Housing Court Issues Major Change to Procedures To Tackle Backlog of Cases, and Address Covid-19 Safety Concerns
With the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium set to expire on October 17, and barring an extension from Gov. Baker or the passage of a new moratorium, the Housing Court is preparing for arguably the most challenging period in its history. Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan has just released a set of new procedural rules to manage all pending and future cases in the “new normal” of a Covid-19 world. The new rules dramatically change how all cases will be heard in the Housing Courts, with the vast majority of hearings being conducted via video-conferencing technology instead of in-person. Facing a backlog of some 20,000 pending eviction cases and an unknown number to be filed once the Moratorium expires, the goals of these new procedures are to: (a) start moving pending eviction cases forward, (b) establish new procedures for the filing and case management of new cases, (c) encourage mediation and private agreements as much as possible to decrease the backlog of cases, and (d) above all, keep litigants and court personnel safe. The new rules also contain a new affidavit requirement under the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control. The new rules can be found here: Housing Court Standing Order 6-20: Temporary modifications to court operations based on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the expiration of chapter 65 of the acts of 2020 (eviction moratorium).
Housing Court Physically Open for Business, But Most Proceedings Will Be Virtual
The Housing Court will be physically open with limited staff and judges, but the preference will be for cases to be heard virtually. The court is presently using the Zoom platform quite effectively, and I assume it will continue to do so. For self-represented (pro se) parties who may have limited access to technology, the court will assist that person with the video-conferencing technology or offer a “suitable alternative.”
The old “call of the list” on Thursday morning hearing days with hundreds of people packed in hallways and courtrooms will now be a relic of the past, and is suspended indefinitely. Instead, going forward, the clerk’s office will schedule cases and hearings directly with the parties or their lawyers, with the vast majority being on Zoom. This includes mediations. Lawyers are required to continue to E-File new cases and all pleadings.
Rich’s Practice Pointer: However it plays out, it’s a safe bet to say that evicting anyone in Massachusetts going forward could take anywhere from 6-18 months. This makes mediation and private settlement agreements all the more attractive and cost effective for landlords.
Procedures for Pending Summary Process (Eviction) Cases: Two Tiered System
Pending cases will be scheduled for hearing in the order in which they were filed, i.e, earlier filed cases get priority. All tenant motions to vacate a dismissal or default for failure to appear between March 1, 2020 and the expiration of the Moratorium (Oct. 17, 2020) will be automatically granted by the court.
The rules established a new two-tiered system to move cases forward. In Tier I, a housing specialist (who is typically a trained mediator) will schedule the first court event by video conference or telephone call. The purpose of the first event will be to determine the status of the case, whether the CDC federal moratorium applies to the tenant, attempt to mediate/resolve the case, and explore the availability of any housing assistance. If the case does not settle, the housing specialists and the clerk will hold a case management conference to determine the next steps in the case and/or schedule the case for trial. For Tier 2, the clerk will schedule the next court event by written notice. While the rule provides that trials should be held as soon as practical but no sooner than 14 days after the first tier event, I would have to assume that getting a trial date will be several months away, given the huge backlog of cases caused by the Moratorium. The new rules provide that trials will be held by video-conference, with a “small sub-set being held in person,” as determined by the Clerk Magistrate and First Justice.
Procedure for New Summary Process (Eviction) Cases
In a major change from existing practice, new cases will not be automatically scheduled for a trial on the typical Thursday morning schedule. (The rules provide that lawyers should now put “TDB by court” in the Summary Process Complaint where the the trial date would typically be listed.) Instead, the clerk’s office will send out a notice of the first event, but the rules do not say when that will actually be. The clerk will also send out an information sheet with a resources available to assist the parties in resolving the case. Cases will then proceed based on the two-tiered system outlined above.
CDC Eviction Moratorium Affidavit Requirement
The rules provide that all new eviction cases for non-payment of rent must be accompanied by a new affidavit indicating whether the landlord has received a hardship declaration under the CDC Eviction Moratorium. For pending eviction cases, the plaintiff must file the CDC affidavit before the first tier court event. The court is coming up with the new affidavit form which will be available on the court website. I believe that this new requirement will be controversial because it may prejudice landlords since the burden of claiming a Covid-19 related hardship remains with the tenant under the CDC Order.
Executions (Move-Out Orders)
For those housing providers holding an execution for possession (move-out order) which has now expired, they may file a written request or motion for a new execution to issue, but they must file the CDC affidavit with it. These new executions will be issued administratively without a hearing. I would expect that tenants will be filing numerous motions to stay execution based on the Covid-19 pandemic, so we will have to see how the judges handle these.
Emergency and Injunction Proceedings
As it has done throughout the pandemic and Eviction Moratorium, the court will continue scheduling all emergency matters including those for injunctive relief (lockouts, condemnation, no heat, no water/utilties, access) or a motion for stay of execution. These proceedings will be scheduled virtually to the extent possible.
All parties have a right to a jury trial in the Housing Court. Indeed, this is often used as a weapon by tenant attorneys to delay cases. The new rules provide that in-person jury trials with 6 jurors may resume on October 23, 2020, but I don’t see how this is achievable. I think getting a jury trial date will be many months down the road for most cases.
Like any major change to court procedures, it will take some time for litigants and court personnel to adapt to these new rules. Over the course of the pandemic, I have participated in several Zoom hearings as well as mediations in the Housing Court, and they have worked out just fine. For the mediations, the housing specialists have used the breakout room feature so parties can discuss matters in private. Trials conducted via Zoom will be a different animal, and lawyers will need to come up with some best practices for them.
Another thing I’m certain of is that it will take longer to move an eviction case through a post-Eviction Moratorium Housing Court. Perhaps many months longer, especially where there’s a jury trial demand. The Court is facing an unprecedented backlog and situation with the pandemic plus the Moratorium, and it will take quite a long time for the court to make a dent in the backlog of cases — plus we don’t know how many new cases are on route. Whatever the actual number, it’s been 6 months since new cases were allowed to be filed. However, I vigorously dispute the narrative put forth by the CityLife/Urbana Vida folks that 100,000 evictions are imminent. That’s just unsubstantiated nonsense. At minimum, the CDC Moratorium may well delay a large number of non-payment cases until it expires on Dec. 31.
If you have any questions concerning an eviction or the Housing Court, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.