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Changes coming to Gaston County courts' COVID-19 notification policy after judge's positive test

A Gaston County district court judge showed up to work despite awaiting the results of what ended up being a positive COVID-19 test.

GASTONIA, N.C. — Gaston County's chief district court judge has changed the courthouse's COVID-19 notification procedures after a WCNC Charlotte investigation found some people who appeared before a district court judge in November weren't notified he later tested positive for COVID-19.

WCNC first reported on Judge Michael Lands' COVID-19 diagnosis after he showed up to work despite waiting on the results of his coronavirus test.

On the week of Nov. 9, 2020, Lands presided over cases in Gaston County Courthouse's courtroom 3C both Monday and Tuesday.

Courts were closed Wednesday for Veterans Day. In a phone conversation with a WCNC reporter, Lands said he woke up not feeling well and went to get tested for the virus.

The next day, he returned to court, where he spent several minutes in courtroom 3C for a case that ultimately got postponed.

He insisted he wasn't in close contact with anyone that day. After leaving to get lunch, Lands said he found out he tested positive for COVID-19 and subsequently quarantined.

According to internal courthouse emails obtained through a public records request, on Friday morning, Chief District Judge John Greenlee emailed the Gaston County Bar to inform every attorney of Lands' positive test result.

In the email, he said Lands, "did not have contact, as defined by CDC guidelines, with anyone at the courthouse."

John Russell Jr., an attorney at the Gastonia law firm Mullen Holland & Cooper, emailed Greenlee to inform him one of their attorneys who appeared before Lands on Tuesday, Nov., 10, later tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to Russell's email, that attorney who fell ill, "feels confident this is where the exposure occurred."

RELATED: Gaston County judge returned to the bench while awaiting positive COVID-19 test result

Russell wrote the law firm planned to shut down after as many as four other people had contact with that attorney and later caught the virus or developed symptoms.

However, Russell cautioned in his email, "as with anything related to coronavirus, it is just so hard to tell."

Terrance and Melissa Taylor were in Lands' courtroom that same Tuesday for their own case.

They said they knew nothing about Hon. Greenlee's email because they were pro se, which meant they represented themselves in court without an attorney.

Melissa Taylor said she's immuno-compromised, and three of their business' employees care for immuno-compromised family members.

"It's unfair for [Lands'] co-workers, and everybody that's in contact with him, to be made aware so they can protect themselves and their families," Terrance Taylor said. "We have no heads up so that we can protect ourselves, our customers, our family and out co-workers."

About three dozen others on the court docket that week were listed as pro se.

Greenlee declined an on-camera interview, but during a phone conversation with a WCNC reporter, he said he planned to change their procedures by informing the news media of any COVID-19 cases in public courtrooms.

He said the change would make everyone aware of a potential exposure in a public courtroom, not just attorneys.

RELATED: Courts confront COVID-19 challenges as jury trials resume

Lands also declined an on-camera interview. He told a WCNC reporter he doesn't believe he gave COVID-19 to anyone, and he believed he's been, "as open and upfront as he could be."

Russell, of Mullen Holland & Cooper, issued the following statement:

"As indicated to your station in December, though the timing was suggestive we were never able to completely determine the source of the COVID exposure at our firm. That is still true today. Despite that, we notified as much as possible people who we had been in contact with in the period preceding the positive tests, including courthouse workers, clients, and opposing counsel. My email to Judge Greenlee was part of that effort.

"The COVID exposures presented a significant challenge for our firm, but we are grateful that all of our attorneys and staff have recovered and returned to work. We know that the past few months have been difficult for our community and our country. We are all tired of the pandemic and the disruptions to our lives that have come with it.  But we are making progress, and there is an end in sight. We therefore hope you will use this opportunity to also remind your viewers to continue to care for their health and that of their friends and neighbors, wear masks, maintain social distance, and follow the advice of their doctors with regard to getting vaccinated when their turn comes."

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