Anne Arundel County Circuit Court’s Hon. Donna McCabe Schaeffer, Associate Judge, and Timothy P. Thurtle, Magistrate, fielded a range of family-law related questions in “Handling Family Law Cases Amid a Pandemic,” a free webinar hosted by the MSBA and the Maryland Association for Justice on April 13, 2020, that was virtually attended by more than 500 attorneys. The speakers’ answers focused on what was happening in Anne Arundel County at the time of the webinar because of the fluidity of the COVID19 closures and stay-at-home order. The webinar was moderated by the MAJ’s Harry B. Siegel, of SIEGELLAW, and David V. Diggs, of the Law Office of David V. Diggs, LLC.
Judge Schaeffer began with a brief overview of where things stand for domestic cases in Anne Arundel County. The county will be doing remote scheduling conferences and, in limited cases, will send scheduling orders without holding a scheduling conference. The court will also be doing virtual pretrial conferences on a very limited basis, choosing cases that have lengthy trials (3 days or more) scheduled. Virtual mediation is taking place. The court is actively signing settlement agreements and consent orders submitted by parties. Emergency matters and hearings on protective orders are taking place.
Listeners submitted many questions relating to emergency hearings. Both Judge Schaeffer and Magistrate Thurtle emphasized that the standard for a family law emergency has not changed. A party must still show an imminent risk of substantial and immediate harm for a party or a minor child. The court does not have the capability at this time to address anything other than true emergencies, and the speakers advised against trying to substitute an emergency proceeding for what is, in reality, a contempt or pendente lite issue. Magistrate Thurtle urged counsel to file a joint request for an expedited hearing in cases that would not meet the standard for emergency.
The speakers also addressed the issue of child support in light of payors who may have lost their jobs due to COVID. Judge Schaeffer and Magistrate Thurtle both emphasized the importance of filing motions on behalf of clients so that any modification of support would date back retroactively to the time of filing, but indicated that the issue of child support does not rise to the level of an emergency during the pandemic.
In response to a question regarding a temporary consent order modifying custody, the speakers did not see any risk of such an agreement later being used to determine the status quo of a minor child’s custody arrangement. They did advise including language in any order itself indicating that the agreement is without prejudice to either party and is limited to the circumstances brought about by the pandemic.
Judge Schaeffer stated that the overall mentality of the bench is to be lenient with deadlines during the pandemic. Eventually there may be blanket order extending discovery deadlines, but has not happened yet. Both speakers urged practitioners to be zealous in filing motions to protect their clients’ interests, including motions to extend discovery deadline, motions for expedited hearings, and motions to modify child support. The video of the webinar can be viewed in its entirety below.