SBJ photo by Heather Mosley

A Conversation With ... Jessica Hill

Of Counsel, Spencer Fane LLP

Posted online

You came from Spencer Fane after serving as a shareholder at Ellis, Ellis, Hammons & Johnson PC. Why the move?
Spencer Fane was attractive to me for a lot of reasons. They have a national presence and they’re a growing law firm – even over the last year with the changes to the industry with COVID. When this opportunity presented itself, I really saw it as something that would be beneficial to me as an attorney, but also beneficial to my clients because they have a very broad scope of services (and) practice areas. The resources that they provide to me as an attorney helps me to do a better job.

Part of your new role is growing the litigation practice. There’s been numerous reports on litigation against insurance companies denying pandemic-related claims. What are you seeing?
That’s one of the main issues that I’m keeping my eye on when it comes to these various COVID issues. There’s actually been over 1,500 lawsuits filed across the country pertaining to business interruption coverage – in that short period of time, that’s a lot. That’s both in state and federal court. Of course, the lawsuits are less than a year old. So far, we’ve been able to see somewhat how the courts have handled the issue on motion to dismiss, but we haven’t seen them fully litigated. In federal court, it seems that the courts have been more likely to dismiss those cases against the insurance companies, but in state court the insured have at least gotten more success getting past that initial motion to dismiss. In the federal court, there were actions filed by insurance companies to try to get a lot of those cases consolidated to try to get one ruling that would affect everyone, but you really can’t do that in the insurance context because every insurance company has their own policy language. I would expect in the next six months or so, we’ll have a lot better idea of how that issue is going to pan out.

Are claims against employers related to COVID-19 growing?
In my employment practice, I’m the one who conducts an employee grievance investigation. The way that that sometimes comes up is that they claim that they need an accommodation for an alleged disability. They might file a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights or the (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). I handle those types of claims for the employers at that administrative level. I would also handle those sorts of claims once they get into the litigation phase. Because of the length of time it takes for those sorts of claims to go through the administrative process, I haven’t seen a whole lot of those end up in litigation yet. I still think we’re probably a year or more away from seeing how the courts are going to handle those types of claims for employees who maybe just don’t want to come back to the office yet because they’re afraid of COVID exposure.

Between the Trump and Biden administrations, anti-discrimination protections have shifted. Do you anticipate an uptick in claims due to the changes?
You’re going to see an uptick because people are going to test the limits of what those new regulations are. There’s always going to be plaintiff’s attorneys wanting to take advantage of those sorts of things.

In the past year, courtrooms were closed and some proceedings shifted online. How will some of those changes look going forward, and how has it impacted your job?
We’ve definitely had to incorporate technology in the last year just to be able to do our jobs and move forward. Litigation did not slow down. We did lots of depositions over Zoom, lots of even mediations over them. We even did court hearings by Webex. I don’t think that the technology aspect is ever going to fully go away. We’ll certainly be going back to court more frequently, but in situations where you might have witnesses who are far away or even attorneys who are farther away, I think that we’ll continue to incorporate some of what we’ve learned on the technology side.

Jessica Hill can be reached at jhill@spencerfane.com.