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Federal Judge Declines Tenants’ Request To Halt Eviction Lawsuits

093020_dm_eviction_carlos moreno
Carlos Moreno
Jackson County courts allowed eviction lawsuits to proceed after the CDC issued moratorium on evictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a tenants rights group against the presiding judge of Jackson County Circuit Court, David Byrn.

A federal judge has rejected a tenant group’s request to order the presiding judge of Jackson County to halt tenant eviction lawsuits.

Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs ruled Tuesday that a federal moratorium on tenant evictions does not prohibit landlords from initiating cases against tenants but only their actual removal from their homes.

Sachs’ ruling came after KC Tenants, a tenants rights group, sued Jackson County Circuit Judge David Byrn in September, alleging he was violating a moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by allowing eviction lawsuits to proceed.

The CDC order, which took effect on Sept. 4 and extends through Jan. 1, is meant to prevent homelessness and curb the further spread of COVID-19. It covers tenants who attest under penalty of perjury that they can’t make their rent payments due to loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses.

In a statement, Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, which represents KC Tenants, said that Sachs’ ruling only addressed KC Tenants’ motion for a preliminary injunction and the case remains ongoing.

“We believe that the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic and the well-recognized harmful (and even deadly) effects of allowing evictions to proceed warrant a limited intervention of the federal court to stop new eviction filings; while we recognize such relief is available in limited circumstances, we are disappointed that the judge did not think it justified here,” Rothert said.

In his 18-page order, Sachs said that KC Tenants’ interpretation of the CDC moratorium “would logically forbid all activity related to an eviction such as hiring a lawyer, or sending a notice, or filing suit, or obtaining money for a filing fee.”

That, he said, was too broad a reading.

“It is unreasonable to suppose that ‘covered persons’ are protected from preliminary lawsuits and the like, not mentioned in the Moratorium, when only removals or evictions are forbidden for protected tenants before January 1,” Sachs wrote.

Sachs said an administrative order issued by Byrn addressing the CDC moratorium was consistent with the moratorium and similar to Sachs’ understanding of the moratorium’s language.

“Their reading of the language is doubtless as capable as mine,” Sachs wrote, referring to Jackson County judges, “and they are not to be discounted as partisans just because the Presiding Judge has been sued; they are neutrals by profession in their approach to landlord-tenant issues.”

Sachs pointed out that the CDC order expires in five weeks and that a five-week prohibition of eviction lawsuits would likely only result in confusion. And, he noted that KC Tenants was asking him to intrude directly on state court operations, which is typically the domain of state appellate courts, not federal courts.

“Federal court intervention stripping down a state court docket is extraordinary, possibly unprecedented,” Sachs said.

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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