Nearly three months after pausing civil litigation due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has released a new emergency order, effective June 1, 2020 (the “June Order”), that lays out the present plan for resumption of civil litigation. Although the June Order’s plan is contingent upon there being no further surges of COVID-19 cases in the Commonwealth, it is the first such order since the crisis began that contemplates bringing COVID-related extensions to an end.
Like the SJC’s prior orders, the June Order further extends many of the restrictions, deadlines, and statutes of limitations for non-emergency civil litigation. It continues the closure of Massachusetts courts to the public through at least July 1, 2020, except where necessary to address emergency matters that cannot be conducted remotely. The time remaining on any deadlines falling after March 16, 2020 will be added to July 1, 2020 to arrive at the new deadline, whether set by statute, court rule, standing order, or specific court order. For example, a deadline to respond to a motion under Superior Court Rule 9A that was originally set to expire on March 23 (i.e., had seven days remaining as of March 16, 2020) will now fall on July 8, seven days after July 1 (assuming three days are not added for service under applicable court rules). Although this also still applies to most new deadlines that came into being after March 16, 2020, any deadline set by court order after March 17, 2020 is not extended under the June Order. So a deadline to respond to a motion under Superior Court Rule 9A that originally would have expired on May 11 will now fall on July 13, ten days after July 1 carried to the following Monday (again assuming three days are not added for service under applicable court rules). But a deadline to submit a status report on June 10 set by a May 20 court order is not extended under the June Order.
Importantly, the June Order clarifies that subsequent deadlines set forth in a case tracking order (i.e., deadlines that come after June 30, 2020) are extended by the same amount of time as any deadline in that tracking order falling between March 16, 2020 and June 30, 2020. For example, if a tracking order in a case pending prior to March 16, 2020 had a May 11, 2020 deadline for discovery, then there would have been 56 days remaining for discovery at the time of the initial pause in court operations. Under the June Order, the new discovery deadline would be August 26, 2020 (56 days after the June 30, 2020 expiration of the pause), and all subsequent deadlines (such as a deadline to serve motions for summary judgment) would also be pushed back by 56 days. Such tracking orders are typically used in the Superior Court, which has issued an updated Standing Order 7-20 to incorporate aspects of the June Order.
As before, injunctions in place as of March 16, 2020 will continue through June 30, 2020, and statutes of limitations remain tolled through June 30, 2020. The June Order further extends trial and hearing dates in civil cases, as well. Prior to July 1, 2020, civil bench trials can only be conducted virtually at the election of the presiding judge. No jury trial will commence before September 8, 2020 and any deadlines regarding the commencement of trial are extended through September 7, 2020, unless a bench trial commences before that date.
Where prior orders from the SJC anticipated further potential extensions based upon the unknown progression and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, the June Order contemplates a firm resumption of civil case management at the end of the June extension. Specifically, the case deadlines and the statutes of limitations extended or tolled by the order will not be extended or tolled further “unless there is a new surge in COVID-19 cases in the Commonwealth and the SJC determines that further tolling is needed.” This suggests that the courts, at least for now, are optimistic that they should soon be in a position to resume active operations—even if some proceedings continue to be held remotely—without implicating the public health concerns which precipitated the shutdown in March.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court has also released an order contemplating the resumption of civil appeals, with certain deadlines coming before July 1, 2020. On May 28, 2020, the court issued Administrative Order 20-2 which extends statutory and notice-of-appeal deadlines pursuant to the SJC order, but provides that briefing and appendix deadlines in pending cases that originally would have fallen between March 16, 2020 and May 31, 2020 will be reset to June 5, June 19, or July 3, 2020, depending on the case. Any other non-statutory deadline expiring between March 17, 2020 and May 31, 2020 is extended only through June 15, 2020 and, unless expressly stated in the Appeals Court orders, the “tolling provisions in paragraphs 13 and 14 of the SJC Order do not apply to non-statutory deadlines in the Appeals Court.”
Whether covered by the June Order or the Appeals Court’s Administrative Order 20-2, civil cases in Massachusetts state courts likely will be moving forward soon, absent a spike in COVID-19 cases or some other extenuating circumstance that the SJC determines requires further extension of civil case deadlines. Litigants and practitioners should prepare to return to more regular case management in the coming weeks.
This summary is presented for informational and educational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice, nor create an attorney-client relationship. For a full understanding of the issues, please contact counsel of your choice.