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With her phone in hand, Gabrielle Diamond walked through her house to show the judge from the Jackson County 16th Circuit Court her current living conditions. It was October, and Diamond was participating in a court hearing for a possible eviction by video call.
But Diamond, 20, had internet problems. The judge couldn’t clearly see what was happening on the video.
“Not getting to interact with people in person, it makes things more awkward …(when) I’m in person, I can get my words out better,” Diamond said. “The WebEx hearing made me feel like I didn’t really get to say what I needed to say, so I wasn’t really being heard by the judge.”
As COVID-19 cases rise throughout the Kansas City metro area, tenants like Diamond have been attending eviction hearings via video calls despite a federal eviction moratorium by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether it’s joining on their laptops or cellphones, what would normally be an in-person appearance at the 16th Circuit Courthouse downtown has transitioned onto completely remote platforms where the judge, plaintiffs, defendants and their attorneys interact virtually.
Since Jackson County’s eviction moratorium expired at the end of May, landlords have filed 2,227 housing petitions — including those involving nonpayment of rent and lease violations — according to data provided by the court.
But for many, holding digital-only court proceedings where tenants face the prospect of potentially losing their housing in the middle of a pandemic is a catch-22.
“If you don’t have a phone, you’re forced to go to court, and then take that physical risk,” said Gina Chiala, executive director and staff attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom.
“A lot of the tenants we work with are not physically healthy. So it’s a dangerous situation. And all the tenants we represent, for the most part, belong to those most vulnerable… (with) very serious health consequences if they contract the virus.”
‘No excuse for evictions’
Diamond and her fiance work in retail. Their hours have been cut because of the pandemic, and as a result, they’ve fallen behind on rent.
Now, not only is Diamond worried about contracting COVID-19 at work — she’s also worried about losing her home.
“It’s hard having to think if we’re going to be homeless again or not,” she said — the couple was evicted from their home last December. “And having to worry about that on a daily basis.”
Judges at the Jackson County 16th Circuit Court have been holding remote proceedings via teleconference or video calls following a March order issued by the Missouri Supreme Court. Judges can still hold in-person hearings, particularly when the remote alternatives fail, become unavailable or when disruptions interrupt remote proceedings.
The current CDC federal eviction moratorium will expire Dec. 31. The policy only prohibits evictions on the basis of nonpayment of rent, and tenants must first sign a declaration form demonstrating a loss of income making them unable to pay rent and then provide it to their landlord. The CDC order does not prohibit landlords from starting eviction proceedings altogether.
But judges’ interpretations of the order’s protections vary by state.
In response to the CDC order, Judge David M. Byrn, presiding judge at the 16th Circuit Court, issued an administrative order that does not prohibit a landlord from pursuing an eviction under certain circumstances. The order states that landlords seeking an eviction must file a “Verification” form with the court confirming that the tenant did not provide a completed copy of the CDC declaration form. The order also allows landlords to “challenge the accuracy or veracity” of a submitted CDC form and request a court hearing.
The Jackson County Court established an eviction moratorium from March to May 31. Since then, the 16th Circuit Court, and courts throughout Missouri, have continued to hear eviction cases.
According to data provided by the Jackson County Circuit Court, 1,024 writs for housing evictions have been issued since June by the Civil Records Department. When an order from a judge requires a tenant to leave their house, a writ is filed, making that judgement actionable.
Though Missouri has continued courts to hold eviction hearings, that’s not the case in other states. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order putting a suspension on evictions. In Washington, D.C., the city council suspended eviction proceedings for any reason — not just nonpayment of rent.
In Kansas, an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly extended a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until Jan. 26, 2021, surpassing the CDC’s federal eviction moratorium. The Kansas Eviction Protection Program also allows both landlords and tenants to apply for payments to make up late rental payments going back to April 1, 2020.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for evictions to be occurring right now during a global pandemic,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, a housing advocacy group in Kansas City. “One of the foremost pieces of guidance that we’ve received is that we should stay in our homes in order to keep ourselves and our communities healthy.”
Obstacles in the process
Diamond attended a second eviction hearing in November. That time, Diamond said the judge required her to appear in person at the Jackson County Courthouse.
“It was very, very strange the way they have it set up,” Diamond said, adding that the judge wasn’t wearing a mask. “… But I mean, it was more open, and I feel like I could get what my side of the case was out.”
Tenants who appear in person for their hearings sit outside the courtroom doors, waiting for the sheriff to call their name when the judge is ready to hear their case. The courtrooms now are barren — a stark contrast to the traditional hustle and bustle — save for the sheriff, administrative aides, a few attorneys and the judge, who is seated behind a layer of plexiglass. Tenants, landlords or attorneys who join remotely appear on a large monitor screen in front of the judge’s podium.
Despite the option of remote hearings, tenants like Diamond still appear in person at the courthouse, either because the judge has ordered them to or because a remote hearing is not feasible. But attorneys and advocates with KC Tenants say remote hearings can be riddled with problems that disadvantage tenants.
The potential for due process violations, particularly when a person is denied the right to present evidence in defense, is the subject of a lawsuit filed in the Missouri Supreme Court by ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-based legal advocacy organization, on behalf of a disabled veteran in St. Louis, Eddie Logan. According to the case, Logan attempted to deliver evidence to the eviction court in St. Louis three times but was consistently turned away because of COVID-19 restrictions. He mailed the evidence instead.
On the day of his trial in August, Logan couldn’t join by video, so he joined from his wife’s telephone instead. He ultimately lost his case.
But it’s not just access to appropriate technology that poses an obstacle. By not appearing at the courthouse, tenants also miss the opportunity to speak with attorneys and ask for legal advice or representation.
“Because tenants aren’t coming to court in person, they have less access to us,” Chiala said, adding that a representative from the Heartland Center makes an announcement about legal services during remote hearings. “So we make an announcement on the docket, but it’s insufficient. It’s different from being able to talk to a tenant face to face in court — that’s a much better process.”
Maura Weber, staff attorney at Legal Aid of Western Missouri, said even the practice of joining a remote hearing can be a scary experience for tenants overall.
“It’s new for people. And so it’s scary trying to figure out how to call in for WebEx,” Weber said. “If you don’t trust your phone connection, it’s scary. And so just being there, in person, for such an important thing going on in your life makes sense.”
‘This is not justice’
Waiting for her virtual hearing in October, Diamond felt nervous.
“My heart was racing, I was sweating,” she said.
Then, in the middle of the proceeding, a voice interrupted.
“No one should be evicted during a pandemic. This is not justice. This is not due process,” Diamond heard over the phone. “This is violence. All evictions must end.”
The disruption was part of a series of direct actions hosted by KC Tenants that shut down remote eviction proceedings for tenants like Diamond.
“I felt the hope again,” Diamond said. “I felt like I had somebody to back me, to say the things that I wanted to say that I was afraid to say.”
But in the group’s last action, Raghuveer said judges limited the people allowed into the video call to only those directly involved in the landlord tenant proceedings. Judges permitted a Beacon reporter to sit in on remote eviction proceedings Nov. 12. That afternoon, judges removed any person who disrupted the online proceedings.
Judge Mary Weir, who hears eviction cases in the 16th Circuit Court, ended remote eviction proceedings in early November due to disruptions from KC Tenants. The week before Thanksgiving, Weir announced she will no longer hear eviction cases for the rest of the year. Other judges who preside over landlord-tenant proceedings are still hearing eviction cases remotely.
Diamond is scheduled for another hearing this month. In November, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit from KC Tenants and the American Civil Liberties Union requesting that the Jackson County Circuit Court end eviction lawsuits. And with the CDC moratorium expiring at the end of the year, Diamond said elected officials need to take action.
“They need to actually set a moratorium and show that they care,” Diamond said.
“Because if they don’t, then we’re just going to continue to die.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.