Critics of eCourts rollout seek more time for possible class-action suit

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  • Critics of North Carolina's new eCourts digital court records system seek more time to move forward with a class-action suit.
  • A current federal lawsuit involves two plaintiffs from Wake and Lee counties. Their lawyers expect to add more plaintiffs as eCourts expands to Mecklenburg and other counties in the coming weeks.
  • Two of the defendants in the case — vendor Tyler Technologies and Lee County Sheriff Brian Estes — "do not consent" to the requested extension. The third defendant, Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe, indicated he would leave the class certification deadline decision to the court.

Plaintiffs challenging the rollout of North Carolina’s eCourts digital court records system are seeking more time for a potential class-action lawsuit. They filed a motion Wednesday in federal court asking for an extension.

The system operates now in Wake, Johnston, Lee, and Harnett counties. It’s scheduled to begin operations in Mecklenburg County next week.

Two plaintiffs, in Wake and Lee counties, sued their local sheriffs and eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies in May. The sheriffs and the company have filed separate motions to dismiss the suit, titled Chaplin v. Rowe.

Lawyers for the two plaintiffs are asking for more time to bring additional plaintiffs into the case. Tyler and Lee County Sheriff Brian Estes “do not consent” to the extension. Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe indicated that a court should set the deadline for class certification.

Court rules require a motion for class certification within 90 days of the initial complaint. “Plaintiffs concede that they filed their complaint more than 90 days ago. However, … there is ‘good cause’ to extend the time to move for class certification, and Plaintiffs’ delay is on account of ‘excusable neglect,’” according to the latest court filing.

Failure to meet the deadline “was due to simple inadvertence; there is no bad faith or gamesmanship at hand,” plaintiffs’ lawyers argued. “Counsel calendared the class certification motion deadline as ninety days from the date of service of the Complaint — which occurred in mid-August — versus ninety days from the date of filing the Complaint. Undersigned counsel acknowledge this misstep.”

“This case is in its infancy, so any class certification motion would be premature,” plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote. “Defendants’ motions to dismiss are still pending. Plaintiffs have conducted no pre-certification discovery. And Plaintiffs will likely need to amend the Complaint to add new plaintiffs and defendants given that the putative class in this matter continues to grow.”

The court document signaled the likelihood of additional plaintiffs. “This case involves civil-rights violations arising from the rollout of the so-called ‘eCourts’ software in North Carolina — a rollout that is still ongoing,” according to the court filing. “The state’s largest county, Mecklenburg County, is scheduled to implement the software beginning October 9, 2023.”

“Plaintiffs intend to amend the Complaint to add additional plaintiffs and additional defendants as more counties adopt ‘eCourts.’ Denial of the instant motion would have no binding effect on these new parties. Nor would it shield the currently-named Defendants from later certification motions. Rather, denial would merely complicate this litigation,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.

The current case involves a Wake County plaintiff, Timia Chaplin, who argues that authorities arrested her for a second time in April on charges that already had been dismissed. Chaplin blamed the eCourts system for the mistake. Lee County plaintiff Paulino Castellanos argued that he spent 14 days in a local jail because of the “botched transition” to eCourts software.

ECourts allows for electronic court filing. It gives the public online access to court files and allows people to pay court fees.

After Mecklenburg County, additional clusters of counties are slated to move to the new system every 60 to 90 days. All courts are slated to use the new system by 2025.