Public and private sector entities with pending court litigation or pending discrimination complaints/charges are questioning how COVID-19 will impact their cases. Initially, the Wisconsin circuit courts determined how to address COVID-19 concerns at the circuit court level. This led to inconsistent practices among circuit courts. On March 22, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued several orders applicable to all circuit courts in Wisconsin. In addition, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued orders or statements regarding the impact of COVID-19 on court operations.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Equal Rights Division (ERD) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are continuing to process discrimination complaints/charges, but have imposed other measures as a result of COVID-19.
Cases Pending in State Court
On March 22, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued several orders applicable to all courts of the State of Wisconsin. Specifically, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an order postponing all civil and criminal jury trials to a date after May 22, 2020, subject to emergency exceptions. The presiding judge of each case must address rescheduling of any postponed jury trials.
In addition, the Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified that all courts of the State will remain open, but all in-person proceedings are suspended through April 30, 2020. Court officials must use electronic means to address pending court matters in lieu of in-person proceedings, subject to certain limited exceptions.
Further, the Wisconsin Supreme Court explained that “all non-essential hearings are to be postponed or conducted remotely.” Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court has provided clarity with regard to statewide practices, it is still important to review any emergency circuit court order(s) issued by the circuit court in which the litigation is pending.
Cases Pending in Federal Court
The federal courts covering the State of Wisconsin have also issued orders or statements regarding the impact of COVID-19 on court operations. For instance, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin issued a statement that the Milwaukee and Green Bay courthouse buildings are temporarily closed as of March 23, 2020, at 5:00 P.M. It also issued an order postponing all civil and criminal jury trials to a date after May 1, 2020. Further, with regard to civil cases, all civil hearings must be conducted by telephone or videoconference. Parties may still file documents electronically, by mail, or by depositing them in an external drop box at the courthouse.
As of the date of this article, the federal courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin remains open to the public, subject to certain limitations. The Court will continue to process documents filed electronically or by mail. In addition, the Court issued a statement that it would suspend all jury trials through May 18, 2020. The Court explained that “much of the work of the court can be conducted electronically, so we can continue most operations without direct interpersonal contact.”
The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also issued a statement regarding COVID-19. Specifically, the Court explained that it would be implementing its Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) to maintain “emergency operations.” The Court also stated that oral argument in pending cases would be conducted by telephone. Further, the Court explained that it will be operating with a reduced staff, but will remain open.
Discrimination Complaints/Charges Pending Before Administrative Agencies
To date, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Equal Rights Division (ERD) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have not issued any formal statements regarding the impact of COVID-19, if any, on pending complaints or charges. An investigator with the EEOC recently confirmed that the EEOC is continuing to process charges, but the EEOC is requesting that intake interviews be processed through the EEOC’s portal. Similarly, a representative from the ERD recently confirmed that the ERD is continuing to process and investigate complaints. Also, the ERD is continuing to conduct telephone mediations; however, in-person hearings before the ERD have been postponed until at least after May 10, 2020.
Importantly, if a public or private employer has an upcoming deadline to submit a position statement or other information to the ERD or EEOC, it may be possible to obtain an extension by contacting the investigator assigned to the matter.
The impact of COVID-19 on court operations and agency operations is rapidly evolving, with new orders and statements issued frequently. Therefore, it is important for entities with pending cases to stay apprised of the changes and to seek clarification directly from the applicable court or agency.
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