On Saturday, March 14, 2020, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia Harold Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency in light of the growing concerns about the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). This extraordinary order essentially instructs courts and clerk’s offices around the state to “suspend all but essential court functions.”
The order includes the automatic suspension of filing deadlines in until 11:59 p.m. on April 13, 2020, which is the date the order terminates. The normal deadlines for things like statutes of limitation and speedy trial demands are also on hold until this date.
According to the official order, “The Order was issued by the Supreme Court in order to protect the health, safety, and liberty of all the citizens of Georgia.”
What is a judicial emergency?
A judicial emergency is defined as “a state of emergency declared by the Governor, a public health emergency under O.C.G.A. 31-12-1.1, a local emergency under O.C.G.A. § 36-69-2, or another serious emergency when the emergency substantially endangers or infringers upon the normal functioning of the judicial system, including the ability of persons or litigants to have access to the court or meet time deadlines imposed by court order or rule, statute, or administrative rule or regulation.”
According to the Judicial Council of Georgia, an order declaring Statewide Judicial Emergency supersedes any local judicial emergency orders filed before it.
How will this affect my workers’ compensation claim?
In response to the Supreme Court’s declaration of a Judicial Emergency, the State Board of Workers’ Compensation issued its own order on March 17, 2020, acknowledging that the Supreme Court’s order is applicable to workers’ compensation proceedings.
According to Thomas W. Herman, partner attorney at the law firm of Westmoreland, Patterson, Moseley & Hinson, the State Board order grants relief from deadlines which can be applicable to statutes of limitations, time within which discovery or any aspect thereof is to be completed, time within which to serve a party, time within which to appeal or to seek the right to appeal any order, ruling, or other determination.
Of most importance to injured workers, the Board’s order unequivocally finds that the payment of timely weekly benefits, payments pursuant to Board awards and orders approving settlement agreements, and provision of authorized medical treatment constitute essential functions necessary to protect the health and safety of individuals.
In short, the statutory requirements and Board rules relating to payment of workers’ compensation benefits or provision of authorized medical treatment are not affected by this order.
Additionally, the Board will continue to handle Petitions for Medical Treatment (PMTs), motions, conference calls and any other emergency situation.
What about Social Security?
Regional Chief Judge Sheila Lowther held a phone conference on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 for attorneys representing people in the southeastern United States. She confirmed that the Social Security Administration has closed its doors to the public and almost all of its employees are working remotely. However, SSA is attempting to continue doing business electronically, online and by phone.
“Our office continues to receive decisions and file appeals for our clients and work with SSA by phone,” says partner attorney Kevin Hall.
For those cases waiting for a hearing, the hearing offices are not conducting face-to-face hearings at this time. However, they are attempting to conduct hearings by phone.
“A phone hearing is a poor substitute for a hearing before a judge, but it may be the best way to resolve some cases,” says Hall.
Whether to proceed with a hearing by phone should be a decision made after careful review of each case. Judge Lowther said she understands that there are many factors that will influence that decision, and they will only go forward with a hearing by phone if the claimant agrees to do so.
Doctors’ offices have also been impacted by the coronavirus, and it is causing delays in getting medical records. Judge Lowther said she recognized this problem and promised that the hearing offices will be flexible about submission of medical records.
Here at the law firm of Westmoreland, Patterson, Moseley & Hinson, we are able to take new cases as our attorneys and staff work remotely. We regularly talk with our clients and continue developing the evidence in their cases.
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