Seven plaintiffs added to federal lawsuit against eCourts rollout

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  • Seven more plaintiffs have joined a federal lawsuit challenging the rollout of North Carolina's new eCourts digital records system. Now nine people are suing over eCourts' impact.
  • The original suit named the sheriffs of Wake and Lee counties as defendants, along with eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies. The defendants' list has grown to include two top state court officials, along with Superior Court clerks in Wake and Lee counties.
  • The eCourts system operates now in Wake, Mecklenburg, Johnston, Harnett, and Lee counties. Court officials plan to add more counties to the system in clusters during the months ahead.

Critics of North Carolina’s new eCourts system have added seven more plaintiffs to their federal lawsuit challenging the system’s rollout. They also have added the state’s top court executive to the list of defendants.

An amended complaint filed Friday in US District expands on the original allegations put forward in May by two plaintiffs from Wake and Lee counties. The case is called Chaplin v. Rowe.

The eCourts digital records system started this year in Wake, Johnston, Harnett, and Lee counties. State court officials added Mecklenburg County earlier this month.

Now the list of plaintiffs features six Wake County residents and one each from Lee, Mecklenburg, and Guilford counties.

The original suit named the Wake and Lee sheriffs, their insurers, and eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies as defendants. Now the list of defendants has grown to include Ryan Boyce, who oversees the state court system as executive director of the NC Administrative Office of the Courts. Brad Fowler, AOC’s chief business officer and “eCourts executive sponsor,” has been named as a new defendant. The list also includes the elected Superior Court clerks in Wake and Lee counties.

“As North Carolina transitions its court systems from paper to digital, hundreds of people have been unlawfully detained,” according to the amended complaint. “There is broad support for modernizing the state’s court system. But the rollout of ‘eCourts’ across the state has been at the expense of North Carolinians’ constitutional and other legal rights.”

“[T]he eCourts launch has caused people to spend days or weeks longer than necessary in jail,” the suit continued. “Others have been arrested multiple times on the same warrant — even after their charges have been dismissed by a judge.”

“These and other violations were foreseeable,” eCourts critics argued. “Over the last decade, similar software implementations by Defendant Tyler Technologies, Inc. (“Tyler Technologies”) led to well-documented cases of overdetention, wrongful arrest, and the like. Defendants were aware that the same thing could happen here. But they forged ahead without any failsafe or alternative in place.”

“Defendants even continued the rollout and adoption of eCourts after they were made aware that violations had occurred and would continue, evidencing reckless and intentional disregard for the rights of our state’s citizenry,” according to the lawsuit. “This class action seeks to remedy past harms and — as eCourts is soon expected to be fully implemented in North Carolina’s remaining counties — prevent future violations.”

Plaintiffs filed a motion on Oct. 4 seeking an extension for class action certification in 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 court filing seeking the extension.

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.

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.