Emergency Order of the SOAH Chief Administrative Law Judge
Requirements Related to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Remote Hearings/Mediations
January 4, 2021 – The Governor issued a declaration of disaster in all Texas counties related to the novel corona virus (COVID-19) on March 13, 2020, and subsequent executive orders pertaining to public health and safety, including the operation of essential government of services. Consistent with the Governor’s directives, recommended health protocols of the Texas Department of State Health Services, operational guidance issued by the Office of Court Administration, and the expanded use of remote technologies to conduct legal proceedings by various state, county, and local courts across the state, I hereby order the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to continue to conduct all non-emergency hearings and mediations statewide by remote technologies to the extent feasible for reasons of public health and safety. This emergency order is in effect until March 1, 2021, and subject to modification based on further orders of the Chief Administrative Law Judge or the Governor. This order supersedes the prior emergency orders of March 16, 23, 31, April 28, May 28, July 1, and September 1, and extends the application of the emergency order of October 1, November 1, and December 1, 2020.
- General Hearings - Proceedings in non-emergency general docket contested cases and mediations will continue to be conducted predominately by telephone or videoconference until further notice. 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.
- 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.
- Requests to Docket. All requests to docket new cases must request a telephonic or videoconference hearing, or be accompanied by a letter to the judge or brief showing good cause as to why the use of remote technologies is not feasible or in the interest of justice.
- Limited Live Hearings Schedule. For non-emergency matters referred on or after January 4, 2021, 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 protocols are in place to ensure the health and safety of agency employees and hearing participants.
- Exhibits and Evidence. 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 155.155(a)(5) of SOAH’s Rules of Procedure. Exhibits should be numbered sequentially, and multipage documents shall be paginated or Bates stamped. Due to public health concerns related to COVID-19, exhibits that are not pre-filed will not be admitted into the record absent good cause.
- 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. SOAH may elect to set a limited number of pending matters for live settings.
- 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.
- Live Hearings. Live hearings, when scheduled by SOAH, 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 to ensure compliance with applicable public health and safety guidelines.
- 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:
- 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;
- alternatives for providing adequate notice and an opportunity to participate in proceedings to potentially affected persons or persons seeking party status;
- requirements for court reporters, language interpreters, audio or visual technology, or special accessibility needs;
- opportunities for referral of the case to mediation or another appropriate alternative dispute resolution procedure; and/or
- any other special procedures or requirements necessary for the fair and efficient handling of the proceeding.
- ALR Hearings - Administrative Driver’s License (ALR) proceedings are subject to SOAH’s standing order of November 1, 2020 consistent with the following:
- SOAH ALJs may allow or require proceedings and appearances in ALR proceedings to be by telephone or videoconference. 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.
- 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 set an in-person hearing.
- 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 protocols are in place to ensure the health and safety of agency employees and hearing participants.
- 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:
- Lawyers, parties, and witnesses may be required to wait outside of SOAH’s facilities until their hearing is called.
- Attendance may be limited to 10 persons including SOAH personnel, and all attendees will be expected to follow social-distancing standards announced by the ALJ as a matter of courtroom decorum.
- Parties to in-person proceedings should wear face coverings where possible and, to the extent a hard-copy exhibit needs to be presented, parties should anticipate using sanitizer and wearing gloves as protective measures.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 telephonically 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.
- 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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