I know that everyone is anxious to learn when and how Milwaukee County will be proceeding with evictions in the future. I have attended several virtual Small Claims Bench/Bar Committee Meetings, which include attorneys representing both landlords and tenants as well as Milwaukee County Judges and Court Commissioners, and those issues are being discussed.
Please understand that the courts do not have all of the answers at this point. This is a work in process. Just as we all are, the courts are working their way through this pandemic and it’s fallout. As more information and direction is given by the Court, I will update everyone. For now this is what we know . . .
- We know that Governor Evers has extended the Safer at Home Order until May 26, 2020 at 8 am.
- We know the Wisconsin Supreme Court has suspended all in-person court appearance through April 30, 2020.
- We know that the Chief Judge of Milwaukee County has currently suspended all small claims court appearances through May 15, 2020.
- We know that the amount of people that go through Milwaukee County’s Small Claims Court is greater than any other court in the state.
- We know that Milwaukee County Small Claims Court has never been set up to handle virtual court appearances in the past.
- We know that we are dealing with a pandemic that has created a lot of uncertainty.
- We know that everything is fluid and could change multiple times in the future.
Milwaukee County is taking the Small Claims Court backlog very seriously. After dealing with the speedy trial demands in criminal court, the Small Claims backlog is paramount. The Court realizes that even once the Orders are lifted, that with the amount of people that file through Small Claims Court every day, will not allow for the necessary social distancing that will be required, until a vaccine is created. As such, there is just no way that Milwaukee County Small Claims Court can handle hundreds of people appearing in person in Room 400 every day. That would just be a “hot spot” in the making.
As such, Milwaukee County Small Claims Court will be re-configuring Room 400 to allow for virtual court appearances via Zoom. The court envisions the need to conduct virtual court appearances into the summer and fall of 2020.
Since Small Claims Court has never held virtual court appearances before, it will be necessary for it to start slowly until it works everything out and is able to implement processes and procedures. Initially Small Claims Court will focus on all pending evidentiary hearing involving collection (non-eviction matters) in which both the creditor and debtor are represented by attorneys. This will allow the Court to have the respective attorneys assist in preparing witnesses to testify via Zoom and to generally move the process along. The current plan is to be able to hear these cases prior to May 18th. The hearings will be held in the same date order in which they were scheduled. The new hearing will occur at the same time of day as they were originally scheduled.
The goal is to formalize the process for conducting evidentiary hearing in collection cases and then to add more and more types of cases and different types of court appearances. The Court is considering handling all initial appearances via paper – meaning that the defendant will need to file a written Answer. This is still being debated.
Small Claims Court intends to staff the Court with 4 court commissioners in order to tackle the backlog of cases. The Court will be in charge of sending out Zoom invites to the represented parties. It will be up to the attorneys representing the creditors and debtors to adequately instruct their witnesses on how to testify using Zoom. It is anticipated that testimony via telephone will continue to be permitted. The Court Commissioners will also have the ability to adjourn any pending evidentiary hearings if necessary due to technological problems or otherwise. All of these cases will be live-streamed on YouTube to comply with the right to public access to our court system. Once the case is concluded the court proceeding will be removed from YouTube.
The Court is still discussing how it will handle collection cases, and eviction cases, in which either one or both of the parties are not represented by counsel. As you can imagine, it will be extremely difficult to send Zoom invites to pro se litigants that may not even have access to WI-FI or know what Zoom is. This is most likely why the Court is starting the process with collection cases involving attorneys on both sides.
In the interim, Small Claims Court will continue to review emergency eviction filings that involve the imminent threat of serious physical harm to another person. To date, Judge Colon indicated that he has heard 3-4 of those cases and has granted 1 eviction judgement and issued a writ.
I realize that most of you reading this post are involved in the Landlord-Tenant law world and that you are wondering how the Court will handle eviction cases and when they will start hearing those cases. We all want to know the answers to those questions. The court is very aware that evictions are important and need to be heard. As I have stated before, this is a work in progress and I will update you as the Court provides us with more information.