By Stephen Raher
While the COVID-19 pandemic took most people by surprise, Oregon’s bankruptcy court was actually well-prepared for the disruptions. “We have been working on our emergency preparedness plans for years,” says Clerk of Court Charlene Hiss. “While these contingency plans are usually implemented for weather-related disruptions, they have worked just as well during the current health-related lockdown.”
According to Chief Bankruptcy Judge Trish Brown, “The court focused on three goals when we revised our operations and procedures: complying with public health guidelines, remaining open for all people and businesses who need our services, and protecting our staff and customers.”
Complying with stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines has meant having nearly all staff work remotely. The court’s Portland office remains open, but is staffed only by a handful of onsite employees; the Eugene office is temporarily closed. Despite the reduced staff in the office, most work is going on as normal—employees answer court phones from home and ensure that orders are promptly entered. Nonetheless, some procedures need to change. “We realized early on that we would need to modify some of our rules,” says Judge Brown. “This entails temporary changes like suspending requirements for attorneys to obtain wet-ink signatures from their clients and not requiring hard copies of certain filings.”
Keeping the court open to all litigants has consisted largely of exploring new ways to facilitate filings by pro se parties, without requiring a trip to the courthouse. As Hiss notes, “Bankruptcy is unique in that the filing of a petition automatically creates a statutory injunction in favor of the debtor. Attorneys are already filing petitions electronically, but we had to brainstorm new ways to be accessible to unrepresented parties.” The information technology staff developed new ways for pro se litigants to submit documents through the court’s website, and packets of information remain available for those people who do come to court, so that they can navigate procedures without face-to-face assistance from court staff. Staff had already laid the necessary groundwork to allow most parties to pay their filing fees electronically.
Finally, protecting staff and litigants has meant conducting most hearings by phone. Although the bankruptcy court already relied heavily on phone hearings for minor matters, all hearings and mediations during the past two months have been via phone. In the early days of Oregon’s stay-at-home order, courtroom deputy clerks were needed in the courtroom to record proceedings, but staff members from different offices focused on methods for remote recording, and now all courtroom deputies are performing their duties seamlessly from home.
Modifying court operations has taken extra time and effort, but the project has been aided by a sharp drop in bankruptcy filings in recent months. “We all know that the economic downturn will result in a flood of filings soon—we just don’t know when the floodgates will open,” says Judge Brown. In the meantime, the bankruptcy court is open for business.