Housing Court Moves Quickly to Change Processes During COVID-19

Facing what many believed would be a catastrophic situation with evictions and Housing Court proceedings due to COVID-19, the state’s Housing Court reinvented its way of doing business last summer and fall and now – since re-opening for filings last October – have a system that is more user-friendly and provides more protections for all parties.

It’s even a system that has modernized the court in short order, and many of the changes could continue long after the pandemic, said Chief Justice Tim Sullivan.

“It really is incredible how COVID-19 protocols have forced us to do things differently, but also opened our eyes to some possibilities for the future,” said Sullivan in a recent interview. “After we get through this difficult time, we’re already starting to talk about some things that are improving access…We’ve had to think differently and accommodate the litigant population in ways that before the pandemic were probably unthinkable. Some procedures may remain and may be implemented long-term.”

Deputy Court Administrator Benjamin Adeyinka said a lot of changes that were made over the past few months will make things easier for landlords and tenants to access the Housing Court divisions. Though there was some early pushback, most everyone now agrees the changes have helped smooth out the process in the wake of the pandemic.

“There was some trepidation at first,” he said. “However, through time people have commented that this is a good way to do business. People have adapted. If you think of individuals that have to take a bus or a train to get to a court house, this is a safer way…We’re getting great feedback.”

The courts in Massachusetts are perennially one of the most difficult to change their procedures, as they are time-honored, and legal matters are spelled out in state law. Changes can’t happen without great discussion or contemplation – and great amounts of time. However, that all changed during the pandemic when courthouses could not open, but life also had to move forward. A series of Standing Orders have helped to usher in new ways of adapting.

Chief Sullivan said the first change was actually made prior to the pandemic, when they made e-filing mandatory for some cases in January 2020.

“Little did we know we would depend on it so much and need to expand it,” said Sullivan.

That was followed by creating a virtual clerk’s counter online to assist tenants and landlords – a new system that sought to replicate the in-person process that has played out for generations inside the courthouse. Using Zoom, court employees were able to assist in any manner that they would in person in all divisions of the court.

“That’s really been a big help,” said Sullivan.

Other changes included getting cell phones for all employees, including leadership and staff; implementing language interpretive services via Zoom; and relaxing filing requirements so cases could be submitted by e-mail and documents could be deposited in a drop box at the courthouse. In a work of major transparency, they also established a Dashboard online for all courts, including housing court, to see up-to-date statistics about evictions cases by zip code and courthouse. No statistics readily available existed prior to that Dashboard.

At the same time, they have collaborated in an unprecedented way with other stakeholders, such as community organizations that are on the ground in places like Everett and Chelsea. That has also included a cooperation between the three courts that can handle eviction cases, those being Housing Court, Superior Court and the District Courts – a partnership which has maintained vigilance across the judicial landscape on housing matters.

“It’s been quite an experience for everyone in the courts and in the litigant population as well,” said Sullivan. “We’re trying to encourage these changes as much as possible to increase access and remain user-friendly…It’s really been a time of great work and enormous change in a short period of time. We’re really now trying to help landlords and tenants get up to date on all these changes.”

However, some of the most impactful changes have come from the Post Pandemic Planning Committee chaired by Housing Court Judge Fairlie Dalton, and including others such as Clerk Magistrates, Housing Specialists and other judges. They started their work in May to prepare for what COVID-19 might bring in terms of economic disruptions that could unlock a waterfall of eviction – known as Summary Process – cases coming into Housing Court.

One of the changes was to create a two-tiered trial date system. Instead of day one in Housing Court being your trial date, the court moved to a two-tiered system to help mediate cases before actually going before a judge. If it cannot be mediated, day two becomes the trial date.

“Day one now becomes a status day and not a trial day and it allows litigants to sit down on Zoom with landlords and tenants and a housing specialist, which can help mediate their case if there’s an opportunity,” said Sullivan. “If there’s a resolution, it’s written out and signed electronically and approved by a judge. If there’s no resolution, day two becomes a trial day and that happens within two weeks.”

Sullivan and Adeyinka said that has given both parties the opportunity to work cooperatively with Housing Specialists from the court, and to identify resources that can be applied to the situation. Many times, the first hearing can be a way to steer both parties to a local court partner that can help both to apply for the state RAFT rental assistance program – or other resources as well.

Overall, it’s been a great change that has probably helped to head off many cases before they progressed too far, and helped both the landlord and tenant to find a fair middle.

Another new piece has been the now-required Attestation Form mandated by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). If a landlord wants to file for non-payment of rent, this new form has to be delivered to the tenant before a case can be accepted at Housing Court.

“We cannot even enter a case if we don’t have proof they delivered their Attestation Form,” said Adeyinka.

Sullivan said, so far, they are down about 50 percent in case filings across all divisions, but they realize that is likely because of the moratorium on filings that was in place until October. They also realize there has been an uptick in filings since that time. Some areas have seen more filings than others, and places like Everett and Chelsea have seen fewer filings than other areas outside of Greater Boston.

Sullivan said there’s no real way to tell why that has happened, but he did say that the further out one goes, the fewer resources that are available in the community to help curtail evictions. He pointed to the agreement by landlords in many Greater Boston communities to hold off on evictions if possible – to look for mediation, which he said they do see that in the court.

“I will say there seems to be a very healthy appetite by landlords and tenants to settle cases by agreement,” he said. “The lion’s share of cases coming in are being resolved by agreement.”

The quick pivot by a traditionally slower moving institution like the courts is a testament to the staff, Sullivan said. He said he is immensely proud of how Housing Court staff have moved online and moved to be fair to everyone.

“It’s amazing how much the work of our staff has been able to help people,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about people’s ability to adapt in these circumstances. I’m very proud and uplifted by what our staff at every division has been able to do and has done so by maintaining impartiality.”

And as far as keeping some of the “silver linings” that have emerged in Housing Court during COVID-19, Sullivan said they are already beginning to talk about that as well.

“We’ve not gotten to a decision yet, but it’s an initial conversation we’re having now and when COVID lifts, we will probably have a more substantial conversation with our leadership,” said Sullivan.

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