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Federal Judge Declines Tenants’ Request To Halt Eviction Lawsuits

The Jackson County courts had an eviction moratorium in place but it expired at the end of May.
The Jackson County courts had an eviction moratorium in place but it expired at the end of May.

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.

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Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.