NJ evictions: How well are courts sifting through backlog of landlord-tenant cases?

·9 min read

After banning evictions for nearly two years, New Jersey courts have spent the past few weeks hammering away at a backlog of tens of thousands of landlord-tenant cases since the state’s eviction moratorium lifted on Jan. 1.

But the race to blitz through lingering cases filed before and during the pandemic and then turn to new cases involving landlords who weren’t paid January rent is riddled with hurdles and confusion, especially as courts sift through new legal protections and implement new online court procedure.

Anticipating a tsunami of cases, lawmakers passed protections to wind down the moratorium — low- and moderate-income tenants who missed rent or didn’t pay a rent increase between March 2020 and August 2021 could not be evicted if they filled out an income certification with the Department of Community Affairs and applied for rental assistance.

So far, the Garden State hasn’t yet seen the drastic uptick in eviction filings that many predicted. Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 12, 2022, landlords filed 2,100 cases, according to data from the Administrative Office of the Courts. In 2021, courts counted an average of roughly 3,800 cases a month. That’s down from the 2019 average of 12,600 cases a month.

But the current load is filled with cases containing confusing questions, and judges and courts are not dealing with answers the same way, landlord and tenant attorneys say.

“There are so many nuances in filing requirements and possible protections that most judicial employees, including many judges, are simply not familiar with all of them,” said Bruce Gudin, partner at Ehrlich Petriello Gudin Plaza & Reed and counsel for the New Jersey Property Owners Association. “There’s so much information, and misapplication makes practicing law very difficult.”

“It’s the luck of the draw of which judge you get,” said Amy Albert, an attorney with the Waterfront Project, which represents low-income renters in Hudson County. “There’s been no clear interpretation of how this state law is going to be addressed by the court. We’re talking about variances in court procedure.”

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And as important court hearings and trials continue to take place only online — along with new pre-trial steps such as additional forms and a case management conference — technology missteps and misunderstandings add to the confusion.

Meanwhile, many landlords and tenants are waiting for any notice from the court that their cases will be called, some having waited two years or more.

“It literally seems like it’s just random when courts are issuing these court dates,” Gudin said. “I have not been able to identify any pattern with what gets us listed on a calendar. They are not doing them by date filed or docket number order. We have cases filed in 2020 still waiting for hearings.”

Here are the concerns of attorneys on both sides in these court proceedings, and what they mean for landlords and tenants alike:

Inconsistent rulings

Attorneys say they are seeing judges rule different ways on cases with similar facts, making it difficult to give their clients advice.

Judges dismissed the cases of two tenants who filed income certifications and didn’t pay January rent, according to lawyers for the Waterfront Project. But that same week a different judge ordered an adjournment, or delay, in a case for a client in a similar situation. That tenant would have a week to come up with the rent before being evicted.

“We don’t know how to advise our clients,” said Rebecca Symes, executive director with the Waterfront Project. “It seems like there is no rhyme or reason.”

Last year the courts announced that if a tenant had a pending application for rental assistance, the case would be adjourned for 60 days. That gives a tenant time to potentially receive funds to pay back their landlord, as well as possible future payments, said Sharie Robinson, attorney for Essex Newark Legal Services.

Allison Nolan, an attorney with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, said not all of her clients are getting those postponements.

“The law requires a dismissal, but some courts seem to be keeping some of those cases open and it’s not necessarily clear why,” Nolan said.

On top of that, as the highly-contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 led to unprecedented new infections, that impacted the number of court staff able to wade through cases, Albert said.

"Judges have discretion in handling cases and may exercise that discretion on a case-by-case basis," said MaryAnn Spoto, spokesperson for the courts. "Recent legislation does not protect tenants from eviction for failing to pay rent in January 2022."

After living in her Newark apartment for fourteen years, having a lease and paying her rent on time, Allissa Shelton was evicted from her apartment in October 2020. Shelton's landlord claimed she was an "unauthorized occupant," and despite a moratorium on evictions in New Jersey during the COVID-19 pandemic she was locked out of her apartment for a week and her beloved dogs, Max and Nevaeh were locked inside. Shelton's case was eventually dismissed on February 26, 2021.
After living in her Newark apartment for fourteen years, having a lease and paying her rent on time, Allissa Shelton was evicted from her apartment in October 2020. Shelton's landlord claimed she was an "unauthorized occupant," and despite a moratorium on evictions in New Jersey during the COVID-19 pandemic she was locked out of her apartment for a week and her beloved dogs, Max and Nevaeh were locked inside. Shelton's case was eventually dismissed on February 26, 2021.

Tenants can still fill out certification

For a tenant to be protected from eviction for missing payments between September and December 2021, they must fill out a form that also attests they applied for rental assistance at covid19.nj.gov/forms/renterform.

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But the state’s major rental assistance program, administered by the Department of Community Affairs, stopped considering new applications on Dec. 15, 2021. While the agency announced last week the federal government would provide an extra $42 million for the state to pass out, the DCA is picking winners from the pot of people who applied before the deadline.

Some counties and cities still have their own programs open. But in places such as Jersey City, which had a fund but closed the application, it's less obvious what to do.

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According to the Department of Community Affairs, tenants "should absolutely complete a self-certification for protection," said spokesperson Lisa Ryan.

Even though the application is closed, tenants can submit a "pre-application" at https://njdca.onlinepha.com/ if DCA receives more funding in the future, which counts as having applied for rental assistance and securing the eviction protection, Ryan said.

Tenants can contact local housing organizations that may have assistance funds at HousingHelpNJ.org, or they may be eligible for emergency rental assistance through their county board of social services.

Gudin, who represents landlords, has seen clerks dismiss cases “seemingly without even looking at the certification.” A renter may have missed rent in 2019, for instance, so and the case should still be open.

“It’s very frustrating, and means I have to file the case again, or another motion, which means increased costs that will eventually be passed down to renters,” Gudin said. “The cost to most landlords for processing a case has tripled this year.”

Troubles with technology

For those without reliable Internet access, online-only court proceedings can be a challenge.

“Courts are requiring people to be on video, which isn’t possible for people with government-provided phones that aren’t smartphones…not everyone has a computer or laptop with a video function,” Symes said.

Some courts such as in Hudson County opened a “technology room” at the courthouse which has a computer tenants or landlords can use. But only one person can use the room at a time, while there could be 100 people scheduled to have hearings on a given day.

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“I’ve had a number of clients who had their calls dropped or something happened with the technology" and as a result the judge made "a default judgment in favor of the landlord,” Albert said, moving eviction one step closer.

“If you have a lawyer, that lawyer can advocate for you, get you back on the phone, but the vast majority of defendants don’t have that help and may very well be evicted,” Albert said. “A lot of the work that I end up doing is delaying an eviction so I can try to help someone find somewhere else to go, to get him an extra week.”

Spoto, the court spokesperson, said "the court makes every effort to re-establish that connection...if a call or video conference is dropped during a trial or any other proceeding."

Understanding how the court process works in the first place can be a challenge, Nolan said.

“We hear from tenants who are having a hard time trying to figure out what is required of them, when to show up, how to show up and what technology is needed,” Nolan said. “They are having trouble getting in contact with the courts which are getting such a high volume of calls.”

Lawyers don’t have access to filings

A recent privacy law meant to protect renters from being blacklisted by landlords came with unintended consequences — some attorneys and advocates have not been able to access the court records of people they are advising.

Under S3713/A4463, if a landlord filed a case for eviction because a tenant did not make rent payments between March 9, 2020 and Aug. 3, 2021, the court records would not be available to the public starting in December.

“That meant that for me as an advocate, if I wanted to look up a case filed against a client and comb through it and advise her about what sorts of defenses she has, I wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Khabirah Myers, coordinator for the Office of Tenant Legal Services for Newark.

A clean-up bill introduced last session, S4310/A6259, said Legal Services of New Jersey and nonprofit public interest organizations would be exempt from the rule, but the legislation did not make it to the governor’s desk. The legislation will have to be reintroduced, passed by both chambers and signed by the governor to become law.

Legal assistance

  • Legal Services of New Jersey: 888-576-5529

  • Seton Hall Law Center for Social Justice: 973-642-8700.

  • Volunteer Lawyers for Justice: 973-645-1955

  • If you have a disability, call Community Health Law Project: 609-392-5553

Rental assistance

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: balcerzaka@northjersey.com

Twitter: @abalcerzak

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ evictions: Hurdles in landlord-tenant court as NJ fights backlog