Filings in Florida’s courts fall in April
Survey figures show the same trend nationally
Florida court filings fell more than 20% from March to April as the full effect of the coronavirus pandemic was felt across the state. The number of new cases filed dropped almost 30%.
Those figures are mirrored in a larger national survey done by Clio, a legal software company, and reported in the legal publication Law360.
According to figures from the Florida court system’s statewide e-filing portal, more than 2.3 million documents were filed in March and that fell to 1.8 million in April, a 22% reduction. (Those figures compare with 2.2 million in February, more than 2.3 million in January, and 2.266 million in April 2019).
There were 97,648 new cases filed in March (the record was 98,412 in January) compared to 69,397 in April, a 29 percent decline. There were 85,852 new cases filed in April 2019.
Average weekday volume for April was 54,111 submissions, compared to 68,696 for March and 76,920 in February, which is the highest average on record.
Chief Justice Charles Canady on March 11 ordered courts to implement social distancing and other protective measures in response to the spread of COVID-19, and on March 13 suspending jury trials and most other in-person court proceedings. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order, effective April 3, ordering Floridians to remain at home except for essential activities and limiting governmental and business activities to essential services.
Figures from Sarasota and Orange counties provide some details about caseload trends in Florida.
In Sarasota, felony and misdemeanor cases remained relatively unchanged from March and April, and the two-week period ending May 2 actually had the highest and third highest weekly felony charges for that two-month period.
Circuit civil filings, by contrast, averaged nearly 70 per week for the first three weeks of March. For the three weeks ending May 2 that had dropped to around 43. Foreclosures, small claims, evictions, and other county civil cases went from 184 in the first week of March to 50 for the week ending May 2.
Family court filings averaged 62 per week in March, and 42 per week in April. Civil traffic citations, not including red light cameras, went from 727 in the first week of March to 366 for the week ending May 2. Those reached a nadir of 188 weekly cases in early April.
Orange County has a different experience in some categories. There Clerk of Court Tiffany Moore Russell’s office received 1,441 felony and 1,270 misdemeanor filings in March; those declined to 1,158 and 1,087 respectively in April.
Circuit civil filing increased, from 1,052 to 1,179, while county civil filings went from 6,529 to 6,064. Civil traffic filings in Orange County dropped from 17,650 in March to 9,567 in April. Family law cases slumped from 1,031 to 670.
Sarasota County Clerk of Court Karen Rushing wasn’t surprised by the dramatic decline in civil traffic cases.
“There’s fewer people on the road, and law enforcement has a lot more to focus on than that,” she said. “When I drive to work every day, I do see some law enforcement out, and it seems like they are speed controlling.”
Fewer cases don’t mean an easier time handling the workload. Rushing noted some employees are working in offices, some from home, and some are taking family medical leave to care for children who are out of school. A few employees, who are either showing possible symptoms of COVID-19 or who may have been exposed, are on sick leave for at least two weeks.
That’s all against the backdrop of less income from filing and other fees, particularly from civil traffic cases where clerks get a disproportionate amount of their budgets.
“I have a strange double whammy, we have people we have to pay, even though they’re not working – I’m not being judgmental about it. That’s the reality financially,” Rushing said. “The reduced workload is aligned with people not under the Family Medical Leave Act who are entitled to stay home because their kids who were in school are at home.
“I don’t have people with no work to do.”
Russell said her office continues to handle filings and to support court operations.
“Although case filings are down, we still have deputy clerks working on essential clerk functions and handling all statutorily mandated functions of the court while essential hearings are being held,” she said.
According to the legal publication Law360, Florida’s caseload experience is duplicated around the state. It published a survey compiled by the practice management software company, Clio, that showed that new case filings are down 30% for the first four months of 2020 compared to 2019.
An early April survey of 486 legal professionals showed 56% said there has been a “significant” drop in people seeking legal help and 59% said they are “significantly” less busy at work. Fifty-nine percent said they now are more concerned about the continued success of their law firms and 57% said they are concerned with their ability to make a living in the next few months.
Despite those gloomy numbers, 23% said they had not seen a drop off in people seeking help and 14% said they had seen more people needing assistance.
Clio also polled clients and “The survey of consumers revealed that many are continuing to have the same legal issues as before, but are holding off on getting them addressed until after the pandemic subsides. Half of respondents said that if they had a legal issue they would delay reaching out for legal help until after the pandemic has subsided, and 22% said they were under the impression lawyers are not open for business right now,” according to Law360.
That aligns with what many Florida lawyers have said in interviews, reflecting some slowdown in certain types of activities, but anticipating an increase in business, construction, and employment cases as people adjust to the pandemic, plus more landlord-tenant, foreclosure, bankruptcy, government benefits, and consumer debt cases in the wake of the massive economic disruption.