asking me to — these are my words — shut down a significant portion of the superior court system.”

Public Counsel attorney Jesselyn Friley said the plaintiffs are seeking a relatively short break in traffic and eviction court hearings. 

However, despite a recent decrease in new Covid-19 infections in LA County, there are reports of new variants that are more contagious and court hearings are still taking place, Friley said. If the hearings are paused, clients could follow the guidance of the local public health officer to stay home, she added. 

“They get to obey the stay-at-home order and are not being hauled into court repeatedly in matters that are not essential,” said Friley.

The purpose of a temporary restraining order is to avoid an emergency situation, but temporarily shutting down traffic and eviction court hearings that have been going on for months during the pandemic would do the opposite of preserving the status quo said Claster.

“I don’t view this as an emergency, but I view this as a very serious situation,” said Claster.

At this point, Claster said he was not able to decide how dangerous the courts in LA are but respects the declarations included with the plaintiff’s motion and agreed that there may be some situations in which social distancing is not working.

Friley said the plaintiffs would file a motion for a preliminary injunction to shore up their motion to temporarily stop traffic and eviction hearings.

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