With New York’s courts shut down for almost everything but emergencies, litigation has mostly ground to a halt unless the parties agree to keep going. No trials and no conferences.
A great many lawyers, myself included, have steamed forward with virtual depositions. But what if one of the sides — the one that most benefits from delay — simply tells you to stuff it? They ain’t going forward.
Motion practice to force recalcitrant litigants forward has just started.
We have now, I believe, the first judicial opinion in the state on that — dealing specifically with objections to going forward due to COVID-19.
Last week, Justice Robert David Kalish, sitting in New York County, ordered the parties to proceed to depositions “by remote means” in a Labor Law matter. Count on this decision to be cited widely in the months to come.
Defendants had tried to stall the case, arguing that they were willing to go forward, but that “depositions should occur in the traditional, in-person format, after social distancing restrictions related to the current COVID-19 pandemic have been lifted.”
As the Court noted in rejecting the attempt to stall, “there is no prediction for when all of the pandemic restrictions will be lifted.”
There’s a risk to making flagrantly bad arguments, and that is a judge might call you out on it, and establish a precedent that you are not happy with. Such was the case here with counsel for defendant Time Warner Cable:
While no side claims that it lacks the ability to conduct these depositions by video — and, indeed, during a pre-motion Skype for Business conference, TWC’s counsel noted that he had recently conducted a six-hour deposition by remote means in another case — TWC’s counsel argues that the depositions of the Remote Witnesses should be taken in-person because he himself [and the witnesses] “do not feel comfortable participating in a deposition conducted by videoconference technology.”
Ouch. Bad argument amplified by the court.
Defense counsel also tried to stall other discovery as well, saying that no trial can take place anyway due to The Virus.
But Justice Kalish was clear that litigants must adapt to this “new normal” as there is no end in sight for the pandemic:
This Court disagrees with TWC’s counsel. To delay discovery until a vaccine is available or the pandemic has otherwise abated would be unacceptable. It goes without saying that business as usual is no longer the normal. The legal profession and its clients are currently coming to grips with the “new normal” brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, this “new normal” means that it is no longer safe and practical for depositions to be taken in person, as was the default during the “old normal.” TWC’s counsel suggests that this case should simply be put on hold until the “old normal” returns.
While the Court did not use the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” it was certainly there in its essence for all to see:
However, as in any case, there is always a concern that a witness may become unavailable to testify for any number of reasons, including illness or death. During a pandemic, this concern is stronger. Moreover, it remains uncertain how soon the “old normal” will return— if it ever does.
Finally, the court kicks defense counsel a bit by saying, if you really want to sit in the room with your client, go for it. But that doesn’t mean others must take that risk:
Although TWC’s counsel feels that he will be prejudiced by not being able to physically sit next to the Remote Witnesses during their depositions, this order does not prohibit him from doing so. To the extent that the law and social distancing guidance allow, TWC’s counsel (or a co-counsel of his choosing) may be in the same room sitting next to these Remote Witnesses while Plaintiff’s counsel appears by remote means.
There is precedent for doing depositions remotely, but it’s always been on a case by case basis based upon “undue hardship.” So, for example, if an individual was injured in New York and returned home to a foreign country, but could not return for deposition for visa reasons, a court would call that an “undue hardship.” People are not immune from their own negligence, after all, simply because they were “lucky” enough to hurt a foreigner.
But this decision takes the pandemic and uses it broadly. This scene is playing out all over the state, thousands of times over. To the extent it is cited and relied upon by others (as I think it will) it affects every case that is trying to move forward.
It should be noted that not all defendants have conducted themselves this way. Many depositions have gone forward with the agreement of counsel.
But those that see to use the pandemic to gain a litigation advantage are now on notice: If the rest of the judiciary follows Justice Kalish, it won’t end well.
The case is Johnson v. Time Warner Cable.
Update: Moments after publication a friend alerted me of a decision this morning on virtual depositions from Nassau county (Justice McCormack). In this real estate dispute (return of downpayment on a house) the matter of re-deposing the plaintiffs was briefed before the courts shut down. The judge ordered depositions to go forward and, obviously anticipating a coming issue with whether depositions should be done virtually, simply decided it before anyone could yelp:
The depositions shall take place via Skype, Zoom or other electronic means, unless all parties and counsel agree to face-to-face depositions with the appropriate social distancing. [emphasis in original]
The case is here: McDonald v. Pantony
Update #2: In Albany county, Justice Christopher P. Baker ordered on June 2, 2020 that the deposition of a doctor in a medical malpractice case must go forward remotely.
Interpreting the Executive Orders of Gov. Cuomo, which stated that a court may not compel “the personal attendance” of physicians from facilities that treat COVID-19, he wrote that this means they should be done remotely. In other words, the executive order was to halt the potential spread of the virus, not to delay lawsuits against doctors.
The doctor, of course, has every right to have his attorney physically present if the two so desire, but this does not mean that opposing counsel or the court reporter need to be in the same room.
The case is Melkonian v. Albany Medical Center.
Update #3 In Westchester County, Justice Joan Lefkowitz wrote a comprehensive decision that, as with the above cases, mandated that depositions be held virtually. Both Johnson and Macdonald, linked above, were cited in addition to others. .
The case is Chase-Morris v. Tubby.