Remote depositions in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic? Here’s how

Farrell Fritz, P.C.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread impact on litigation, with some courts and most cases coming to a screeching halt.  Some courts have responded with Orders or rules (Massachusetts Sup. Jud. Ct. Order OE-144 [March 20, 2020]; Wisconsin S. Ct. Order [March 25, 2020]; Florida S. Ct., No. AOSC20-16 [March 18, 2020]), while others have not, leaving the practitioner to determine the logistics under existing procedural rules and whatever Executive or Administrative Orders are in place.

As of this writing, we thought it might be helpful to provide the landscape in the state and federal courts in New York, and the impact, if any, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.7 may have.  We also provide links to helpful resources as you near your first virtual deposition.  We intend to update this as the landscape changes.

New York Law on Remote Depositions

New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (“CPLR”) 3113(b) mandates that an “officer” put the deponent under oath. The officer, or someone acting under the direction of the officer, must record the testimony.  Typically, a notary public or a stenographer serves the function of an officer who then records the testimony.

Pursuant to CPLR 3113(d), the officer administering the oath and transcribing the testimony must be physically present at the location where the deponent is testifying. Put simply, the statute does not permit the officer to be at a remote location and accessible by telephone. The rationale makes sense:  the officer who swears in the witness must have proof that the person before them is the actual witness.  SIgnifciantly, however, the statute allows the parties to stipulate otherwise (CPLR 3113[d]; In re Estate of Smith, 29 Misc 3d 832, 834 [Sur Ct 2010] [The court notes that “unless otherwise stipulated to by parties, the officer administering the oath shall be physically present at the place of the deposition”]). CPLR 3113(d), in part, states that “[u]nless otherwise stipulated to by the parties, the officer administering the oath shall be physically present at the place of the deposition and the additional costs of conducting the deposition by telephonic or other remote electronic means, such as telephone charges, shall be borne by the party requesting that the deposition be conducted by such means.”  In Washington v Montefiore Hospital et al., the Third Department held that because the court reporter who administered the oath was not present in the deponent’s office during his testimony, and rather, was present by telephone, the deposition was not conducted in accordance with CPLR 3113. However, there, the Court held that because there was no objection to the manner in which the oath was administered, thus preventing any correction of defect, the objection was waived (see Matter of Washington v Montefiore Hosp., 7 AD3d 945, 948 [3d Dept 2004]).

The rule further provides,that the testimony can be recorded by “stenographic or other means.” Indeed, CPLR 3113(d) permits the parties to “stipulate that a deposition be taken by telephone or other remote electronic means and that a party may participate electronically.” The stipulation must be agreed to by all the parties to a litigation and must detail 1) the method of recording; 2) the use of exhibits; and 3) who must and may be physically present.

Federal Law on Remote Depositions

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 30(b)(4), “the parties may stipulate – or the court may on motion order – that a deposition be taken by telephone or other remote means.” In other words, under federal law, the court can order that a deposition be taken by telephone or other remote electronic means even in the absence of an agreement between the parties (Fed R Civ P 30[b][4]). Rule 30(b)(3) further states that testimony may be recorded by “audio, audiovisual, or stenographic means” and that the party who notices the deposition bears the recording costs.  In addition, any party can arrange to have the deposition testimony transcribed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has even caused certain federal judges to temporarily supplement their individual rules to permit all depositions to be taken by remote means, including telephone and videoconference (see Judge Lewis J. Liman’s COVID-19 Emergency Individual Practices in Civil and Criminal Cases).  The rule also provides that “[f]or avoidance of doubt, a deposition will be deemed to have been conducted “before” an officer so long as that officer attends the deposition via the same remote means (e.g., telephone conference call or video conference) used to connect all other remote participants, and so long as all participants (including the officer) can clearly hear and be heard by all other participants” (see id.).

Rule 30(b)(5) states that, unless the parties stipulate otherwise, the “deposition must be conducted before an officer appointed or designated under FRCP 28 (Nowlin v Lusk, 2014 WL 298155, at *5 [WD NY Jan. 28, 2014]).  Under FRCP 28, the deposition must be taken before either: 1) an officer authorized by federal law or by the law in the place of examination to administer oaths; or 2) a person appointed by the court where the action is pending. Rule 28 defines “officer” as a “person appointed by the court under this rule or designated by the parties under Rule 29(a).”  Notably, under FRCP 29(a), the parties can stipulate that “a deposition may be taken before any person, at any time or place, on any notice, and in the manner specified – in which event it may be used in the same way as any other deposition.” Put simply, the parties can stipulate that remote video depositions will be conducted by a person who is not a notary. The stipulation can also address the remote participation of the officer. The Rule does not require the parties to obtain the court’s approval of these stipulations. However, it is important to note that local rules can require approval for these stipulations.  Therefore, it is critical to consult both the Local Rules of the operative District Court, and the Individual Rules of the assigned Magistrate and Article III Judge.

Although the parties can stipulate otherwise, federal courts have held that a deposition is deemed to have been conducted before an officer if that officer “attends the deposition via the same remote means (e.g., telephone conference call or video conference) used to connect all other remote parties, and so long as all participants (including the officer) can clearly hear and be heard by all other participants)” (see Sinceno v Riverside Church in City of New York, 2020 WL 1302053, at *1 [SD NY Mar. 18, 2020] [permitting all depositions to be taken by telephone, video conference, or other remote means in light of the COVID-19 pandemic]).

In sum, federal law, unlike New York State law, does not require the physical presence of the officer in the same location as the deponent.

Executive Order 202.7 and Depositions

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 19, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.7 (“EO”), which suspended until April 18, 2020 the rule requiring the physical appearance of a notary public for the signing of documents.  To date, it is unclear whether the suspension will be extended. It is also not clear what impact, if any, the EO has on CPLR 3113’s physical presence requirement.  The EO addresses the witnessing of document signings, not the administration of oaths at depositions. Specifically, Executive Order 202.7 permits notary services to be performed by video provided the following conditions are met:

  • The person seeking the Notary’s services, if not personally known to the Notary, must present valid photo ID to the Notary during the video conference, not merely transmit it prior to or after;
  • The video conference must allow for direct interaction between the person seeking the Notary’s services and the Notary (g., no pre-recorded videos of the person signing);
  • The person seeking the Notary’s services must affirmatively represent that he or she is physically situated in the State of New York;
  • The person seeking the Notary’s services must transmit by fax or electronic means a legible copy of the signed document directly to the Notary on the same date it was signed;
  • The Notary may notarize the transmitted copy of the document and transmit the same back to the person seeking the Notary’s services; and
  • The Notary may repeat the notarization of the original signed document as of the date of execution provided the Notary receives such original signed document together with the electronically notarized copy within thirty days after the date of execution.

The New York Department of State has issued guidance to notaries regarding Executive Order 202.7.  Below are the additional considerations for notaries:

  • Notaries public using audio-video technology must continue to follow existing requirements for notarizations that were unaltered by the Executive Order. This includes, but is not limited to, placing the notary’s expiration date and county where the notary is commissioned upon the document.
  • If the notary and signatory are in different counties, the notary should indicate on the document the county where each person is located.
  • An electronically transmitted document sent to the notary can be sent in any electronic format (e.g., PDF, JPEG, TIFF), provided it is a legible copy.
  • The notary must print and sign the document, in ink, and may not use an electronic signature to officiate the document.
  • The signatory may use an electronic signature, provided the document can be signed electronically under the Electronic Signatures and Records Act (Article 3 of the State Technology Law). If the signer uses an electronic signature, the notary must witness the electronic signature being applied to the document, as required under Executive Order 202.7.
  • The Executive Order does not authorize other officials to administer oaths or to take acknowledgments, and only applies to notary publics commissioned by the Secretary of State’s office.
  • Following remote notarization, if the notary receives the original document within 30 days, the notary may notarize the document again (i.e., physically affixing a notary stamp and hand signing the document) using the original remote notary date.
  • Additionally, when performing remote notarization pursuant to this Executive Order, the Department recommends the following best practices. (However, not following these two recommendations will not invalidate the act or be cause for discipline):
    • Keep a notary log of each remote notarization;
    • Indicate on the document that the notarization was made pursuant to Executive Order 202.7.

Some Helpful Links and Advice From Court Reporters

So what are court reporters doing in light of the pandemic?  Adapting of course!  Many are offering free virtual or on-line demonstrations of how to conduct a remote deposition, or helpful  information on how the depositions would proceed.  Some examples can be found at Enright, Veritext or Bee Reporting, to name a few.  You might want to share these “tutorials” with your witness or clients so they understand the process before “taking the stand”.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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