Landlords ask Supreme Court of Virginia to make eviction proceedings easier

Landlords ask Supreme Court of Virginia to make eviction proceedings easier
Protesters at the John Marshall Courthouse in Richmond on Wednesday opposed the end of a statewide eviction moratorium. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A group that represents landlords around the state is asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to make it easier for them to move eviction lawsuits through the court system.

In a letter late last week to Chief Justice Don Lemons, the Virginia Apartment Management Association requested the court issue an order prohibiting local judges from requiring property owners to swear they’re abiding by federal protections before signing off on evictions, arguing the practice unfairly biases the trial process against them.

“I understand it is difficult for judges to hear unlawful detainer cases during this pandemic, but it is not the place of our judiciary to become an advocate for one party over the other,” said the association’s chief executive, Patrick McCloud. “Both parties deserve equal access to our court system so that cases before the judiciary can be adjudicated free of predetermined bias.”

Tenant advocates expressed disbelief upon learning of the letter. They warned that if the Supreme Court grants the request, it will lead to more evictions and erode existing protections, which they say are already limited, confusing and difficult for tenants to utilize.

“I’m very disappointed that during this pandemic, an association whose mission is to provide housing to people would go out of its way to ask the Supreme Court to make it easier for landlords to evict tenants,” said Christie Marra, the director of housing advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

At issue is a practice in some courts in which judges ask landlords and the attorneys representing them to provide an affidavit stating that the property in question is not covered by protections under the CARES Act. Some courts have also begun asking landlords to swear that the tenant has not taken steps to exercise their rights under a limited federal moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control.

The effect is to extend those federal protections to tenants even in cases where they don’t appear in court, an extremely common occurrence that typically leads to a default judgment in favor of the landlord. Advocates who support the affidavit requirement said it’s especially important given how poorly understood the CARES Act and CDC order are among tenants, who may not realize they have a defense in their case or don’t understand the intricacies of the federal laws and regulations in place.

It’s unclear how many courts are requiring property managers to sign affidavits before granting eviction judgments, but the practice is widespread enough that landlords argue it’s become an impediment to evictions and tenant advocates argue it’s indeed helping keep people in their homes. The apartment management association specifically cited courts in three jurisdictions they say are requiring the affidavits, Chesapeake, Waynesboro and Chesterfield. Legal aid groups say it’s also common in the Richmond area and Northern Virginia.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.