Okla. Offers Glimpse Of Eviction Challenges Amid Pandemic

By Keri Norris
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Law360 (July 12, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT) --
Keri Norris
No one disputes that in our world today, safe housing is paramount to one's quality of life. It impacts educational and work opportunities and almost every facet of life. With community resources limited like never before, and courts and authorities operating at reduced capacity under great restrictions, eviction proceedings are as dire as ever for landlords and tenants.

Even in a small state such as Oklahoma with just under 4 million residents, more than 200 families are facing eviction each week. It will be worse in larger states.  

Eviction is a fairly uniform legal process regardless of the state. A tenant can only be evicted after the landlord gives notice to the tenant and a lawsuit is filed. A tenant must either pay the rent, leave the property, or be served with a forcible entry and detainer suit (an eviction suit). The tenant must then appear, in person, in the local court, or a judgment may be entered in favor of the landlord. A judgment will go on the tenant's public record, affecting his or her credit score and ability to obtain other quality rental properties in the future.

Each step of this process typically requires personal appearances and paperwork to be filed in the local county courthouse. But what does that mean now in a post-COVID-19 world? How Oklahoma and other states deal with their escalating eviction cases will determine whether thousands of residents become homeless and when. In an election year, nobody should question how these emotional stories might be used for political purposes.

Oklahoma was one of the first states to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, beginning in early May. Courts in the state are offering a sneak peak of what other states will soon face, specifically, how the thousands of eviction cases now awaiting resolution might be handled. 

In Oklahoma, for example, landlords not covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act were able to continue to file for evictions, with more than 3,000 evictions filed in May alone, but most could not get a hearing set until after the vast majority of local and county courthouses opened back up on June 1. Most jurisdictions, therefore, have just begun to hear new eviction cases.

However, courts in Oklahoma's 77 counties are reluctant to reopen to full capacity and are moving cautiously. Oklahoma's Supreme Court has directed lower courts to keep total number of people in a room to under 10. Returning to operations has therefore been a herculean challenge for courts, with hundreds of defendants showing up in court at once for a crowded docket.

Local courthouses, including small courthouses such as the one in Pontotoc County (with a population of 37,492), are mandating face masks, limited capacity, and require anyone other than attorneys to wait for the case to be called outside — not in air-conditioned hallways but outside the courthouse building. It is summer in Oklahoma with temperatures averaging in the 90s. Social distancing and limited-capacity courtrooms are quite literally turning up the heat on tenants.

In larger counties, it is often suggested that courts hold eviction proceedings by phone or video. This is just as problematic as restricted courtrooms, however, as defendants in rural areas often lack consistent phone or internet access. 

Tenants have rights, but only if they know how to access them and have help. Pro bono and free legal services may be available but there are not enough resources to go around, and smaller, rural counties have even less. And, of course, it is rare that renters facing eviction could afford an attorney.

Legal services plans are trying to meet today's growing need, but it's overwhelming. Since the start of the pandemic, my organization has seen a double-digit increase in customer inquiries for landlord-tenant matters month-over-month — the biggest jumps in nearly a decade. Our internal data shows this spike will not slow down anytime soon, as most states opening up behind Oklahoma will be free from eviction moratoriums in the coming weeks.

For tenants facing long lines in courthouse plazas across the country this summer, it is important to know that landlords cannot lock you out of your home unless they have a court order. A landlord is not permitted to terminate your utilities. If your landlord has an eviction case against you, you should call the court clerk in your county and verify the court date and the court's current procedures, which are in flux due to rising coronavirus cases.     

If you have a court date, you should inform the court clerk if you have any of the symptoms associated with coronavirus, including fever, coughing or shortness of breath. Without additional relief, such as a continuance of your court case, you must attend court or you will be evicted.

Governors and local officials might step in again to offer tenant relief, especially with an election looming in November. Facing a massive case backlog and coronavirus concerns, courts will move slowly even after reopening. Unfortunately, for those facing eviction it is likely to be a long, hot summer, and for those in Oklahoma, a long wait in the sun.

Keri Norris is chief legal officer at LegalShield.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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