Operation of Trial Courts

The South Carolina Supreme Court updated its Order regarding Operation of Trial Courts during the Coronavirus Emergency on December 16, 2020. The specific Order may be found at Supreme Court Order December 2020.

A few pertinent points about the Court’s Order are as follows:

  • Non-jury trial and motions may be conducted using remote technology.
  • In person trials and hearings may be conducted if a judge determines it is appropriate and it can be safely conducted.
    • trials will be staggered to decrease the number of people;
    • generally, only the attorneys, parties and witness may attend;
    • remote testimony may be allowed;
    • masks must be worn;
    • remote administration of oaths is allowed.
  • Courthouses should remain open to accept filings and payments
    • drop boxes are allowed and the public will have specific instructions and notification;
    • all persons will be screened for fever and must wear a mask.
  • Family Court
    • uncontested divorces may be granted without holding a hearing;
    • approval of settlement agreements and consent orders may be done without a hearing;
    • contested hearings in Family Court will be conducted remotely or in person as ordered by the Judge.
  • Bench warrants for non-payment of child support and alimony may be executed by law enforcement. The of suspension of those warrants has expired.

Social Security: Online Video Hearings

SSA has finalized its Online Video Hearing program and sent out letters on December 21st to every person who has a pending hearing request. These hearings will be conducted using Microsoft Teams; a platform similar to Zoom. Participants in this program must have an email address; a smartphone, tablet or computer with a camera and microphone; stable internet access; and a private area in their home. SSA does not require an individual to agree to online video or telephone hearings and you retain the right to an in-person hearing. You should contact an attorney or authorized representative before making a decision.  

We Are Better Together

On November 7, 2020, South Carolina Legal Services collaborated with National Expungement Week, a national nonprofit that provides funding to pay fees associated with expungements, pardons and pretrial intervention, and Path2Redemption, a nonprofit group that provides training and mentorship programs for ex-offenders transitioning back into society. These like-minded organizations came together for an expungement and pardon clinic, “Pardon My Behavior” at the Colony Apartments in Columbia, S.C.  South Carolina Legal Services provided attorneys and paralegals to assist over 50 people in applying to have with their criminal records expunged or offenses pardoned. National Expungement Week provided funding to South Carolina Legal Services’ applicants and clients to pay the cost of SLED checks, expungement, pardon, and court fees.  Path2Redemption provided re-entry mentorship and counseling at the event.

On December 5, 2020, South Carolina Legal Services collaborated with National Expungement Week, Communiversity, a nonprofit that hosts presentations on legal and wrap around serves for ex-offenders, and The Black Liberation Fund, a nonprofit that provides bail and incarceration support to formerly incarcerated persons. Together the organizations facilitated an expungement and pardon clinic, “The Gift of Freedom” at Center Station in Charleston, S.C. South Carolina Legal Services, with 7 attorneys and 2 paralegals onsite for the event, assisted over 120 attendees with applications to have their criminal records pardoned or expunged.

Both of these events highlight the immense need for strategic and targeted collaborations. These collaborations created a “one stop shop”, where qualifying participants received free legal assistance, including free legal screening for additional civil legal issues, payment for expungement and pardon fees and information about mentorship, training and wrap-around services for ex-offenders. These events have created a “referral boomerang”. South Carolina Legal Services is still receiving applicants from both events following these collaborations.

South Carolina Legal Services is seeking to maintain current collaborations and develop new ones that will create a communal network of services to assist a common client base.

To inquire about a possible collaboration, please contact Andrea Loney, Executive Director of South Carolina Legal Services at andrealoney@sclegal.org.

Supplemental Security Income and Unemployment Benefits

The COVID-19 pandemic may have a devastating impact on individuals who are receiving SSI disability benefits.  SSI beneficiaries who were working and lost their jobs because of COVID-19 may have been eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits; including the expanded federal UI benefits that were available through the CARES Act.

SSI benefits will be reduced or suspended if a participant has earned or unearned income. SSI is reduced $1 for every $1 of UI benefits after the first $20. By comparison, earned income reduces SSI by $1 for every $2 that is earned after the first $85. The enhanced federal UI benefit would have reduced an SSI participant’s benefits to $0.00 when it was $600 a week or $2400 a month, far greater than the $783 SSI monthly payment. The enhanced UI benefit stopped on July 26, 2020 but state UI benefits continued and may have been low enough that it would not result in a loss of all SSI income. The newly passed COVID-19 Relief Act provides for a federal UI enhancement at a rate of $300 per week or approximately $1200 a month. This will also result in a suspension of SSI benefits for anyone receiving it. SSI suspensions for 12 consecutive months could result in the need for the individual to reapply for disability benefits which could be a long process if the individual has to prove that they are still disabled. There is also the possibility that SSI beneficiaries will receive notices that they were overpaid SSI because SSA suspended most overpayment actions from March through September 2020. Individuals who receive notice of an overpayment because of UI income should file a waiver to avoid collection. Finally, Medicaid benefits should not be stopped because of the loss of SSI benefits during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The receipt of UI benefits should not have an impact on SSDI benefits because SSDI is not reduced for unearned income.

Evictions Update

With time running out on the eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Congress approved, and the President signed into law on December 27, 2020, an extension of the CDC’s moratorium through January 31, 2021.

The new law did not change the requirement for tenants to provide a declaration to their landlord under penalty of perjury that they meet the criteria for invoking the protection of the CDC’s order.  However, anyone wishing to invoke that protection under the new law should update the declaration to indicate that it extends through January 31, 2021 instead of December 31, 2020. 

Also included in the legislative package was an additional $25 billion for rental assistance.  It remains to be seen whether that assistance will be up and running in time to help people who are protected under the moratorium only until January 31st.  There is concern that the funds will not be available in only one month.   

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that South Carolina counties and localities will receive $342,731,000. 

The funds are available only for low-income tenants.  This means tenants at or below 80% of the Area Median Income, with a priority for households at or below 50% AMI.  Eligible households also need to be receiving unemployment benefits or have experienced a COVID-19-related hardship (loss of income, significant expenses, etc.).  And finally, an eligible household must demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

The maximum assistance period is 12 months, with an additional 3-month extension, subject to availability of funds, if necessary to ensure housing stability.  Also, three months of prospective rent payments can be paid in addition to past due payments.  Households that need more than three months of prospective rent payments can re-apply and receive additional assistance if funds are available.

Another innovation in the new law is that it allows landlords to apply for rental assistance on a tenant’s behalf.  The landlord must get the tenant’s signature on the rental assistance application, must provide documentation of the rental assistance application to the tenant and must actually apply the funds to the tenant’s rent owed. 

Foreclosure Update

All the main federal entities that own or insure mortgages announced extensions of their single-family mortgage loan foreclosure moratoriums that were set to expire December 31, 2020.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac extended the foreclosure moratorium on their single family loans through January 31, 2021, while those insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture have been extended through the end of February.