After D.C. banned eviction filings during the health emergency, a judge has ruled the ban is unconstitutional.
A judge in D.C. Superior Court ruled Wednesday that the District's ban on new eviction filings during the pandemic is unconstitutional. While the decision does not allow actual evictions to take place, it does pave the way for landlords to begin the eviction process, and for future challenges to the city's eviction ban.
"The United States Constitution protects the right of property owners to go to court to regain possession of their property," judge Anthony Epstein wrote in his order. "The filing moratorium limits this right by denying property owners their day in court for an extended and indefinite period."
The court stopped hearing new eviction cases during the pandemic. And in May, the D.C. Council banned landlords from even filing to evict their tenants during the public health emergency and for 60 days after.
Landlords and property managers who filed eviction cases after the ban went into effect filed suit to overturn the ban. In his ruling, Judge Epstein wrote that banning actual evictions protects the health and safety of D.C. residents, but freezing filings doesn't have the same effect.
"He's saying there's nothing about the filing of a case, in light of the protection from an actual eviction, that makes citizens any less safe," says Richard Bianco, an attorney who represents property owners in the District.
Nevertheless, the ruling is not expected to unleash a wave of new eviction filings or actual evictions, says Beth Mellen, supervising attorney in the housing law unit at D.C. Legal Aid. That's because tenants are still protected from eviction under other parts of the law, and a filing must precede an eviction.
While 1,854 eviction cases were filed in Landlord & Tenant court between March 11 and December 1, Epstein's order notes, only 458 of these cases remain open; the rest have been dismissed, are on track toward a settlement agreement, or are otherwise inactive. Those are the cases that could potentially move forward under the new order, Bianco says.
In his order, the judge writes that the "only short-term impact of the Court's ruling is that the Court will schedule a hearing in these cases as soon as it reasonably can, property owners will have to try to prove their case, and defendants will be able to raise any defense or seek any relief to which they are entitled."
The ruling takes effect immediately, but tenants still have an opportunity to appeal it. At the same time, Mellen says attorneys for landlords could mount legal challenges against other aspects of the city's eviction ban.
"While the judge has noted that for right now, landlords cannot issue 30-day notices or go forward with actual evictions, our concern now is going to be whether landlords try to claim those parts of the law are unconstitutional as well," Mellen says.
Bianco agrees that more challenges are likely. He's also expecting to hear from clients who are eager to file evictions against tenants in arrears because they mistakenly believe the ruling will enable them to do so.
"[But] it doesn't work that way," Bianco says.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.