Investigations

Remote eviction proceedings are violating the rights of hundreds of Louisville tenants after the location of virtual eviction hearings was changed without notifying defendants, according to a new lawsuit filed in federal court on Monday.

The complaint, which was filed by the Kentucky Equal Justice Center and is seeking class action status, is asking a federal judge to stop all eviction proceedings until the county court can guarantee “the minimum possible fairness required by the United States Constitution.”

The suit alleges tenants scheduled for eviction hearings in Jefferson County District Court were denied fair public hearings in violation of their rights.

“We need to be making eviction hearings uniform, safe and fair so evictions are vanishingly rare during a pandemic,” said Ben Carter, an attorney with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

“What we saw last week was the court violating constitutional rights, which is the last thing people should be doing right now.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered court hearings to be held remotely. The Jefferson County District Court, which holds eviction court meetings on Zoom, sent participants information to call in by Zoom or phone.

The complaint alleges that on January 25, the court changed the Zoom number without notifying tenants. Since failure to appear at a hearing tends to result in a default judgment against the renter, a failure to notify tenants about location changes can create devastating outcomes.

The plaintiffs are Louisville residents Toni Floyd and Cheri Nicholson, who were “delayed, confused, and misdirected” by the court, the suit claims. After appearing late to their Zoom eviction hearings, both received judgments of eviction. 

According to the complaint, Floyd was laid off in December after an extended illness and months of on-and-off employment during the pandemic. On the morning of her Zoom eviction hearing, she called the number provided by the Jefferson District Court and was told by a recorded voice that the host had not yet started the meeting, according to the complaint. After a few minutes of waiting, Floyd was disconnected from the meeting. For the next halfhour, Floyd repeatedly tried calling the court directly to gain entry to the meeting.

She eventually tracked down the right call number and password. But upon entry into the virtual hearing, a judge told her she was too late: the case had already been called and judgment had already been entered. She was required to vacate the home within seven days. 

Floyd and Nicholson, who the complaint says was late to her hearing for similar reasons, were later contacted by the Legal Aid Society, which was listening to the proceedings. 

According to documents filed by the plaintiffs, the district court has “recently” changed the information provided to individuals facing eviction, instructing them to visit the court website to find remote courtroom information. But the lawsuit alleges this isn’t sufficient notice.

The suit also claims that the court “took no action to vacate those judgments and reschedule the hearings” for a later date.

“When eviction proceedings are entirely remote, changing the phone number to call to access a Zoom Eviction Hearing is the online analog to changing the physical location of the hearing,” the suit states. “The problem is not that the Court doesn’t know about the problem. The problem is that the Jefferson County District Court doesn’t think obvious violations of people’s most basic due process rights is actually a problem.”

Judge Anne Haynie, who is named as defendant, recently served as chief district judge for Jefferson County, a role now filled by District Judge Annette Karem. A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts said Kentucky judges are prohibited from commenting on pending matters.

The suit also argues eviction proceedings pose public health problems, since evictions are “a primary driver of the ongoing spread” of COVID-19. A recent analysis from researchers at Duke University estimated that local policies limiting evictions during the pandemic reduced the number of COVID-19 cases by 3.8% and deaths by 11%. The researchers also estimated that, if eviction moratoria had been implemented nationwide in March, deaths might have decreased by as much as 40.7%.

Hundreds of eviction hearings are scheduled in Kentucky over the coming weeks.

President Biden signed an executive order barring evictions over nonpayment through March 31. To qualify, renters must present their landlord with a declaration form stating their income would be no more than $99,000 for the year, and that the renter would likely become homeless or would need to share a residence with others in close quarters if their home were lost. 

Floyd signed and submitted that form when her landlord initiated eviction against her in January, according to the suit, which did not stop the eviction judgment against her.

“Evictions are a public health threat right now,” Carter said, and Louisvillians should think of an eviction moratorium as “one of the most effective things to do to keep everyone safe right now.”