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Courts officials dropped from federal NC eCourts lawsuit

Carolina Journal


Plaintiffs challenging eCourts implementation in North Carolina have dropped state and local court officials from the list of defendants in their federal lawsuit. A court filing Tuesday confirmed that all 13 plaintiffs in the eCourts suit have agreed to dismiss complaints against five defendants.

The voluntary dismissal removes Ryan Boyce and Brad Fowler from the case. Boyce directs the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Fowler is AOC’s chief business officer and eCourts “executive sponsor.”

The dismissal also removes three county clerks of Superior Court from the case: Elisa Chinn-Gary of Mecklenburg County, Blair Williams of Wake County, and Susie Thomas of Lee County.

Separate court filings reveal that one plaintiff, Paulino Castellanos, dropped his complaint against eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies and Lee County Sheriff Brian Estes.

Other plaintiffs continue their lawsuit against Tyler Technologies and the sheriffs of Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

A state lawyer defended the new eCourts program in a federal court filing in January.

“[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 represented Boyce, Fowler, and the court clerks.

“[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.’”

The motion questioned 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.

The eCourts system “empowers the public with electronic filing and a free online search Portal to display court records and case events,” according to an AOC news release. 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.”

When North Carolina’s court system expanded eCourts access to 10 more counties on April 29, the program reached nearly half of the state’s population, according to AOC.

The eCourts software replaces paper filing processes in state and county courts. The latest expansion covered Guilford, Durham, Orange, Chatham, Alamance, Franklin, Person, Granville, Vance, and Warren counties.

Those counties represented the fourth track in the Enterprise Justice project rolling out eCourts across North Carolina. The 10 counties made up the “largest track of the rollout schedule based on its volume of legal filings,” according to the news release.

They boosted the total number of participating counties to 27. Those counties are home to about 4.5 million North Carolinians.

Eleven western counties are scheduled to transition to eCourts on July 22. Eleven more counties from east of Charlotte to Fayetteville are slated to join the program in the fall. The state’s remaining 51 counties are expected to transition to eCourts in 2025.

Court officials announced in March that taxpayers will save more than $6 million from the original 10-year eCourts contract. The court system also extended the contract by another five years, with cost increases capped at 3% per year.

The original eCourts contract with Texas-based vendor Tyler Technologies called for roughly $100 million of spending over 10 years from 2019 to 2029.

Now that original bill will decrease by $6,139,083, according to documents reviewed by Carolina Journal. The lower bill accounts for “vendor implementation delays,” according to the documents.

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