Massachusetts federal challenge eviction moratorium

The COVID-19 pandemic is not a blank check for the Governor and other elected officials.” — U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf Issues Landmark 102-Page Opinion on Constitutionality of Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium; Gov. Baker Signals He Will Allow Moratorium to Expire On Oct. 17

As readers of this blog know, I, along my colleague Jordana Greenman, Esq., are lead counsel for several housing providers in a federal court challenge to the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium in the case of Baptiste v. Kennealy, United States District Court – Massachusetts, CA 1:20-CV-11335 (MLW). For the past three months, we have been battling with the Attorney General’s Office over the constitutionality of the Moratorium and whether the court should enjoin it. After five days of hearings and thousands of pages of legal briefing, Judge Mark Wolf has issued a landmark 102-page opinion in the case. The opinion is embedded and linked to below.

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”

In a nutshell, Judge Wolf declined for now to enjoin the Moratorium, reasoning that legislators had a reasonable basis for enacting it as a temporary emergency measure back in April during the beginning of the pandemic. However, and most notably, Judge Wolf expressed serious concerns over the constitutionality of the Moratorium if it is extended past its current expiration date of Oct. 17. Judge Wolf wrote:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not a blank check for the Governor and other elected officials. Rather, it should be recognized that “a public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists. As more medical and scientific evidence becomes available, and as States have time to craft policies in light of that evidence, courts should expect policies that more carefully account for constitutional rights.”

“In other words, in deciding how to exercise their broad discretion in responding to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, elected officials have a duty to consider the limitations imposed by the Constitution, rather than merely to rely on courts to remedy any violations of it. As Justice Anthony Kennedy has written, “the very fact that an official may have broad discretion . . . makes it all the more imperative for him or her to adhere to the Constitution and to its meaning and promise.” 

Judge Wolf also recognized that the Moratorium imposes a substantial impairment of leases between housing providers and tenants across the state:

“The rights to evict and recover property if a tenant does not pay rent are important elements of the contractual relationship that a lease creates. The Moratorium deprives the landlords of a remedy for a violation of these rights while it is in effect. It does not prevent a landlord from suing a tenant for rent owed. However, that remedy will often be illusory because landlords are unlikely to benefit from money judgments against tenants who are unable to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic or who are unwilling to do so. Therefore, the Moratorium materially undermines the contractual bargain.”

Judge Wolf did rule in our favor that the Moratorium Regulations violate the First Amendment as they force housing providers to provide a state mandated missing rent notice which directs tenants to pro-tenant advocacy groups like City Life/Urbana Vida.

Gov. Baker Signals He Will Not Extend Moratorium Past Oct. 17

Echoing many of Judge Wolf’s concerns, and as the Boston Globe reported yesterday, Gov. Baker suggested he won’t extend the moratorium. Instead, he wants to devise a system that protects both renters and landlords. “We would really like to see if we can put a plan together to make sure that we can do, with the courts, what needs to be done to ensure that people are protected with respect to their housing,” Baker said. “But the longer this thing goes on, the deeper the hole gets, not just for tenants but also for landlords, especially small landlords…who . . . have in many cases already run out of rope.”

We would like to think that our lawsuits and Judge Wolf’s ruling will play a significant factor in Gov. Baker’s ultimate decision whether to allow the Moratorium to expire. We want to make clear that our clients, and housing providers across the state, do not want mass evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have said from the start, if the state had enacted a large rental assistance funding package from the start, we would likely not be in this situation where thousands of private landlords have been forced to subsidized housing for tenants impacted by the pandemic. We are ready, willing and able to work with the courts and tenant groups to put reasonable safeguards in place to assist tenants if the Moratorium is lifted. I cannot stress enough how important rental assistance funding is.

What is Next? CDC Eviction Moratorium In Place Until Dec. 31, Housing Stability Act

Even if the Massachusetts Moratorium expires on Oct. 17, the new CDC federal eviction moratorium will be in place through Dec. 31. However, the CDC order is far narrower than the Massachusetts moratorium. Tenants must affirmative certify under oath they are financially impacted by Covid-19, and it does not apply to expiration of leases, for cause situations (like bad behavior or criminal activity) and to many “no fault” situations. At a recent Bench-Bar conference, several Housing Court judges stated the court will likely allow service of notices to quit and accept eviction filings unless tenants affirmatively raise the CDC order as an affirmative defense to the eviction. Also, the National Apartment Association and a group of housing providers have challenged the CDC Order in Atlanta federal court. We will see how this will play out.

State legislators and tenant activists also continue to advocate for a 12 month extension of the moratorium through the Housing Stability Act, but again, without meaningful rental assistance funding. A few million dollars in RAFT funding will not cut it. We need upwards of $200 million dollars or more in state rental assistance funding, and unfortunately, that is nowhere to be found right now. Based on Judge Wolf’s ruling, I believe the Housing Stability Act’s 12 month eviction moratorium would likely be unconstitutional.

To all of our faithful supporters, donations to our Legal Fund would also be very much appreciated as we put our law practices on hold for several months now while spending hundreds of hours on this case:  Link: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8orbLzpxbY

Judge Mark Wolf Opinion Pre… by Richard Vetstein

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