Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff

Appeals Court Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff Rules Boston Eviction Moratorium Must End On February 28, 2022, But Questions Remain Whether City Will Enact New Tailored Moratorium

The legal challenge to the Boston Eviction Moratorium just took an interesting turn on appeal. After Housing Court Justice Irene Bagdoian struck down the moratorium in a scathing opinion, Appeals Court Justice Joseph Ditkoff, considering an appeal along with a motion to stay by the Boston Public Health Commission, ruled that the moratorium must end no later than February 28, 2022. In an unusual move, he then commented in dicta (observations which do not hold the force of legal precedent), that the City could revise and narrow the moratorium based the current state of Covid-19 in the City. While landlord attorneys view the ruling as a win, a lot of attorneys who practice in the Housing Court are scratching their heads, trying to navigate the impact of this ruling on whether eviction move outs can proceed now, after February 28, or in the future. Certainly, if the City attempts to revise the moratorium, this would likely result in further litigation (in this case or others) over whether the current Covid-19 pandemic warrants further suspension of evictions in the city.

Take Away From Ruling

In drawing take-away’s from this ruling, the procedural posture is important. Back in November 2021, landlords and constables won a declaratory judgment from Justice Bagdoian that the moratorium exceeded the powers of the BPHC. She declined to stay that ruling, and the commission appealed to a single justice of the Appeals Court and sought a stay with Justice Ditkoff. A seeking a stay pending appeal must ordinarily meet four tests: (1) the likelihood of appellant’s success on the merits; (2) the likelihood of irreparable harm to appellant if the court denies the stay; (3) the absence of substantial harm to other parties if the stay issues; and (4) the absence of harm to the public interest from granting the stay.

On the first prong of the test, Justice Ditkoff disagreed with Judge Bagdoian. He felt that the moratorium was a “reasonable health regulation” enacted by the BPHC. But, he noted that under relevant Supreme Judicial Court legal precedent, an eviction moratorium of six months was reasonable. (The current moratorium has no stated termination date). As such, he ruled in this case only that the moratorium would stay in place through February 28, 2022 (which is 6 months from when it was enacted).

What’s Next? It Is Unclear

So what will happen next? There are several scenarios in play. Justice Ditkoff stated in dicta: “That is not to say that evictions necessarily must resume on March 1, 2022. The moratorium . . . could be extended for up to an additional six months upon a showing of hardship. In light of the rapidly changing situation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, I have no occasion to consider at this time whether, at the end of February, the commission could enact a tailored and time-limited extension of the moratorium on the basis of the then-current COVID-19 hospitalizations and community positivity rates.” Thus, Mayor Wu’s office could come out with a revised moratorium order, more narrowly tailored and limited in duration. Or, she could extend the current order. Whatever she decides, further litigation will certainly follow. I know that the plaintiff/landlords are considering an appeal Justice Ditkoff’s ruling, which in my opinion would be warranted given the his faulty reasoning and the huge importance of the issue to landlords. That appeal could wind up before the entire Appeals Court or the Supreme Judicial Court. It is unclear at this point, and the timeline is unpredictable.

More Confusion

There is also a question as to the applicability of this ruling outside the parties in the case. The ruling was made in connection with a motion to stay — it is not supposed to be a decision on the merits — although Justice Ditkoff went far past that procedural limitation and said a lot of things about the merits of the moratorium. Justice Ditkoff also stated: “It should be stressed that I have considered only the legal rights of the city and the tenant, landlords, and constable before me. No doubt other tenants, landlords, and constables could raise different arguments regarding the validity of the moratorium, and due process requires that every such party be heard before a determination of that party’s rights are made. Nothing in this order should be construed as limiting or adjudicating the rights of parties not before me.” So this indicates that further challenges to the City moratorium could be raised in individual cases in the Housing Court. Which is odd because Ditkoff ordered that the moratorium would end no later than February 28. We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. All of this, no doubt, cries out for a final and conclusive ruling from either the full Appeals Court or SJC.

As always, I’ll keep you posted on further developments. Check back here at the end of the month. I’ve posted Justice Ditkoff’s ruling below.