Injunctive Relief in the Age of COVID-19

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

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— Updated on August 31, 2020

Injunctive Relief in the Age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic may have screeched everyday life to a halt, but there are certain things that even quarantine cannot stop. The courts are one of them. Lawsuits and litigation are still ongoing, albeit at a limited pace, and the courts, now more than ever, are looked upon to intervene in a variety of claims. In the context of COVID-19 and its many forms of damages, injunctive relief is a particularly important remedy.

An injunction is a court order that requires a person to do—or cease from doing—a specific act and can be issued for a number of reasons. Injunctions may take the form of a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, or permanent injunction. The latter two may be granted earlier in a case to address an emergency. Typically, to obtain a preliminary injunction, the movant must prove three qualifiers. First is that the injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm. The second term is that the lawsuit is likely to succeed on the merits. Finally, the movant must display that the balance of equities favors the relief. As the pandemic continues, COVID-19-based lawsuits are creating their own variation of this legal remedy.

Medical Workers Seek Protection

For those who are considered essential workers and must report to into a place of employment, COVID-19 has obvious ramifications on workplace safety. A number of lawsuits have been filed pertaining to essential businesses that have remained open throughout the pandemic and their failure to protect their employees. Although monetary damages are typically sought, many plaintiffs are also seeking injunctive relief from employers to provide safe work environments.

In a recently filed lawsuit against the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Nurses Association moved for a temporary injunction ordering the Department to rescind its directive mandating healthcare personnel to return to work after seven days— as this was inconsistent with the New York Paid Sick Leave Law. the injunction also sought to immediately begin to provide adequate COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment to its employees.

Surveying Employment-Based Injunctions

Healthcare workers are not the only employees seeking injunctive relief from employers to provide a safe workplace. A survey of recently filed cases indicates relief is sought to remedy an employer’s failure in a number of areas. These include the proper screening of employees for COVID-19, employee protections from other symptomatic or asymptomatic persons, and workspace sanitation. The survey also included injunctions related to failure to provide personal protective equipment, implement a social distancing policy, implement a work-from-home policy, and honor various government guidelines.

Federal Aid as Injunctive Relief

A number of businesses have also sought injunctive relief in relation to the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The federal program, which is responsible for distributing loans to small businesses, has tasked the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the guarantor of the loan, with the authority to issue regulations concerning the PPP. In order to obtain the loan, the borrower must apply with a participating lender, however, the SBA created a rule which would deny PPP loans to debtors in bankruptcy. In response, a number of businesses with pending bankruptcy cases have commenced litigation against the Small Business Administration, seeking injunctive relief prohibiting lenders from denying their loan applications. Recently, some courts have granted temporary restraining orders on the SBA and lender’s practices.

Court Limitations on Injunctions

Before filing a request for an injunction or commencing a lawsuit that specifies injunctive relief, it is important to research the rules and revised standing orders of the court. Courts across the country have been implementing new procedures to accommodate the pandemic—sometimes resulting in the limited ability to file a new lawsuit. For example, New York state trial courts prohibited the filing of new “nonessential” cases. Many states have moved to implement similar emergency period rules for how the courts will operate through the pandemic.

Because injunctive relief is often sought in urgent situations that need to be immediately addressed, what exactly constitutes an emergency is constantly evolving in the midst of the coronavirus. For example, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently granted a preliminary injunction ordering a food services and housekeeping vendor to continue to provide services to senior living facilities despite an alleged contract termination. As the court concluded, “In normal times, these are essential services. During a pandemic, their interest in receiving these services is absolutely critical.”

When filing for any kind of injunctive relief, particularly in emergency petitions, it is imperative to highlight exactly why the request is urgent. With court closures and limitations in operations, as well as the suspension of live hearings, it is all the more important than any relief sought be clearly articulated so that the court can render a swift decision.

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