West Virginia Issues COVID-19 Guidance for Circuit Courts
March 13, 2020
On March 12, 2020, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia issues a “COVID-19 Planning Document.” Recognizing the “serious public health risk” presented by the coronavirus, or COVID-19, the Court provided guidance to “all court systems, court affiliates, and court personnel throughout West Virginia, and supplements general guidance issued by federal, state, and local health authorities.” The Court stated “The Courts and the judicial system shall remain open and function as normally as possible absent specific direction from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. However, prudent steps are required to promptly mitigate health and safety risks to our 1,450 employees, our families, and the people we serve. The Court will continue to monitor the ongoing situation and update these guidelines as required.”
After reviewing facts related to COVID-19, the court issued Human Resource Planning guidelines restricting employees with fever or other symptoms from coming to work and required they stay home for fourteen days after symptoms subside. “Employees directly exposed to a confirmed case of the disease should self-quarantine and not return to work for fourteen days.” Fourteen days special paid leave was added to accumulated leave for all employees required to stay home and employees who test positive for the virus or stay home are required to report with documentation. Employees who “may have been exposed via travel” should continue working but “should closely monitor their health and take extra precautions to avoid the possible unknowing spread of the disease, such as avoiding close contact with others and frequent handwashing.” All employees with suspected symptoms are urged to seek testing if recommended by a health authorities or medical providers. The Court encouraged exploration of teleworking and flexibility to accommodate employees caring for children or elderly parents or affected by other closures. Out of state travel is prohibited unless expressly authorized.
As to Court Operations Planning, the court directed “All courts within the judicial system shall remain open and function as normally as possible absent specific direction from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.” The Court reserved the option to temporarily close circuits in “extraordinary circumstances” and directed “Judges and judicial personnel should refrain from any action that may inflame the public’s fears or contradict federal or state guidance on the situation.” As to court operations,
Judges and judicial officials are encouraged to be flexible and proactive in managing their dockets if community spread occurs. Possible methods to mitigate the spread of the disease include:
- Allowing for telephonic hearings, if possible;
- Reviewing docket and postponing non-critical and/or time sensitive matters;
- Encouraging the use of video conferencing systems for appearances by those incarcerated, if appropriate, or
- Scheduling docket matters to reduce the need for a large number of individuals to wait in the courtroom or public areas for their case to be called.
Parties, attorneys, witnesses, and jurors should not come to court if they have a fever or other symptoms, or if they have been directly exposed to a confirmed case of the disease. Individuals are encouraged to contact the circuit clerk’s office, magistrate clerk’s office, or the judge’s office for guidance if these situations occur. Judicial officers are encouraged to be as flexible as possible to accommodate these concerns during an active community outbreak.
If a party, attorney, witness, or juror is adversely impacted by community efforts to stop the disease, such as extended school closures, the court system should make efforts to reasonably accommodate the individual to support public health efforts. Judicial officers should favorably consider requests for extensions in time, continuances, or modified schedules if the circumstances warrant granting the request. The Court system must be mindful of the undue burden public health efforts may create, and must support those efforts by accommodating individual hardships, if possible.
Probation officers and probation employees should read, understand, and closely follow all guidance issued by federal, state, and local officials about COVID-19 and law enforcement functions. Specifically, officers should avoid close contact with a person suspected of the disease and have trained EMS/EMT assistance to transport probationers to a healthcare facility if the disease is suspected.
The Court stated it will prepare and post continuing notices on its website and will communicate with fliers and information transmitted through the State Bar’s regular email “Bar Blasts.” And the Court warned that employees, attorneys or other individuals fraudulently using public health efforts to “impact court proceedings for personal gain or to avoid a legal obligation” are subject to prosecution or ethics charges.