PA Authorizes Wills to be Executed Remotely During Coronavirus Crisis

During the Coronavirus crisis, the Pennsylvania Department of State has authorized notaries to use audio-visual technology to notarize certain estate documents. This means that Pennsylvania citizens can execute wills and other important estate documents without having to leave their homes. Importantly, this authorization applies to the following estate documents: 

  • powers of attorney, 
  • self-executing wills, 
  • advanced healthcare directives, 
  • healthcare powers of attorney, 
  • living wills, and 
  • temporary guardianships. 

Learn additional information on this remote notarization

Barbara B. Hill brings her ten-plus years of experience in the trusts and estates administration practice to prospective and current clients of the firm. Steve Harvey Law is now proud to offer simple, effective, and affordable estate planning documents. Get started with your planning by contacting us now.

Highlighting the Addition of Barbara B. Hill and Fiduciary Practice at Steve Harvey Law

Six years ago, I started Steve Harvey Law as a firm that focuses on complex and commercial litigation. Since then I have been through several business cycles that have shown me what works and what doesn’t work in our litigation practice. One thing learned is that an important area of demand for legal services is fiduciary litigation, including disputes concerning wills, trusts, boards of directors, and non-profit organizations. 

In February 2019, attorney Barbara B. Hill (Barb) joined Steve Harvey Law to help our clients in this area of practice. Barb has a terrific background that allows her to provide high quality and affordable legal advice across the span of fiduciary matters, from advice all the way through litigation. 

Barb brings to our clients the experience and knowledge she gained during her ten-plus years as a wealth advisor at a leading Philadelphia-based trust company. During those years, Barb counseled clients through the creation of estate plans, family dynamics, wealth education, fiduciary administration, and at times, trusts and estates disputes. In addition to those skills, she brings to Steve Harvey Law a comprehensive understanding of fiduciary investments, distributions, and estate planning tools. 

To date, Barb has helped us deliver on our goal of providing high quality, affordable advice and assistance for clients seeking to navigate disputes and litigation in fiduciary matters, but we have not provided estate planning advice and services more generally. 

The current coronavirus crisis has made us recognize the need for affordable, high -quality estate planning services, including the preparation of wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and other documents. I am pleased to announce that Steve Harvey Law will now provide these services with Barb leading this area of our practice. For more information, please see our website.

Barb has two brothers who are young doctors practicing medicine in hospitals. She reminded me that some doctors not to mention nurses and non-medical staff could be challenged to pay for estate planning services even at the affordable rates we offer. She makes an excellent point. Therefore, out of respect for the many people in the health care field working so hard and putting themselves at risk to keep us all safe, Steve Harvey Law will provide basic estate planning services free of charge upon request, subject to income guidelines, for Pennsylvanians working in hospitals during the crisis. For more information, please see our website.

Estate Planning Advice from Steve Harvey Law

To meet a need caused by the coronavirus crisis, Steve Harvey Law has decided to expand its services for clients to include estate planning advice and documents. Our goal as always is to provide high quality, cost-effective legal services. Attorney Barbara B. Hill joined our firm after more than ten years at a leading trust company. She continues to work in the areas of disputes and litigation for fiduciary matters, and now will supervise our estate and trusts advice and preparation services.

Learn more, including flat fees for estate planning documents such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.

Criminal Justice During the Coronavirus Crisis

courtroom

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has upended all aspects of everyday life in this country. By now, virtually all of us are at home, some working. Many aspects of life that we took for granted (going out to dinner, socializing with friends, seeing a movie, attending sporting events) have been put on hold, for how long we don’t know. Many aspects of this crisis (e.g., the long-term economic consequences) may not be known for weeks, months, or years. However, it is clear that what is happening in this crisis could have significant long-term effects on important institutions that may, in ordinary times, be resistant to change. 

Because of my experience working on appeals and post-conviction matters in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, I get questions on the effect of the coronavirus crisis on the criminal justice system. Here’s what I see. 

First, the criminal justice system has not stopped or gone away. While, interestingly, reported crime rates in some places appear to have dropped because even criminals are staying home, people accused of crimes are still being arrested and charged, courts are processing those cases, and lawyers are counselling clients. What’s different is that the system is focusing its attention on serious and violent crime, with jury trials and other hearings that require judge, lawyers, the accused, and courtroom staff to being physically present in court greatly curtailed.  

Criminal justice requires human interaction. Under our laws, the accused has the right to be personally present, in court, represented by counsel, for all significant aspects of criminal proceedings. In the coronavirus world, this means that, criminal cases will be greatly slowed down. This can have significant consequences for victims who await justice, and for criminal defendants awaiting trial, especially ones that are in custody. The nature of the virus itself is also necessitating law enforcement to consider the potential harm to officers, those charged with crime, and court, jail, and prison employees, from potential coronavirus exposure. 

In Philadelphia, the criminal courts are closed for trials and open for only limited types of proceedings (including bail hearings and juvenile detention hearings) through April 30 at the earliest. Concurrently, the police have announced that they will continue to make arrests for less serious offenses, but will process them differently. Officers will be using discretion. On a case-by-case basis, officers will look at the severity of the offense, the person’s criminal record, their demeanor and if the individual is a danger to the community to make a determination if the person should remain in custody. These measures will ease the burden on the criminal justice and prison systems by effectively postponing criminal prosecutions for some offenses. They will also reduce the number of arrested persons sitting in jail while awaiting trial, which will help reduce the chances of coronavirus transmission in jails and prisons; ease the burden on court staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges; and allow arrested persons to self-isolate at home and thereby be able to assist family members who need their support. The police have recognized that some persons arrested now and released may never face a trial but have calculated that the tradeoff is necessary for the public good.

The federal criminal justice system (which prosecutes far fewer persons than its state counterpart) is also affected, but on a lesser scale. For instance, the Philadelphia federal court has announced that all criminal jury trials, as well as grand jury proceedings, have been continued until April 13, 2020 at the earliest. However, the court has begun to initiate the use of teleconferencing and telephone conferencing for certain non-trial criminal proceedings, including detention and preliminary hearings, so long as the accused consents to it. Because federal criminal prosecutions are a small minority of the total criminal cases prosecuted each year, the current crisis is likely to affect the federal criminal justice system to a far lesser extent than state systems.

Further delays and disruptions due to coronavirus may lead to systemic changes in the system. Voices are already urging further examination of the present system in light of knowledge and experience now being gained. In particular, some question the efficacy and fairness of the present cash bail system, which can often result in much jail time for the accused before trial. People in custody now, including those in jail for the sole reason that they lack the financial resources to make cash bail, are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of the virus due to the crowded conditions in this country’s jails and prisons, the ease of transmission under such conditions (where social distancing is impossible), unsanitary conditions, and the greater difficulty in obtaining quality medical care. At the same time, prison employees are far more vulnerable to catching and spreading the disease. Short term solutions such as Philadelphia’s “arrest and release” policy will likely ameliorate the effects of the disease in jails and prisons. There also appears to be a growing trend of judges granting bail far more freely to that same end. Some local governments have begun to release persons in jail accused of nonviolent offenses to reduce the risk of mass coronavirus outbreaks in jails, which could lead to future reforms to ease persistent jail and prison overcrowding. With experience and hindsight, lessons learned during this outbreak could lead to more permanent and lasting reforms and improvements in the criminal justice system.

Court Deadlines and Statutes of Limitations in the Time of Coronavirus

hourglassAs I write this, many state courts have announced that they are closed to the public due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and will continue to operate but only for designated “essential functions.” This could obviously affect deadlines in existing cases as well as statutes of limitations for filing new cases. States have already sought to address the problem. In Pennsylvania, for example, the highest court has closed all state court to the public except for “essential functions.” It has also ordered that “all calculations for purposes of time computation relevant to court cases or other judicial business, as well as time deadlines, are SUSPENDED through April 3, 2020.” In New York State, which similarly has postponed all non-essential judicial proceedings, Governor Cuomo has issued an order providing that “any specific time limit for the commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding, as prescribed by the procedural laws of the state, including but not limited to the criminal procedure law, the family court act, the civil practice law and rules, the court of claims act, the surrogate’s court procedure act, and the uniform court acts, or by any other statute, local law, ordinance, order, rule, or regulation, or part thereof, is hereby tolled from the date of this executive order until April 19, 2020.” 

Federal courts are different. Congress long ago decreed that “[a]ll courts of the United States shall be deemed always open for the purpose of filing proper papers, issuing and returning process, and making motions and orders.” 28 U.S.C. §452 (emphasis added). Hence, while many trials and public proceedings may be postponed due to the crisis, all ordinary deadlines in federal court will apply, unless courts by general orders applicable to classes of cases or in individual cases extend the deadlines. For example, the United States Supreme Court last week issued an order extending the time for petitions for review from 90 to 150 days after the lower-court ruling. Federal court clerks’ offices are expected to remain open, albeit with limited staff due to the need to limit personal interactions, with filings accepted in person or electronically throughout the crisis. 

So with federal courts open for business with limited staff available to the public and some state courts closed for all but non-essential business, what can you expect if you have deadlines in an existing case or a new case that needs to be filed before a statutory deadline? The first thing is for you or your lawyer to consult the orders and rules that apply to the court where your case is pending or where you intend to file the case. If the case is an existing one, the deadlines may be adjusted by general rule, as in Pennsylvania or New York. If the deadlines are not adjusted by general rule, prudent counsel will confer with opposing counsel and make best efforts to reach agreement and proceed by remote filing whenever possible. It is hard to believe that courts anywhere would look kindly on litigation opponents who are unwilling to cooperate with opposing counsel on reasonable requests for extending deadlines in this time of national crisis. Wherever possible, counsel and clients should work it out reasonably with their opponents and seek judicial approval of scheduling adjustments at the earliest opportunity.

The much harder case is what to do with statutes of limitations, which are generally regarded as absolute bars to recovery if the lawsuit is filed late. Will the closure of a law office due to the crisis extend the deadline for filing? What about if the court is closed and will not accept a new filing until after the statute of limitation has passed? What legal effect will orders like the ones issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or Governor Cuomo ostensibly extending all deadlines have on this issue? 

There are no current answers to any of these questions, and no lawyer or client wants to be the test case. As a result, prudent counsel will take whatever measures are necessary to file actions within the statutory time periods and without hoping that late filings of new matters will be excused. If the court is open and will accept the complaint for filing, either in person or electronically, the best course of action will be to file timely anyway. Even if the court closures prevent counsel from doing all the due diligence and preparing the complaint with the degree of rigor normally employed, because in-person meetings with clients or witnesses are not possible for example, counsel can still file a competent, bare bones complaint that satisfies professional obligations under the circumstances, and can later amend it if necessary. 

If the court is closed to the public and will not accept new filings, either in person or electronically, then counsel should make best efforts to file by mail on time. A credible argument can be made that, if the complaint was mailed with a postmark several days in advance of the deadline, the statute of limitations should be satisfied. Correspondence to the opponent in litigation advising that the complaint was mailed and providing a copy of the complaint prior to the deadline will help the argument.

In short, common sense must rule. Keep all deadlines if possible. Seek and agree to extensions wherever it would be reasonable to do so. If the court will not accept the filing of a complaint prior to the statutory deadline, do your utmost to document that you tried to file it on time and gave the opponent notice. If you follow this guidance, your cases may be delayed but will not be lost due to missing deadlines as a result of the current crisis.  

Courts and Counsel Confront Coronavirus Closures— How Will Your Legal Matter Be Affected?

Female Lawyer working from home with Justice statueLike many other law firms, mine is subject to government mandated shutdown for all public business and physical human interaction due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This means that our attorneys and staff can continue to work, as long we do it remotely, without personal contact with anyone else, such as clients, courts, witnesses, and other lawyers. No employees can come to the office.

Similar prohibitions apply to all businesses and organizations that have been designated by the law as “non-life-sustaining,” in contrast to life-sustaining industries such as hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, farms, and transit systems. I live and work in Philadelphia, but restrictions like these are being imposed in cities and states throughout the United States.

Smart lawyers and judges defer to experts in other fields, and public health experts everywhere are calling for strong measures like these to save lives. The need for these measures is undisputable. If anything, this should have started sooner.

While law offices are closed for all but remote work, many courts are closed to the public for all but “essential” functions. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state supreme court has issued an order closing to the public all courts statewide except for essential functions, such as issuance of search warrants, criminal case filings, and preliminary hearings for incarcerated persons, and limited civil matters such as those involving juvenile delinquents, protection from abuse, and emergency equity matters, until at least April 3.

By the same order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also:

  • suspended time for the calculation of all deadlines relevant to court cases or other judicial business through April 3;
  • specifically authorized and encouraged the use of advanced communications technology to conduct court proceedings; and
  • ordered all courts to consider, whenever possible, deciding matters on the papers, without oral argument.

The United States Supreme Court has closed its building to the public, postponed oral arguments scheduled for March, and extended the time for filing petitions for review from 90 to 150 days after the lower-court ruling. Other federal courts are addressing the crisis on a court-by-court basis. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has announced that it is still holding oral arguments and that the clerk’s office is open, although staffed minimally, with most staff working remotely and able to return phone calls. Many of the federal district courts nationwide also remain at least nominally open, but with public functions such as trials postponed for weeks at least, leaving judges and their staffs working remotely as much as they can.

Where does this leave you and your legal matter? For cases already in the court system that cannot be decided without a trial, this almost certainly means further delay, probably of months, as the backlog of cases set for trial grows. Cases that can be decided on the papers may move faster than usual, because the curtailment of public proceedings should mean that trial judges and their staffs will have more time to focus on reading and deciding motions.

For cases not yet filed, uncertainties abound. The need for justice does not end just because many courts are closed due to the coronavirus. Clients will still need to consult lawyers and lawyers will still need to file lawsuits and other proceedings. Some of this can wait until the crisis passes, but some of it cannot wait. The employer who uses this crisis as an excuse not to pay workers needs to be sued and forced to pay quickly. The 69-year-old client who just realized they need a will cannot wait long. Absent legislative action, statutes of limitations will still run, which means lawsuits need to be filed or somehow preserved, even if the court system will not accept filings through ordinary means. There are countless legal matters that will require attention by courts and counsel throughout the crisis.

While courts and counsel must comply with and respect the social distancing mandate, putting large parts of the justice system on ice for weeks or longer is simply not an option. It is essential to restrict in-person interactions, but most lawyers, judges, court staff, and clients can find ways to continue to work remotely. Fortunately, this is easier in our field than in others, because a large part of the job for many of us includes research, reading, writing, and conferring with others by phone, all of which can be done remotely. Video technology has made it possible for us to hold meetings and even conduct depositions all without leaving our home offices. In a very real sense, law firms and courts are still open for business to a great degree, and clients should be able to expect that close attention will be paid to their cases even during these difficult times.

All players in the justice system must recognize the downside risk inherent in the closure of law offices and the partial closure of the court system. It could have a negative impact not just on the current cases, but on the cases that arise during the immediate crisis, and even on cases that arise later, because of the substantial backlog of cases likely to result. Justice delayed very often leads to justice denied.

We also must consider self-preservation and sanity. Most of us need our work to support our families and to keep ourselves engaged. It is far better for us to take on the challenge of finding ways to continue our work as lawyers and judges than to consider ourselves checked out for the duration of this frightening episode.

Finally, there is the need for us to provide employment not just for ourselves but for others during these difficult times. Whether it is other lawyers or nonlegal staff, our colleagues need to be given work to do, so they can support their families and maintain their sense of self-worth.

For all these reasons, it is incumbent on judges and lawyers everywhere to find ways to make the justice system work remotely during this crisis to the greatest extent possible, consistent with public safety and the social distancing mandate. Mitigating the adverse effect of the health crisis on the justice system should be a matter of utmost concern for the judiciary and legal profession.

On Election Eve, Pennsylvania Courts Enjoin Victims’ Rights Amendment to Constitution Pending Further Judicial Review

In a split decision that came down after 4 p.m. on the eve of the November 5 election, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed an injunction issued last week by the Commonwealth Court in an important lawsuit regarding victims’ rights and the rights of criminal defendants.

The action concerned a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution commonly referred to as “Marsy’s Law,” which was scheduled to be on the ballot in the November 5, 2019 general election. Marsy’s Law, if enacted, would confer broad, and numerous, constitutional rights on victims of crime that would be equally weighty before the law as the constitutional rights of persons accused of crime.

Petitioners League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Lorraine Haw, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Dechert LLP, filed an action in the Commonwealth Court maintaining that the proposed amendment was unconstitutional in that it violated the “single subject” requirement of the Pennsylvania constitution, and that the proposed ballot question was incomplete and misleading, and therefore harmed the ability of voters to knowingly and intelligently cast a vote. Petitioners sought an injunction that would allow the proposed amendment to remain on the ballot, but would prevent the votes from being tabulated, and the results certified, until the courts could finally resolve the constitutional issues involved.

Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Ronald L. Greenblatt, represented by Steve Harvey Law LLC, sought to intervene in the action for a specific purpose—to testify as to how enactment of Marsy’s Law would cause immediate and irreparable harm by impairing the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, and would create great uncertainty and confusion in the criminal justice system. Particularly troublesome was the potential for the amendment to impair the ability of those accused of crime to engage in a complete investigation; to restrict the ability of defendants to fully and effectively cross-examine accusers; and to impair the right to a speedy trial. Mr. Greenblatt successfully intervened in the action, and provided crucial testimony at the October 23, 2019 injunction hearing before Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler. In her opinion granting the requested injunction, Judge Ceisler extensively quoted Mr. Greenblatt’s testimony, and specifically relied on it in finding that the Petitioners and Mr. Greenblatt had established the “irreparable harm” necessary to obtain an injunction.

The day after Judge Ceisler granted the injunction, Respondent Kathy Boockvar, the Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth, appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ordered expedited briefing, for the clear purpose of being able to decide the case prior to the election. On November 4, 2019, after 4:00 p.m. on the day before the election, the court, in a split 4-3 decision, upheld the injunction. Thus, as the Petitioners and Mr. Greenblatt requested, the proposed amendment will remain on the ballot for the voters to consider, but the results will not be tabulated, or the results certified, until the constitutional issues are finally resolved. This is an excellent result, as it will give the courts the ability to thoughtfully consider the weighty constitutional issues involved, without the immediate harm that would result if the amendment became effective before those issues are finally decided.

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Sues Fredericksburg Poultry Plant Over Pollution

River

 

Steve Harvey Law LLC is pleased to represent the Plaintiffs in this important environmental justice matter which was filed in federal court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The complaint alleges that the defendant, a poultry rendering facility, discharges over 350,000 pounds of nitrogen in excess of its permit limits in violation of the Clean Water Act. Excess nitrogen, in addition to phosphorus and sediment, cause algae blooms which consume oxygen and create dead zone that are fatal to aquatic life.

Follow the story here: http://bit.ly/31tvFxM

Trial Lawyer, Litigator Mike Gehring Joins Steve Harvey Law

Steve Harvey Law LLC is very pleased to announce that Michael E. Gehring has joined the firm’s commercial and complex litigation practice as Senior Counsel effective July 1, 2019. “I am super psyched to have Mike join me and the team at Steve Harvey Law,” said Steve Harvey. “He is a great lawyer. We worked together on the Villanova Law Review in 1987-89 and have been friends ever since.”

Over the past 30 years, Mike has worked as a trial lawyer and litigator for some of the best law firms in Chicago and Philadelphia. He also worked as an appellate lawyer for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. He has worked on wide variety of litigation subjects, ranging from business disputes to civil rights, class actions, and insurance. Learn more about Mike here.

Mike’s skills and deep substantive knowledge match perfectly with our firm’s mission of helping people and organizations seek justice in complex civil legal matters. Having him on the team enhances our ability to provide high quality, cost effective representation to our clients.
Steve Harvey Law LLC is a trial and litigation law firm based in Philadelphia, PA, that represents plaintiffs and defendants in cases involving business, employment, intellectual property, environmental justice, trusts and estates, and other state and federal legal matters.