More COVID-19 legal questions and answers

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As the coronavirus situation continues to evolve, we're seeing increased frequently-asked questions in a number of legal areas. We've created this blog post to help answer as many as possible for those of you searching online, and we will add to it as more questions come in.

 

Landlord-tenant and property rentals issues Q&A

I am a landlord that currently has a pending eviction case.  Is COVID-19 going to prevent my ability to get an eviction? 

Wisconsin’s governor ordered an immediate halt to all evictions and foreclosures for the 60-day period that began Friday, March 27. The order stops the evictions process all together, including the five-day notice demanding the tenant pay rent or move out.

Even if you have an order for eviction, the governor’s order prevents the sheriff from enforcing the order. That said, the order does not say that tenants get to live rent-free — the rent is still owed and you can file suit for money owed after the order expires. If you have questions about your particular situation, feel free to contact David Pierce and Ellen Atterbury with your questions and concerns. 

One of my tenants tested positive for COVID-19. What are my obligations and restrictions?

Landlords need to be cognizant of their duties to the healthy tenants as well as their duty to their ill tenants. If you suspect a tenant has COVID-19, but it hasn’t been confirmed, you do not  have the obligation to disclose the suspicion. If one of your tenants has been confirmed for COVID-19, you may have a duty to disclose to your tenants. Each situation is different, but the county health department will tell you what disclosures you should make and advise you on how to proceed.

If a tenant or even a visitor is confirmed to have COVID-19, you should inform your tenants what steps you are taking to make the environment safe. If there is a tenant’s association, we encourage you to work in concert with the association, along with the La Crosse County Health Department or your local health department. 

If you find yourself in a position where you need to notify your tenants of the presence of COVID-19, we can help you draft a notice that helps protect your business and keep your community safe.

One of my tenants is claiming he does not have to pay rent because of COVID-19.  Is this true

No, your agreement is your agreement regardless of the circumstances. Some very detailed commercial contracts, including leases, may include a “pandemic” or “act of God” clause, but these are extremely rare. As stated above, your eviction may be delayed, but COVID-19 will not impact the amount of the judgment, and it will not change the terms of the contract. If your contract is very detailed, long or you don’t understand the “legalese,” you can always contact one of the Johns, Flaherty & Collins attorneys to point out the important provisions for your specific situation.  

 

Business owners & employment Q&A

If one of my employees is diagnosed with COVID-19, should I warn my other employees and customers?

The short answer is no — not without permission. If you share that information without the employee’s permission, you may be violating Wisconsin and federal laws relating to confidentiality and healthcare information, commonly referred to as HIPAA. Your employee, however, can sign a release that allows you to inform other employees about their exposure to COVID. 

It’s essential that your employee signs this voluntarily — you cannot retaliate or threaten to retaliate against an employee that refuses to sign a release, nor should you condition the signature on anything.

Most employees are willing to share information relating to COVID-19 because they want their coworkers to be safe. If you need help with drafting a release for your business, feel free to contact the attorneys at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. 

If one of my employees or customers tests positive for COVID-19, do I need to stop operating altogether?  

If an employee in your office or in your building tests positive, it does not mean you must shut down permanently, but there are steps that should be taken. The Health Department will contact you to identify and quarantine those who have been in contact with that individual.  You must comply with HIPAA requirements for employees, but if you are unsure about what information you are allowed to share in your specific situation, feel free to contact Brent Smith, Ellen Frantz, Joe Veenstra or David Pierce. While time is of the essence, this is an area where you do not want to violate the law.  

I own a bar/restaurant.  What am I allowed to serve using to-go containers? 

If your bar/restaurant has a kitchen that sells food, you are allowed to sell your food via takeout, curbside pickup or delivery.  

With respect to alcohol, if your establishment possesses a Class B liquor license in La Crosse, you are allowed to sell unopened containers of alcohol to consumers.

 

Family law Q&A

I have a child support hearing scheduled in April 2020 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Should I still go?

The clerk has likely already rescheduled that hearing until sometime after May 1, 2020. Most hearings requiring in-person testimony or evidence will be adjourned until after May 1, 2020. Court officials retain the discretion to hear cases in person. If the facts of your case suggest a hearing needs to be held ASAP, contact your attorney right away. 

Child support can be backdated to the initial time of filing. In light of the impact COVID-19 has had on all employers and employees, we are unsure whether courts may be forgiving of lapses in payments during this time. 

I have a default divorce scheduled for early April 2020. My attorney said the hearing should only take approximately 15 minutes. Will the court still let us get divorced on our scheduled hearing date, or will the divorce be pushed back?

We would encourage you to contact your attorney or check CCAP as soon as possible. Some late March and early April default divorces were adjourned to early May. Previously scheduled April default divorces may still be heard via conference call. If you’re represented, your attorney will likely have you come to their office for the conference call. At Johns, Flaherty & Collins, we are practicing social distancing even within our meeting rooms. 

I have a domestic abuse injunction hearing scheduled this Friday in La Crosse, and I’m afraid for my well-being. Is the court going to adjourn this hearing? 

The court will not adjourn this hearing. Temporary restraining orders and injunction hearings will still be heard within the original time frame. As of March 25, 2020, these hearings are being held via conference call. Please make sure the court has a working phone number for you AND the person you are requesting the injunction against. Otherwise, the hearing may be delayed. 

Remember, temporary orders cannot be issued on the basis of prospective concerns.

We understand that COVID-19 can heighten tensions in a co-parenting relationship and present unique issues in a placement arrangement, especially with states limiting travel. Pursuant to Governor Evers’ recent order, lawyers and law firms are considered essential businesses, so we are open. We’re here to help you navigate any difficulties and questions you may have during this time. 

 

Criminal proceedings Q&A

What is going to happen with my criminal case while COVID-19 is impacting the courts?

If you are charged with a crime, the court must follow certain deadlines, regardless of the pandemic, so it likely will generally attempt to follow the deadlines required by law. If you’re concerned about going to the courthouse for your health and safety, however, talk to your attorney. There’s a good chance your hearing can be rescheduled or take place by phone or video.  If your case is scheduled for a jury trial in the coming weeks and you have not invoked your right to a speedy trial, chances are your jury trial will be delayed. But you should always talk with your attorney to be sure. 

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