At the height of the COVID-19 Crisis, with state and local officials urging tenants to be “Safer at Home,” landlords are filing eviction law suits, their attorneys are encouraging them do so, and the court, for at least 15 days after Rule 1 was issued, sent out false and misleading notices to tenants; notices that violated the State Judicial Council’s April 6, 2020 orders.
And because a landlord can print a Summons from the Court’s website we are now seeing cases where landlords are fraudulently printing and serving Summons that have not been issued by the Clerk of the Court. This is done in an effort to deprive tenants of the 90 day reprieve the Judicial Council gave them.
On April 17, 2020 Maria del Socorro Serrano and Jose Garcia received a notice from the Los Angeles Superior Court telling them they are being evicted and have 5 days to respond to the court. The notice is dated April 10, 2020; the lawsuit was filed April 9, 2020. The notice violated Judicial Council Rule 1.
“I got overwhelmed. We are already under so much pressure because I am not working, and my husband is only working a few hours. My heart dropped to the floor,” says Ms. Serrano. “I spoke with a lawyer and I thought this had been resolved and was just an error but today we got a Summons and a Complaint and I don’t know what is happening and who to trust.”
“In a world in which tenants get evicted because they put the wrong address on the envelope when they mail the rent or because they get sick and are a little short on the rent, it is outrageous that the court sent out notices with wrong information to already worried and confused and stressed out tenants for 15 days,” says Joe Delgado.
The Notice of Unlawful Detainer (Eviction) says: “An Unlawful Detainer complaint (eviction action) has been filed, naming you as a defendant. It is important for you to take immediate action. YOU ARE ALLOWED FIVE (5) DAYS AFTER YOU ARE SERVED TO RESPOND TO THE COMPLAINT.”
The Eviction Defense Network, a nonprofit organization that counsels 5000 tenants a year and represents up to 2100 households in eviction actions, immediately sent emails to Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile, Assistant Presiding Judge Eric Taylor, and Executive Officer/Clerk of the Court Sherri Carter, and someone named Michael Arias, who had been identified by Judge Brazile during an April 10, 2020 Webinar with over 100 members of the Bar, as the person to contact with questions.
The court responded via email to Ms. Popp on April 21, 2020 stating that the error was being corrected.
“What we feared would happen is happening. Ms. Serrano and Mr. Garcia have now been served a Summons and Complaint for eviction. In this case the landlord has apparently gone to the California Court website and printed a summons. The landlord has fraudulently attached this Summons to the Complaint in violation of the Judicial Council’s Rule,” says Elena Popp. “We have no idea how prevalent the practice is. This is the second situation we have seen. We are making inquiries to our allies in the legal services community to ascertain the extent of the problem. But even if these are two isolated incidents it is essential that tenants understand their rights. If Ms. Serrano files an Answer to the complaint, she and Mr. Garcia will lose the 90-day reprieve the Judicial Council intended them to have.”
The matter is further complicated by the fact that landlords and landlord attorneys are using the threat of eviction and the ability to file complaints to harass tenants into giving up the protections that have been passed by local legislative bodies. In an April 13, 2020 email to landlords, eviction attorney Dennis Block urged landlords to move forward with eviction filings. “…. an eviction action can be filed. The court will assign a case number, though a summons will not be issued. The complaint would then be sent to the tenant with an accompanying letter. This letter advises the tenant that a lawsuit has been filed and that there will be no rent forgiveness. The letter seeks to have the tenant contact the landlord, so that an arrangement may be made…”. The implication is that tenants can be coerced without counsel or due process into making payment plans that can subsequently be used to evict them.
We are recommending that tenants that have had a COVID-19 related loss of income follow the procedures set forth in their local jurisdiction and not enter in to payment plans until they are re-employed and stabilized. Once a tenant signs an agreement to re-pay the rent they are bound by that agreement. It is better to wait until they have returned to work.
“In a world in which tenants get evicted because they make a simple mistake like put the wrong address on the envelope when they mail the rent or because they get sick and are a little short on their rent, it is outrageous that the court sent out notices with wrong information to already worried, confused and stressed out tenants for 15 days,” says Joe Delgado, Director of Los Angeles office of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
Elena Popp, Executive Director, Eviction Defense Network, 310/704-8785
Joe Delgado, Director of Los Angeles office of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) 310/704-9312
Maria del Socorro Serrano 323/602-8113 (Spanish speaker)