NC Residents Ask For Cert. In Court Software Class Action

By Matt Perez | December 19, 2023, 4:26 PM EST ·

A group of North Carolina residents have asked for certification in their proposed class action alleging the state's new digital court system has led to hundreds of wrongful arrests and detentions, with all facing common issues sufficient to satisfy class requirements.

The proposed class in the Middle District of North Carolina on Monday requested class certification take place after all motions to dismiss are resolved, but further argued that the group currently meets all criteria necessary for certification.

In an amended complaint filed in October, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and several officials were accused of plowing ahead with new court software despite complaints of wrongful arrests and individuals spending longer time than necessary behind bars due to an alleged disconnect between two integral components of the new eCourts system known as eWarrants and Odyssey.

In its motion on Monday, the proposed class compared its suit to the 2020 case Driver v. Marion County in the Seventh Circuit, in which the named plaintiffs sought to certify a class of individuals who were victims of computer issues spawned by the adoption of new software at a county jail.

"In reversing the district court's denial of class certification, the Seventh Circuit recognized that evidence adduced during discovery — specifically 'evidence of a dramatic increase in detention times in correlation with the implementation of the computer system' — bolstered the case for certification under Federal Rule 23," the motion said. "As alleged in the operative complaint, the same will be true here."

The eCourts project officially launched in four pilot counties — Wake, Lee, Harnett and Johnston — in February, while the eWarrants program went live last July in all 100 counties. The proposed class alleges internal documents have shown release orders for 179 warrants in the eCourts system were "inadvertently deleted," paving the way for the alleged rearrests.

The motion organized its class in three buckets: the statewide, injunctive-relief class, or all North Carolina individuals who were unlawfully arrested, detained or over-detained beginning July 1, 2022; the wrongful-arrest class, or all members who were detained due to the adoption of the court software; and the over-detention class, or those who were held for an unlawful period of time.

The amended complaint in October named the North Carolina AOC; executive director Ryan Boyce; chief business officer Brad Fowler; Wake County Clerk Blair Williams and Lee County Clerk Susie K. Thomas; the creator of eCourts, Tyler Technologies Inc.; and the sheriffs of Wake and Lee counties, Willie Rowe and Brian Estes, respectively.

The proposed class argued it satisfies the criteria for certification given the number of people affected, the commonality and typicality of the issues following the software rollout, and the adequacy of representation, given there are no known intra-class conflicts.

A second complaint, filed in May by national media company Courthouse News Service just two days after the proposed class first filed suit, alleges the digitized system has led to delayed access to new complaints in violation of the First Amendment.

Counsel representing the involved parties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The proposed class is represented by Gagan Gupta, Abraham Rubert-Schewel and Zachary W. Ezor of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen PLLC.

Rowe is represented by Roger A. Askew and Robert J. Lane of the Wake County Attorney's Office.

Estes is represented by James R. Morgan Jr. of Womble Bond Dickinson.

Tyler Technologies is represented by Gregory L. Skidmore and Hampton Hunter Bruton of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson PA.

The N.C. AOC, Boyce, Fowler, Williams and Thomas are represented by Elizabeth Curran O'Brien of the North Carolina Department of Justice.

The case is Chaplin et al. v. Rowe et al., case number 1:23-cv-00423, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

--Additional reporting by Hayley Fowler. Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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