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As Evictions Set To Begin Again, Mecklenburg County Small Claims Court Readies For Rise In Cases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's eviction moratorium expires at the end of the month. After that, tenants behind on the rent will be faced with evictions. The Census Bureau's latest Household Pulse Surveyfinds more than 225,000 tenants in North Carolina are behind on the rent. Many of those in the Charlotte area will likely end up in Mecklenburg County's small claims court, where eviction cases are heard.

Katrina Watson is one of the magistrates that handles those cases. As part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's "Morning Edition" co-host Marshall Terry caught up with her to find out how evictions are playing out in the courthouse.

Marshall Terry: Let's go back to before the pandemic. How busy was a typical day handling evictions?

Katrina Watson, Mecklenburg County magistrate judge
Katrina Watson, Mecklenburg County magistrate

Katrina Watson: Small claims can be very busy when it comes to summary judgment cases or eviction cases. With some of our law firms that serve as counsel for landlords in those cases, we can sometimes have 200 cases a day per courtroom.

Terry: How did that change when the courts shut down during the early months of the pandemic?

Watson: There were transitions that were made where the maximum was 20 cases per hour per courtroom for morning sessions, which would be three sessions. So, 60 cases a day. And that was not every day. But when we did have them, that was usually the case.

Terry: There's a perception that evictions completely stopped during the pandemic. Was that the case?

Watson: No, that was not the case. Many evictions were "stayed" due to the CDC declaration. Those cases were cases that dealt with failure to pay rent. However, there are other theories that landlords can utilize in order to seek eviction, such as criminal activity and breach of a lease.

Terry: Did you see an increase in those types of evictions during the pandemic?

Watson: I would say that we saw some more. I'm not sure what the numbers are, but we did see some more.

Terry: Evictions can seem to be pretty cut and dry: a tenant can't pay rent, so the landlord evicts that person. Is that the case, though, that it is that cut and dry?

Watson: No. Sometimes there are other things that come into play, such as the CDC declaration. When there is a failure to pay rent case, many tenants have been handing in a CDC declaration which stays the case until after June 30. In other cases, there are tenants who have defenses such as maybe there was something that made the property uninhabitable and that may work to their advantage in court.

"The cases in the past year have been somewhat challenging for everyone — for the landlords, for the tenants, for the court."
Katrina Watson, Mecklenburg County magistrate

Terry: Are there any stories behind the cases that you've heard in the past year that have stuck with you?

Watson: You know, the cases in the past year have been somewhat challenging for everyone — for the landlords, for the tenants, for the court. What we're seeing is that many people are coming into court and they just want to keep their integrity intact. Many know that they owe monies, but they want an opportunity to be heard.

They want to state in court that "I'm not a person that doesn't usually pay monies that I owe. But this has been a unique situation and this has been a challenging situation." And those statements are coming from both tenants and landlords.

Terry: Did the circumstances of the pandemic influence any of your rulings?

Watson: I don't know if it influenced any of my rulings because many times the plaintiffs are there presenting the case, presenting what they view as the facts. And it depends on what the tenant or defendant brings up as a defense. So I can't say that per se. I can say that there have been cases where I've had to continue the cases because there's been some effect due to COVID-19.

Terry: Has the pandemic influenced the way you think about eviction cases in general?

Watson: I think that it has influenced everyone to the extent that I hear even plaintiffs in many cases wanting to make sure that tenants are aware of opportunities that are out there for charitable contributions and for assistance, whether it be through the HOPE Program, through Ramp (CLT), through Crisis (Assistance Ministry) — whatever help is available out there. I think everyone is providing information, including the court.

Terry: What are you expecting after the eviction moratorium does expire at the end of the month?

Watson: I'm expecting a lot of cases, unfortunately. We're preparing for that just in case that is the situation. From the beginning, we've been encouraging parties to try to mediate out their situations. Even now in court, several of the magistrates, including myself, give the parties an opportunity to speak before we move toward a hearing or trial to see if something can be worked out. And I'm hoping that that will be the case. But if not, then I'm sure that our numbers, our dockets, will increase.

Terry: You said you're preparing for an increase in eviction cases. What sorts of things are you doing?

Watson: Well, there have been changes as far as the COVID-19 protocols, of course, as far as keeping people in the courtroom safely. However, maybe not the distance at that we had before. Also, we're preparing in terms of keeping ourselves educated. And also there's some work being done towards the possibility of remote virtual hearings in small claims court.

"I'm expecting a lot of cases, unfortunately. We're preparing for that just in case that is the situation."
Katrina Watson, Mecklenburg County magistrate

Terry: What are you hoping for in the weeks and months following the lifting of the eviction moratorium?

Watson: I'm hoping that more and more cases will be mediated, that people will find and have an opportunity to work the situation out. We're finding that in many of the cases we've had during the moratorium, during the pandemic, that landlords have been seeking possession of the premises, more so than the monies. However, tenants remain responsible for the monies. So I'm hoping that they'll be able to mediate many of those cases out.

Terry: What would you say to renters who are behind on the rent and could be facing eviction in a couple of weeks?

Watson: I would say do everything you can to educate yourself, to see what opportunities are available to you. If you need to seek legal counsel, to do that. If you are unable to afford legal counsel to call Legal Aid or an organization that will be able to assist you. Contact the HOPE Program, contact Ramp, contact Crisis. See what is available to you and be educated on what will help you once you need to appear in court — and perhaps even before you have to appear in court. Because there's always the possibility that your case can be dismissed prior to that.

Terry: Thank you for taking the time and joining us today.

Watson: You're quite welcome. Thank you for asking us.

Terry: Katrina Watson is a magistrate in small claims court in Mecklenburg County, where evictions are heard.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.