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Lawsuit Alleges State Courts Are Ignoring Eviction Moratoriums

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A lawsuit filed last week alleges that North Carolina courts are ignoring state and federal orders to limit evictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Gov. Roy Cooper have ordered a halt to evictions until Dec. 31 for people who can't pay rent because they've lost jobs or income because of the pandemic. But that's not happening, said Isaac Sturgill of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

"It's unfortunate to see that even tenants that should be protected by the CDC order and the governor's order are being evicted anyway, in spite of it," Sturgill said.

Legal Aid of North Carolina filed the suit at the state court in Wake County last week on behalf of a Durham woman who is facing eviction and the tenant advocacy group Action NC. It names Durham Superior Court clerk Archie Smith and two officials with the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts - assistant counsel Nicole Brinkley and director McKinley Wooten.

The suit seeks an immediate halt to evictions protected by the state and federal orders. And it wants the state Administrative Office of the Courts to order local courts to comply with the moratoriums.

A spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts declined to comment.

Durham Eviction Looming

The suit alleges that the Durham woman, Judith Capell, is about to be evicted even though she has properly invoked the CDC order by informing her landlord and the court that her financial troubles are related to the pandemic.

Capell and her partner both lost their jobs - she at a food service company and he at an auto parts store - and they've had difficulty keeping up with their full $950 a month rent. They're appealing an eviction order but have been unable to put up the required appeal bond, so they're in danger of being locked out soon, according to the suit.

Sturgill said other tenants statewide are also being evicted, despite the state and federal orders. He said Legal Aid would have liked to include other plaintiffs, but wanted to file the suit quickly since the moratoriums are ending soon.

Sturgill said about 8,000 eviction cases are pending in North Carolina courts, but he said it's not clear how many people have been evicted improperly.

Sturgill said state court administrators have basically told court clerks to ignore the orders. In a September email to clerks across the state, the Administrative Office of the Court said the CDC Order "does not change clerks' current process" of handling eviction actions, including issuing eviction orders.

And Sturgill said orders are being enforced unevenly.

"We've got some sheriff's deputies who are not carrying out evictions, while other ones are. We have magistrates and judges who are hearing these cases, applying the law inconsistently in some circumstances. So, it kind of depends on, you know, where you live as far as whether you get the protections or not," Sturgill said.

Many landlords are struggling, too, as tenants have trouble paying their rent. The CDC and state orders do not mean rent payments are canceled. They just delay enforcement of nonpayment until after Dec. 31. That means we could see a wave of evictions early in the new year.

State and federal officials and tenant advocates have urged people to do what they can to keep up with payments. State and local assistance is available to ensure that landlords get paid. But some landlords pursue evictions anyway, because of unpaid rent or other reasons not related to the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

Sturgill said Legal Aid of North Carolina is seeing an avalanche of calls to its helpline from people facing eviction and other pandemic-related crises.

"There was a time about a week or two ago where our central intake unit, which is the office that takes the calls all across the state, was reporting over 1,000 calls per day, and the majority of those were housing cases. And that's a record high. We've never had our intake be so busy," Sturgill said.

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