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Federal judge denies ACLU request to halt Missouri eviction proceedings

By: - November 25, 2020 5:55 am

The group KC Tenants leads a protest against evictions on Oct. 15, outside of the 16th Circuit Court of Jackson County in Kansas City (photo courtesy of Christina Ostemeyer).

A federal judge on Tuesday denied the ACLU’s request to halt eviction proceedings in Missouri courts for the next five weeks.

The ACLU and ACLU of Missouri filed a federal lawsuit in late September on behalf of KC Tenants, a grassroots organization that advocates for safe and affordable housing. The suit claims that a Jackson County Circuit Court order allowing landlords to file and pursue evictions conflicts with a federal evictions moratorium and violates tenants’ due process rights.

The ACLU asked for an injunction to stop new eviction cases from being filed until January.

U.S. District Judge Howard F. Sachs denied the ACLU’s request, stating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium does not limit landlords from filing eviction cases. The order only limits the physical removal of individuals from their homes. 

Sach stated in his ruling that KC Tenants and other supporting organizations have submitted “impressive material and argument” that there are great numbers of “impoverished persons” in Jackson County who have suffered job losses because of the pandemic and face evictions. 

“With limited resources, deferring rent payments must be a common occurrence,” Sachs wrote. “But if anyone can change the law in their favor, such persons would be in the executive or legislative branches of government, not the judiciary.”

Sachs said the situation requires “balancing harms” of the tenants facing evictions and the landlords facing potential economic losses. 

“The harm claimed might be alleviated, however, if an associate circuit judge would grant such a stay,” Sach said.

The judge said reasons for such a stay could be for tenants to seek and obtain free legal aid, citing that the lack of counsel for indigent tenants appeared to pose “enormous difficulty” for them.

Sachs said another reason for the circuit court to issue a stay is to avoid “wasteful litigation” in the likely event that the moratorium is renewed. 

“While this court might consider a general stay until January for these reasons, that would be inappropriate given my view of the merits and to avoid heavy-handed federal intervention when the state court judges (who have infinitely better understanding of the docket) are free to take appropriate action,” Sachs stated.

Tony Rothert, legal director for ACLU of Missouri, said the federal court recognized that “what makes sense” is for Missouri courts to stay eviction proceedings until January.

“We hope the judges in Jackson County take this reasonable advice,” he said. 

However, Sach ultimately said a federal court’s order to stay evictions could be publicly perceived as indicating that the Missouri courts “are operating in a defective manner, heedless of human suffering, and needing federal court guidance.” 

Rothert said the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic and potentially deadly impacts of allowing evictions to proceed should warrant a limited intervention of the federal court to stop new eviction filings. 

“While we recognize such relief is available in limited circumstances, we are disappointed that the judge did not think it justified here,” Rothert said.

Tuesday’s ruling only addressed their motion for a preliminary injunction, he said, and the case remains ongoing.

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.