Mecklenburg sheriff, court clerk added as defendants in federal eCourts lawsuit

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  • The latest version of a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's eCourts system adds the Mecklenburg County sheriff and Superior Court clerk to the list of defendants.
  • The suit also adds four new plaintiffs, bringing the total number to nine. Plaintiffs contend that eCourts problems violated their rights.
  • Forty-nine of the state’s 100 counties will join eCourts by the fall. Remaining counties will join the system in 2025.

The latest version of a federal lawsuit challenging the rollout of North Carolina’s eCourts system adds Mecklenburg County’s sheriff and Superior Court clerk as defendants. The suit also adds four new plaintiffs, bringing the total number to 13.

Court documents filed Monday added Mecklenburg Sheriff Gary McFadden and Court Clerk Elisa Chinn-Gary to a list of defendants that already featured sheriffs and court clerks in Wake and Lee counties, along with top officials in the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies.

During a court hearing Tuesday in Greensboro, US District Judge William Osteen granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint. Osteen dismissed all pending motions to dismiss the case. He set an April 9 deadline for new motions to dismiss the suit.

Osteen also set a timeline for plaintiffs to seek class-action status for their case. They can file the proper motion within 90 days of an “initial pretrial order unless that period is extended by court order,” according to online court records.

Critics of the eCourts rollout added McFadden to the suit because he is “charged by statute with control and operation of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, including policymaking, training, and supervision relating to the employees of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office,” according to the latest version of the lawsuit.

Three of the case’s four new plaintiffs have complaints linked to the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office. The fourth new complaint is tied to Wake County.

In each of the Mecklenburg cases, the suit alleges that plaintiffs spent an excessive amount of time in jail — from 14.5 hours to 26.5 hours — because of eCourts errors. In the Wake case, the suit alleges that a man spent 36 hours in jail after eCourts “revived” a warrant from 2001 that had “been resolved more than twenty years prior.”

Lawyers representing North Carolina’s top court administrator defended the new eCourts program in a federal court filing in January.

That filing arrived in US District Court less than a week after state officials unveiled an updated eCourts rollout schedule.

“[E]Courts is the culmination of years of learning, planning, and training by numerous judicial stakeholders, including the Judicial Defendants named here,” wrote state Special Deputy Attorney General Elizabeth Curran O’Brien.

She represents Ryan Boyce, director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, along with Brad Fowler, AOC’s  chief business officer and eCourts “executive sponsor.” O’Brien also represents Wake County Superior Court Clerk Blair Williams and Lee County Superior Court Clerk Susie Thomas.

“[T]he Judicial Defendants are committed to successfully implementing eCourts and enabling judicial officials, litigants, law enforcement officers, and others to conduct court business fairly and efficiently,” O’Brien wrote. “It is unclear what claims Plaintiffs bring against the Judicial Defendants and what relief they seek due to fundamental pleading deficiencies.”

“Further, it appears Plaintiffs appear to ask this Court to halt core public safety and court functions, with no identified alternative,” the motion continued. This Court should decline to do so and dismiss all claims against Defendants.”

“Prior to the implementation of eCourts, North Carolina courts depended on paper filing, which provided multiple opportunities for error, and made courts slow and inefficient,” O’Brien wrote. “The transition to a digital court management system was a ‘long-term project covering many years and three judicial administrations.’”

Launched in Wake, Harnett, Johnston, and Lee counties in February 2023, eCourts expanded to Mecklenburg County last October.

“To prepare for the transition, NCAOC conducted ‘over 50 mock court walkthroughs in local courthouses,’ and ‘90 multi-day training sessions in the four pilot counties and Mecklenburg County,’” O’Brien wrote. “Starting on the day of transition, NCAOC ‘provided dedicated on-staff support in each county to assist with questions and to report any software defects or procedural issues.’”

The motion questions plaintiffs’ attempts to block the eCourts rollout from moving forward. “Injunctive relief is available only against conduct violating the Constitution,” O’Brien wrote. “While the Amended Complaint repeatedly uses the conclusory terms ‘unlawful,’ ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘deprivation of liberty,’ it fails to sufficiently allege a violation of the Constitution, much less a violation of the Constitution directly involving Defendants Boyce or Fowler. Plaintiffs don’t even allege a federal right that Defendants Boyce and Fowler have violated.”

The motion referenced a common theme in the lawsuit’s complaints. “The majority of the allegations relate to orders for arrest that appeared valid in eWarrants, but were allegedly either already served, issued in a now dismissed case, recalled, or issued in error,” O’Brien wrote. “Plaintiff blames this upon negligence, either by the Sheriff Defendants and/or the Clerk Defendants, or by defects in the eCourts software.”

“However, detention pursuant to a facially valid warrant later determined to be served, recalled, or issued in error, does not, without more, violate due process, and thus is not constitutionally unlawful,” she added.

Forty-nine of the state’s 100 counties will join eCourts by the fall. Remaining counties will join the system in 2025, according to an AOC news release.

Twelve northeastern counties switched to eCourts on Feb. 5. Ten counties in the north central part of the state will join on April 29. Eleven western counties will follow in the summer, with 11 south central counties slated to join in the fall.

The program’s official name is Enterprise Justice (Odyssey).

“Enterprise Justice has accepted over 600,000 electronic filings and supports tens of thousands of daily searches for digital court records in North Carolina’s largest population centers and five counties, jurisdictions serving nearly 3 million people,” Boyce said in the news release. “We are excited to continue partnering with legal communities across our state to expand digital access to justice for the benefit of all North Carolinians.”   

The system “empowers the public with electronic filing and a free online search Portal to display court records and case events.” The system includes eWarrants and Enforcement Mobile, “which integrate law enforcement processes with the court system.” Guide and File helps “self-represented users create and electronically file common legal actions through automated interviews.”

Critics of North Carolina’s new eCourts rollout added seven plaintiffs in October to the original May 2023 suit filed by two plaintiffs in Wake and Lee counties.