Legal & Courts  February 3, 2021

Pandemic throws monkey wrench in gears of justice system

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, trial lawyers, judges, plaintiffs and defendants are twiddling their thumbs because most civil jury trials have been put on the back burner.

Law firms are still active with other legal services, but the pandemic has forced courts to delay trials — the bread and butter for many law firms. It also has forced courts and attorneys to create new ways to serve people without being face to face.

Carrie Frank, an attorney and shareholder at the personal-injury law firm Klein Frank PC in Boulder, said federal and district courts in Colorado are not conducting civil jury trials in order to protect jury members and court staffers from possible exposure to the virus.

Restart dates for jury trials in Colorado vary from county to county. Boulder County plans to resume jury trials in July. The tentative restart date in Weld County is March 1; Broomfield County is Feb. 16; and Larimer County is Feb. 15.

Andrew Callahan, a partner at Wick and Trautwein LLC in Fort Collins, said the mounting backlog of jury trials is beginning to financially pinch some law firms.

“Certain industries, like the service industry, have been hurt worse and bankruptcy filings are up now,” Callahan said. For law firms, he said, “It’s like a slow burn.”

Even if the pandemic is brought under control, Callahan believes things will get worse before they get better because the backlog has been building for about a year. “It’s going to take years to get out from under this,” Callahan predicted. “We are fortunate to have a variety of disciplines at our firm to help offset things.”

Lawsuits are still being filed, and courts are using WebEx (similar to Zoom) for hearings and case-management orders, Frank said. But the number of injury cases — her area of expertise — is down.

“With more people at home, fewer people are out and about,” she said. “The number of car crashes has dropped.” That’s the upside from a public safety standpoint, but the workload and subsequent income for law firms from personal-injury cases has decreased over the past year.

Callahan pointed out that people are filing personal-injury lawsuits now so they can be protected under the statute of limitations, the period of time allowed to file legal action.

“They (lawsuits) are being filed, but a lot are just sitting there,” Callahan said. “They aren’t being settled, because suits usually don’t get settled until right before going to trial, and very few are going to trial.”

Frank said there has been an uptick in domestic discord cases such as divorce, spousal abuse and child abuse because people are stuck in the house. “Some of those cases are moving forward,” she said.

Callahan said at his firm the number of divorce cases has declined.

“People may want a divorce, but it is expensive,” he said. Because of the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Callahan said some people are choosing to stay together, until things return to normal.

Other legal services are being sought out. For example, Callahan has seen an uptick in estate- planning.

“People are re-evaluating things, and they have the time to get the documents in order,’’ he said.

Wick and Trautwein LLC has been able to see some clients in person, albeit, separated by glass. Callahan said notaries are witnessing the signing of documents through the window of the firm’s conference room.

Brandon Houtchens of Houtchens, Greenfield and Zacheis LLC in Greeley, said the pandemic has made practicing law more cumbersome.

“The courts are using WebEx, and we’ve had to use more Zoom, more phone, more e-mail and more of our attorneys have been working from home,” he said.

One of Houtchens’ areas of expertise is landlord-tenant relations. He said some tenants have received stimulus help from the government that they use toward rent payments, which in turn helps his clients, who mostly are commercial landlords.

Tenants also have been protected by eviction moratoriums put in place last year by the federal government and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. The governor did not extend Colorado’s moratorium when it expired at the end of last year, but the federal government recently extended its moratorium through March 31.

“I’ve had to spend a lot of time self-educating on the nuances of the moratoriums, so I could pass that on to my clients,” Houtchens said. “Generally, I think most of my clients are waiting for the dust to settle before deciding on a course of action.”

Houtchens said landlords are somewhat in a supply-and-demand dilemma. “Do they stay with a faithful tenant who is suffering a temporary loss? Or, evict and look for a new tenant? The other side to that is: How likely is it that they will find a new tenant?”

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