COVID-19 Resource Center

May 04, 2020

COVID-19: How the NJ Courts Have Responded to Social Distancing Requirements in Civil Litigation

New Jersey has been one of the states that has been most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, a stay-at-home order has been in effect since March 21, 2020. In response, the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a series of orders to deal with this order and still promote access to the courts. As our practice focuses mainly on civil matters, the following is an outline of the changes the Court has made to allow for court functions to continue while observing social distancing guidelines.

The Supreme Court began implementing changes to promote civil and criminal justice through alternative access to the Courts. On March 12, 2020, the Court suspended all civil and criminal jury trials – except those already underway. Around that same time, landlord/tenant sessions were suspended through March 27, 2020. All in-person court proceedings scheduled for Monday, March 16, and Tuesday, March 17, 2020 at the trial level of the Superior Court and the Tax Court were postponed in all counties.

At that point, the Court needed to address the on-going administration of civil cases and on March 17, 2020, the Supreme Court entered an order directing that in Civil and Family matters, the provisions of rules regarding discovery were relaxed and supplemented to permit the extension of discovery deadlines; and further directing that the computation of time periods under the Rules of Court and under any statute of limitations for matters in all courts, for purposes of filing deadlines, March 16 through March 27, 2020 shall be deemed the same as a legal holiday. That would mean that those inclusive dates act as a tolling period on filing deadlines.

As of March 19, 2020, Civil Arbitration and Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel sessions scheduled between Monday, March 16 and Friday, April 10, 2020 were postponed, to be rescheduled at a later time. These proceedings were directed to resume on or after Monday, April 13, 2020, with participation in any session to be via video and/or telephone conference and initiated by an arbitrator or panelist. The Court noted in its order that any participant may apply to the court for extension of deadlines or rescheduling of sessions as may be required based on the circumstances of an individual case, including but not limited to barriers to participation by video or phone conferencing. The rules have also been relaxed to allow for these proceedings to take place in locations other than the court house(s).

On March 24, 2020, the Supreme Court put in place vicinage level email boxes for submission of applications in which emergent relief is being sought. This is a temporary measure for applications that cannot be filed through the court’s electronic filing system or promptly received on paper. At the same time, because medical professionals are on the front lines and needed to assist with the care and treatment of patients, the Court suspended through Sunday, April 26, 2020, all depositions of and all required appearances for any doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals who are involved in responding to the COVID-19 public health concerns, except for appearances and depositions (i) that are requested by the doctor, nurse, or healthcare professional; or (ii) that are for matters related to COVID-19. Finally as of March 24, 2020, the Court relaxed certain guidelines regarding courtesy copies of filings to be submitted to the Court.

By the end of March, as it became clear that the social distancing guidelines were not going to be relaxed the Supreme Court entered a lengthy omnibus order dated March 27, 2020 that kept in place much of what it had done already and instituting additional procedures. The highlights of that order are:

• No new civil or criminal jury trials were to be conducted until further notice
• The provisions of the March 17, 2020 Order were affirmed and extended, and relaxed and supplemented to permit the extension of discovery deadlines through April 26, 2020
• The deadlines for filing affidavits of merit in medical and professional malpractice cases was extended from March 16 through April 26, 2020
• The time periods for dismissal of civil cases for lack of prosecution was tolled for the period from March 16 through April 26, 2020; in addition, (a) automated lack of prosecution dismissal processes for foreclosure and chancery matters was suspended through April 26, 2020; and (b) automated default for special civil part (DC) matters was also suspended through April 26, 2020;
• The time period for issuance of a summons went from within 15 days to within 60 days of the Track Assignment Notice for notices issued from March 16 through April 26, 2020
• The time frame for service of valid and timely Notices of Tort Claim was tolled from March 16 through April 26, 2020
• The time periods for discovery, including but not limited to interrogatories, discovery and inspection of documents and property, physical and mental examination of persons, and requests for admissions was extended from March 16 through April 26, 2020, and to the extent the rules governing these events are incorporated into the rules governing the Special Civil Part matters, discovery in those extended through April 26, 2020;
• In the computation of time for discovery end dates, the period of March 16 through April 26, 2020 have been excluded due to exceptional circumstances
• Special Civil Part (DC) and Small Claims (SC) trial calendars were suspended through April 26, 2020
The court also extended the provision regarding the handling of arbitrations as follow:
• Civil Arbitration sessions scheduled from March 16 to April 10, 2020 were postponed and Civil Arbitration sessions scheduled from April 11 to April 26, 2020 are being rescheduled
• Civil Arbitration sessions have resumed as of April 27, 2020, Civil Arbitration sessions with participation in any session to be via video and/or telephone conference as previously described. The manner in which these proceedings are to take place was outlined in detail by an administrative order entered on April 16, 2020

This omnibus order also directs that to the extent practicable through April 26, 2020, depositions should be conducted remotely using necessary and available video technology, and in those circumstances court reporters may administer and accept oaths remotely; and also to the extent practicable, all court matters including hearings, conferences, and arguments, will be conducted by video or phone conferencing, and in-person appearances will be permitted only in emergency situations. The restrictions on the depositions and appearance of health care providers involved in the COVID-19 response were also extended through April 26, 2020. In the computation of time periods, under the Rules of Court and under any statute of limitations for matters in all courts, for purposes of filing deadlines, the additional period from March 28 through April 26, 2020 shall be deemed the same as a legal holiday, once again tolling the time within which filings must be made. Finally, the omnibus order included a relaxation of the rules on signing pleadings to allow for electronic signatures on documents which would normally be required to contain an original signature.

By April 9, 2020, the Court had created an electronic filing system to allow the electronic filing of documents by self-represented litigants. Previously, they would have had to rely on paper filings to initiate or participate in litigated matters.

Other orders have since been put in place directing how the operations of the court will continue and move forward as the crisis abates. Most recently, by order dated April 24, 2020, most of the time extensions outlined above have once again been extended through the end of May 2020. For information on all the orders and directives issued by the Court, same have been posted on the Court’s website and can be found at https://www.njcourts.gov/public/covid19.html

If you have questions about the New Jersey Court directives, please reach out to any of the general liability attorneys in our Mt. Laurel or Woodbridge offices or contact Matthew K. Mitchell, Esq., chair of the firm's general liability practice in New Jersey at mmitchell@c-wlaw.com.