The coronavirus pandemic has most of the world scrambling to find the new normal. Courts, judges and lawyers are working to determine what is “essential” vs. “non-essential” and how to try to keep the justice system moving while maintaining public safety.
One type of civil case that typically moves quickly is eviction or landlord/tenant actions. Most landlord/tenant actions are residential and involve the issue of possession. Possession is whether the tenant gets to continue to live in the unit or whether they need to vacate. Many landlord/tenant actions also involve a money component whereby the landlord is suing the tenant for past due rent, late fees, reimbursement for utilities or for damage to the unit. Often the courts require tenants to pay the disputed rent into court while the landlord/tenant action is moving through the court system.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court entered an Order on March 18, 2020 declaring a state of emergency and basically closing down the courts until at least April 3, 2020. [i] Courts remain open and available to hear essential and emergency matters. The Supreme Court provided some clarification on what is deemed essential, none of which categories include landlord/tenant cases. To the contrary, the Supreme Court declared that all “evictions” “ejectments” and “displacement from a residence based upon failure to make a rent, loan or similar payment” are postponed. This directive prevents officials, officers or persons employed by the judiciary from acting on existing orders granting possession to someone other than the person residing in the unit. Landlords are not able to execute – or act on – an existing order of possession until at least April 6, 2020. This might mean that landlords who thought they were near the end of the road on the eviction process are now prevented from obtaining possession of units from nonpaying or defaulting tenants. If a landlord has an order of possession, then they already won the case against the tenant and all appeal periods have passed. The Supreme Court’s Order speaks to its reasoning for this unprecedented stay on evictions. Specifically, the Court stated that it “is aware that the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may cause individuals to suffer a loss of income, which in turn may delay rent payments, mortgage-loan payments, or the like…”
In addition to staying (i.e. temporarily stopping) execution on orders of possession, the Supreme Court also granted a broad extension for any papers/filings/pleadings that are due to be filed between yesterday and April 3rd. If papers/pleadings are filed by April 6th, they will be considered timely (this deadline is subject to change by further order of court). Presumably, that means that no parties to a landlord/tenant action need to file an appeal from the magistrate, a complaint, a response to a complaint or an appeal from arbitration until at least April 6th. This will substantially slow the pace of landlord/tenant cases and tenants hoping to delay having to vacate a unit may benefit from these court ordered stays. Notably, the Supreme Court did not specifically delay the deadlines for payments and one can assume that all rent payments due to be paid into court are still due when they were originally due. However, the Supreme Court did specify that all time calculations are suspended. It seems that even though a tenant’s deadline for paying rent into court remains in place, there may not be much, if anything, a landlord can do if the tenant fails to make the required payments until April 6th.
Each county in Pennsylvania has likely entered an Order that supplements, or further clarifies, how things are going to work temporarily in that county. In Allegheny County, President Judge Clark entered an Order on March 19, 2020 consistent with the Supreme Court’s Order. See that order here: http://www.acba.org/Portals/0/pdf/031820EmergencyOperationsOrder.pdf. Allegheny County severely limited the types of civil motions that will be heard by the Court during the state of emergency. Interestingly, one type of motion that is specifically listed as the type that can be presented is “motions relating to public health concerns, such as the taking of residential property, ejectment, eviction and other public health concerns involving immediate and irreparable harm.” It is not clear what would lead to such a concern but that exception does exist should a party to a landlord/tenant action need immediate judicial intervention in Allegheny County.
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[i] See the Court’s order here: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/files/page-1305/file-8634.pdf