Civil Litigation and COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted life throughout the entire world like no other crisis in at least a century.  Texas courts have responded with a series of extraordinary orders designed to allow the administration of justice to continue, while also keeping jurors, witnesses, court personnel, judges, and – yes, even trial lawyers – safe.

The Texas Supreme Court has issued nine emergency orders in response to the crisis.  Many of those orders directly impact trial procedures and the rights of parties in civil litigation.  Below is a summary of the most significant changes for business litigation.

1. Statute of limitations extended

The Court issued a blanket order on April 1, 2020 that “any deadline for the filing or service of any civil case is tolled from March 13, 2020 until June 1, 2020, unless extended by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”  This clarified an earlier order that made it discretionary for a trial court to extend the limitations period for filing suit.  The April 1 order made clear that a party with a claim that was set to expire in late March, April, or May now has until June 1, 2020 to file suit.

2. Trials, Hearings, and Deadlines Suspended

The Court authorized all courts in the State to modify or suspend any deadline or procedure until 30 days after the Governor’s disaster declaration is lifted.  Trial courts in Central Texas have responded.  Travis County District Courts have postponed all non-emergency trials and hearings through at least April 13, with reduced staff available for emergency hearings only.  Williamson County District Courts have cancelled all jury trials and non-emergency matters until further notice.  Hays County District Courts have cancelled jury trials through May 31, 2020 and have cancelled all non-jury hearings through mid-April.  Similar orders have been put in place in many other Texas counties, including Harris, Dallas, and Bexar Counties.  To learn the current status of proceedings in other counties, please consult the District Court website for that county.

3. Discretion to Allow Remote Participation in Court Proceedings

The Court has ordered that all Texas courts may allow for remote participation in any hearing, deposition, or other proceeding of any kind (including parties, attorneys, witnesses, court reporters, but not including jurors).  The Court has also allowed Texas courts to receive into evidence sworn statements made by witnesses outside of the courtroom, including statements made by telephone, video conference, or otherwise.

4. Courts Authorized to Conduct Proceedings at Any Location in the County

The Court has ordered that Texas courts may conduct court proceedings “away from the court’s usual location with reasonable notice and access to the participants and the public.”

5. Deadlines Tolled for Attorney Professional Disciplinary and Disability Proceedings

The Court has ordered that “[a]ll deadlines, whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order, related to attorney professional disciplinary and disability proceedings are tolled” from March 13, 2020 until May 8, 2020, unless extended by the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

6. New Requirements for Eviction Proceedings

On March 19, 2020, the Court imposed new requirements for residential eviction cases, including (i) requiring that no eviction proceedings may occur until after April 19, 2020, (ii) requiring that no writ of possession may issue until after April 26, 2020, (iii) requiring that service of citation for any new eviction proceedings may not be issued until after April 19, 2020, and (iv) requiring that new residential eviction cases must be supported by a sworn statement showing that the actions of the tenant or the tenant’s household members or guests pose an imminent threat of physical harm or criminal activity.  Those dates were extended by a new order entered on April 6, 2020.  Under the Court’s April 6 order, no residential eviction trial or hearing may occur until after April 30, 2020, and no writ of possession may be executed in a residential eviction case until after May 7, 2020.  The requirements within the City of Austin are even more restrictive, and in Austin the restrictions apply to both residential and commercial leases.  Under a new City of Austin Ordinance adopted on March 26, 2020, a landlord must send a “notice of proposed eviction” for failure to pay rent to a residential or commercial tenant at least 60 days prior to sending a notice to vacate.  If the notice to vacate is sent prior to the expiration of the 60-day period, the notice to vacate “shall have no effect.”  The Austin ordinance prevents any eviction proceeding from going forward in the City of Austin until the 60-day notice of proposed eviction has been sent.

As trial lawyers, we are dedicated to providing the best possible guidance and representation to our clients as they navigate their way through business controversies and challenges of all kinds.  Especially at this time of business disruption and change, we will continue to be available, despite the need for remote work and social distancing.

For more information regarding these orders, or any controversy relating to your business, please contact Doug Kilday and other members of the Civil Litigation Section.