Pro bono law firms say the Covid-19 pandemic makes holding traffic and eviction court hearings at Los Angeles County Superior dangerous to their health.
(CN) — Covid-19 has seeped into every facet of life in Los Angeles. But traffic and eviction court hearings continue to meet in person and the LA County Superior Court has failed to keep attorneys, their clients and court staff safe, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by a group of public interest law firms.
The firms argue the court’s continued use of in-person hearings while LA remains the nation’s Covid-19 epicenter is reckless.
So far this year, three court employees died from Covid-19 while 445 of the 5,100 employees and judges have tested positive for the virus since the onset of the pandemic a year ago. The court could avoid creating “super-spreader” events by stopping nonemergency traffic and eviction proceedings, according to the pro bono law firms Public Counsel, Inner City Law Center, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who filed the complaint on behalf of their clients.
The firms also argue the nonemergency proceedings disproportionately hurt low-income clients and people of color who cannot risk a lingering traffic ticket or losing their home during the pandemic.
While the law firms say they have tried to work with the court for months, they’ve received little response to their concerns.
In a statement, the court noted it does not comment on pending litigation but added, “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.”
Despite several emergency orders by the court to reduce the number of people inside a courtroom, there are no procedures to reschedule hearings if someone tests positive for Covid-19. That leaves others in the difficult position of either attending a hearing or risking the legal repercussions from skipping out of fear for their safety, the firms say.
Public Counsel attorney Amy Tannenbaum spent a few hours preparing to go to court this past October on behalf of her client. She wore two masks and a face shield.
“It turned what would have normally been a routine appearance into an anxiety-ridden moment,” Tannenbaum said in a phone interview.
“It absolutely does not feel safe. When I appeared in court the judge appeared remotely from their chambers. The contradictory messages we’re hearing from the court doesn’t match up with the reality of what’s happening in courtrooms.”
Eviction proceedings differ little.
This past November, Tannenbaum and her clients were ordered to appear in court over an eviction notice. In any other year, it would have been just another hearing.
But by December, two Angelenos died every hour from Covid-19.
Her clients weighed the risks of attending a multiday trial and eventually took what she considered a “decent” settlement
“We had to consider issues that are completely separate from the merits of the case. It was an absolute bind to just be able to help the client make the decision that was best for them,” said Tannenbaum.
The firms say it’s impossible to maintain physical distance in a crowded courtroom and courthouses lack medical screening at entrances. Meanwhile, the court hasn’t implemented any contract tracing to alert the public if they were in a courtroom with someone who had Covid-19.
Their complaint details a situation where one person called to jury duty in Beverly Hills said they were under mandatory quarantine due to exposure to someone who had Covid-19.
“Though he was excused, the other jurors were not informed that they had potentially been exposed to Covid-19,” the firms say.
Their claims include public nuisance, dangerous condition of public property and other civil violations.