Emergency Order of the SOAH Chief Administrative Law Judge

Related to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Remote Hearings/Mediations

April 10, 2021

WHEREAS, the Governor has issued various executive orders related to the state's response to the novel corona virus (COVID-19); and

WHEREAS, the Governor’s executive order GA-34, health protocols of the Texas Department of State Health Services, and operational guidance issued by the Texas Supreme Court encourage and recommend that individuals continue to maintain certain public health measures; and

WHEREAS, the expanded use of remote technologies to conduct legal proceedings by the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) and various other courts across the state has provided an efficient, accessible, and effective means of allowing parties, attorneys, witnesses, and others to participate remotely in administrative hearings and court proceedings;

NOW, THEREFORE, I hereby order that SOAH continue to encourage the conduct of all non-emergency hearings and mediations statewide by remote technologies to the extent feasible for reasons of public health and safety and the limited availability of physical hearing rooms venues in some areas of the State. This emergency order is in effect until May 10, 2021, and subject to modification based on further orders of the Chief Administrative Law Judge or the Governor.

This order applies to cases docketed on or after April 10, 2021.

  1. General Hearings - Proceedings in non-emergency general docket contested cases and mediations may continue to be conducted predominately by telephone or videoconference. SOAH reserves the right to determine on its own motion, or upon a showing of good cause, that the use of telephone or videoconference is not feasible for a particular hearing, or that justice requires that the parties be permitted to appear in-person.
    1. Remote Participation. In accordance with this order and Rule 155.405(c) of SOAH’s Rules of Procedure, SOAH Administrative Law Judges may allow or require proceedings and appearances to be by telephone or videoconference without any requirements for a motion or agreement of the parties.
    2. Requests to Docket. All requests to docket new cases must indicate the party’s preference for a remote hearing or in-person hearing.
    3. Limited Live Hearings Schedule. SOAH may schedule a limited number of in-person hearings at SOAH’s offices where the civil district courts in the jurisdiction where the SOAH office resides have resumed similar non-essential in-person proceedings. Prior approval of the Chief Administrative Law Judge is required before scheduling in-person hearings on non-emergency matters to ensure that the designated hearing location is available and approved for use as an in-person hearings venue, and that appropriate accommodations are available to encourage the health and safety of agency employees and hearing participants.
    4. Exhibits and Evidence. For remote hearings, the parties should communicate and pre-file documentary evidence or exhibits in strict accordance with the judge’s orders or not later than 10 days before the hearing. To the extent possible, the exhibits should be filed electronically in accordance Rule 155.101(b)(1) and 155.155(a)(5) of SOAH’s Rules of Procedure. Exhibits should be numbered sequentially, and multipage documents shall be paginated or Bates stamped.
    5. Continuances. All motions to continue or abate cases for reasons related to a party’s preference for in-person proceedings must show good cause as to why the use of remote technologies is not feasible or in the interest of justice.
    6. Videoconference Technology. All videoconferences shall be hosted using a videoconference platform controlled by SOAH or a court-reporting service. Parties without an attorney who do not have reasonable access to a mobile device or computer that will enable them to attend their hearing by videoconference should contact SOAH to request assistance.
    7. Live Hearings. Live hearings may be limited to emergency hearings and proceedings with statutory priority. As described in Subsection c. of this section, other non-emergency live hearings may be scheduled by SOAH as available hearing space permits.
    8. Prehearing Planning Conference. If deemed necessary by SOAH, by motion of the parties or sua sponte, the judge may request or require certain participants to confer prior to any preliminary hearing or hearing on the merits, for the purposes of determining or discussing:
      1. venue requirements for the proceeding related to public health and safety, including the availability and feasibility of conducting all or a portion of the proceedings by teleconference or video conference;
      2. alternatives for providing adequate notice and an opportunity to participate in proceedings to potentially affected persons or persons seeking party status;
      3. requirements for court reporters, language interpreters, audio or visual technology, or special accessibility needs;
      4. opportunities for referral of the case to mediation or another appropriate alternative dispute resolution procedure; and/or
      5. any other special procedures or requirements necessary for the fair and efficient handling of the proceeding.
  2. ALR Hearings - Administrative Driver’s License (ALR) proceedings are subject to SOAH’s standing order of March 10, 2021 consistent with the following:
    1. SOAH ALJs may allow or require proceedings and appearances in ALR proceedings to be by telephone or videoconference to promote the scheduling of hearings at the earliest available date. If a party requests a continuance or otherwise refuses to consent to a remote hearing, they must file a motion for continuance or an objection showing good cause as to why the use of remote technologies is not feasible or in the interest of justice.
    2. Continuances that result in unreasonable or unnecessary delay, or objections based on an attorney’s preferred style of advocacy or unfamiliarity with remote hearings practice, will not be considered good cause to delay the timely setting of a hearing.
    3. A limited number of in-person ALR hearings may be scheduled for hearing locations where the civil district courts have resumed similar non-essential in-person proceedings. Prior approval of the Chief Administrative Law Judge is required before scheduling in-person ALR hearings to ensure that the designated hearing location is available and approved for use as an in-person hearing venue, and that appropriate accommodations are available to encourage the health and safety of agency employees and hearing participants.
    4. Pleadings and exhibits in all ALR cases must be filed according to the timelines and procedures outlined in SOAH’s standing order for ALR hearings.
  3. Requirements for Live Proceedings – Cases set for live hearing or mediation may be subject to requirements imposed for purposes of ensuring public health and safety, including:
    1. Lawyers, parties, and witnesses may be required to wait outside of the assigned hearing room until their hearing is called.
    2. Attendance may be limited, and all attendees will be encouraged to follow social-distancing standards announced by the ALJ as a matter of courtroom decorum.
    3. Parties to in-person proceedings are not required to show documentation of their COVID-19 vaccination status, but are encouraged to wear face coverings where possible. To the extent a hard-copy exhibit needs to be presented, parties are encouraged to follow other health and safety protocols, such as use of hand-sanitizer or wearing gloves as protective measures.
    4. Counsel and parties with a positive COVID-19 test, or any flu-like symptoms—including fever, coughing, or sneezing—should contact SOAH prior to the proceeding. Lawyers should contact SOAH if they are aware that agency staff, clients, witnesses or others have these symptoms.
    5. Parties to live proceedings may also file a motion to request that the proceeding be conducted telephonically or by videoconference, and/or parties may be permitted to individually appear telephonically or by videoconference.
  4. Balance Billing Mediation – This order relating to telephonic and video proceedings does not apply to mediations relating to consumer health benefits disputes pursuant to the former provisions of Texas Insurance Code, Chapter 1467. These “balance billing” or “surprise medical bill” mediations are not conducted at SOAH or by SOAH mediators, nor does SOAH have any authority over the parties to the mediation, or over the timetable on which the mediations occur. However, SOAH encourages the mediators and parties to those disputes to conduct their mediations by teleconference or videoconference during this time as a precaution to protect public health and safety, and to afford consumers and providers the opportunity to efficiently resolve their disputes without delay.
  5. IDEA Hearings and Resolution Meetings – The provisions of this order as described in Section 1 apply to due process hearings conducted pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the extent that such hearings are presided over by SOAH ALJs.
    Unless the parties otherwise agree in writing, federal law requires local school districts to convene a resolution meeting prior to the initiation of the IDEA due process hearing. These resolution sessions are not conducted at SOAH or attended by SOAH ALJs. However, SOAH encourages the parties to conduct these meetings telephonically or by videoconference during this time as a precaution to protect public health and safety, and to help resolve issues related to individual education plans.

SOAH is dedicated both to the timely and fair resolution of the matters before it, as well as to the health and wellbeing of the attorneys, parties, and communities we serve.

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