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Federal Government Weighs In On Tenant Lawsuit Against Jackson County Judge

093020_dm_eviction_carlos moreno
Carlos Moreno
The Jackson County courts had an eviction moratorium in place but it expired at the end of May.

The lawsuit by KC Tenants accuses Jackson County Circuit Judge David M. Byrn of allowing landlords to continue filing eviction cases in defiance of a CDC moratorium.

The government is wading into a federal lawsuit brought by a tenants rights group against the presiding judge of Jackson County.

Although the government is not a party to the lawsuit, the litigation concerns a federal moratorium on tenant evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early last month.

After the lawsuit was filed by KC Tenants on Sept. 30, Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs invited the government to file a so-called friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

In a court filing Tuesday, the government responded by submitting a “Statement of Interest of the United States of America” saying it took no position in the lawsuit.

But the statement, citing an FAQ by the CDC, went on to make clear that the CDC order is “not intended to terminate or suspend the operations of any state or local court.”

That statement is crucial, since the KC Tenants lawsuit accuses Jackson County Circuit Judge David M. Byrn of allowing landlords to continue filing eviction cases in defiance of the CDC moratorium.

The moratorium, which is intended to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, covers residential tenants who meet seven different criteria. Among other things, tenants must declare under penalty of perjury that they can’t pay their rent due to loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses; that they are making their best efforts to make partial payments; and that they would become homeless or have to share a residence if they were evicted.

“The order does not alter a tenant’s obligation to pay rent or comply with any other contractual obligation,” the government’s statement says.

It goes on to say that the CDC moratorium was not intended to bar landlords from starting eviction proceedings as long as the eviction of a covered person does not take place while the moratorium remains in effect.

The statement was signed by Leslie Cooper Vigen, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil division. Mollie Timmons, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said it did not have a comment "beyond what is included in our filed statement."

Gillian Wilcox, an attorney with the ACLU of Missouri, which represents KC Tenants, said that the moratorium spoke for itself and the CDC’s FAQ is irrelevant.

“The order is not ambiguous,” Wilcox said. “It’s very clear. … It prevents any eviction action against a covered person, which would be the filing of an eviction and any proceedings in such a case.”

Tara Raghuveer, founder and director of KC Tenants, said that if tenants are forced out of their homes, they risk contracting and spreading COVID-19 at a time when cases in the Kansas City area are spiking.

“With every eviction that we allow right now, we’re actually prioritizing the landlord’s profits over a person’s life,” Raghuveer said. “Those are the stakes. And the CDC moratorium that was issued at the beginning of September was unambiguous about ending evictions as a public health imperative.”

Although the lawsuit was filed less than a month ago, it has attracted considerable interest from organizations seeking permission to file friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of KC Tenants. They include ArchCity Defenders Inc., a civil rights law firm in St. Louis; Legal Services of Eastern Missouri; and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Missouri is one of the few states that has not issued a statewide eviction moratorium to prevent tenants from being evicted from their homes during the pandemic.

In its proposed brief, the National Low Income Housing Coalition says that nearly 38% of Missouri renters with children surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in September had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent. And nearly half of Black renters in Missouri had slight or no confidence in their ability to pay October’s rent, the coalition said.

Landlords counter that they’re also being hurt, and they add that the eviction moratorium will only make things worse for tenants.

Stacey Johnson-Cosby, president of the KC Regional Housing Alliance, which represents landlords, said that 40% of alliance members who responded to a recent survey said they were receiving no income and might have to sell their units.

“And so, because of this eviction moratorium, we’re going to lose a lot of inventory,” Johnson-Cosby said. “And those people who need something to rent in the lower ranges are going to be out of luck.”

Sachs has scheduled oral arguments in the case, which seeks a preliminary injunction against Byrn and Jackson County court administrator Mary A. Marquez, on Nov. 3.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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