Articles Tagged with COVID

In 1951, the New Jersey State Legislature codified the Summary Dispossess Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-53, et. seq., in order to afford the Courts a fast, efficient and fair way of handling Landlord Tenant disputes. In 1974, the vast majority of Landlord Tenant disputes, which involve residential tenants, became guided by the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1, et. seq., which sets forth special procedures for dealing with residential disputes, while still allowing the Court to follow the efficient procedure of the Summary Dispossess Act. For the past 70 years, the New Jersey Courts have operated fairly and efficiently with regard to landlord tenant proceedings. Utilizing this process, the Courts have heard the vast majority of cases within 4 weeks of the date of filing. In cases in which a Judgment for Possession has been entered, the Courts have allowed landlords to schedule lockouts to occur within about 2 weeks of the Court date (or the date when the settlement is breached).

However, on March 16, 2020, the Court’s generally efficient manner of handling landlord tenant disputes was suspended, in favor of avoiding the prospect of having tenants evicted during a pandemic. The theory behind suspending evictions was generally based on the notion that an evicted tenant would inevitably need to move in with friends or family, thus increasing the likelihood that the pandemic would spread. It was also based on the reality that, as a result of people losing jobs during the pandemic, there would be a “tsunami of evictions” once the State resumed conducting these hearings. Hence the State has allowed 14 ½ months to pass (as of the date of this article), in which no evictions (except those filed based on extreme emergencies) have been allowed to occur. During this time period, more than 80,000 evictions have been filed, and there is still no clear plan as to what will happen when the Courts re-open.

In the meantime, several tenant advocacy groups have seized upon the confusion caused by the pandemic to propose new legislation to “improve” the operation of the New Jersey landlord tenant courts. The proposals include requiring mandatory case management conferences and settlement conferences, which would be scheduled to occur prior to the Court date. These proposed measures really have nothing to do with the pandemic and if they are enacted by the New Jersey Supreme Court, they will become a permanent part of landlord tenant law. I recently met with several members of the New Jersey Special Civil Part Committee, for purposes of assembling recommendations to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding the future of Landlord Tenant law. However, during the meeting, I found that the faction of the Committee, who represented tenants, really had no interest in agreeing to any of the recommendations of the rest of the Committee. These members could not be reasoned with and they were rather obstinate when presented with the viewpoint that the proposed changes to Landlord Tenant law were really just a tactic to further delay evictions.

In the wake of the financial disaster created by the COVID pandemic, many New Jersey landlords and tenants have become familiar with Executive Order 106, which states that no lockouts of residential tenants can occur until two months after the State of Emergency has ended.  As of the date of our last blog, it appeared that the State of Emergency would end in early July.  However, after two extensions, the State of Emergency is now scheduled to expire in September.  Of course, we cannot predict whether an additional extension will be granted, but it would be an understatement to say that we are very concerned.

Concurrent to the State of Emergency is the fact that the Courts simply cannot open due to safety concerns. Consequently, if you are one of the unlucky landlords who filed your matter after the middle of February and your matter did not get reached before the Courts closed on March 16, you may be waiting a very long time for your matter to get scheduled for trial.  We estimate that there are currently 45,000 Landlord Tenant cases in the New Jersey Courts that are still waiting for trial dates.

In the meantime, the Court is also eager to resume hearing cases and they have considered alternate ways to do so.  These methods include online hearings for those litigants who have access to computers.

During the past several weeks, our office has fielded hundreds of phone calls and emails from anxious clients (and concerned attorneys), who have all been wondering when we will resume having landlord tenant trials in New Jersey.  Unfortunately, as of now, there is still no plan as to when (and how) the Courts plan on scheduling landlord tenant trials, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  At this point, the decision is in the hands of the State Judiciary, which obviously has some very serious and legitimate concerns about ensuring the safety of their staff and the guests of the courthouses throughout New Jersey.  Consequently, on June 12, the Judiciary posted their Fourth Omnibus Order Fourth Omnibus Order, which establishes a schedule for resuming some Court operations, but with regard to Landlord Tenant matters, the Order sets forth that “trials continue to be suspended until further notice.”

Clearing the Backlog

Since the New Jersey Courts halted eviction hearings on March 16, they have accumulated more than 30,000 landlord tenant cases that are still waiting to be heard.  Clearing this backlog will be essential to the Court’s plan moving forward.  A few weeks ago, I participated in a conference call with the Judge and the staff of one vicinage, and the Court staff proposed that tenants would be given a survey to determine whether they would be available to appear in Court via an Internet conference.  By using this method, it has been the hope of the judiciary that a large percentage of their matters could avoid in person appearances.  Other courts have also proposed their own ideas, which have included staggering the role call times so that only a litigants would appear at a time.  In either case, it is clear that the prior method of conducting landlord tenant court, which has always involved several hundred people crowding into a room and waiting for their names to be called, will no longer work.