PHILADELPHIA BAR ASSOCIATION RESOLUTION ADDRESSING THE IMPACT OF EVICTION RECORDS ON ACCESS TO STABLE, AFFORDABLE HOUSING

WHEREAS, the Philadelphia Bar Association has a long history of supporting legislation and policies that help low-income and vulnerable tenants secure and maintain their housing and provide them with legal representation; and

WHEREAS, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, evictions were one of the leading causes of homelessness in the United States, and a May 2019 report by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found that, on average, 3.6 million eviction cases are filed in the United States each year, resulting in approximately 1.5 million eviction judgments annually;1 and

WHEREAS, since 2015, approximately 113,000 evictions were filed in Philadelphia’s Municipal Court, impacting approximately 1 in 14 renters in Philadelphia;2 and

WHEREAS, even before the pandemic, Philadelphia had a landlord-tenant crisis and lacked enough suitable affordable housing; and

WHEREAS, people with eviction records suffer from pervasive and lifelong discrimination in many areas of life – employment, housing, education, and eligibility for many forms of social benefits;3 and

WHEREAS, multiple studies demonstrate that African Americans and women face the highest rates of eviction filings, as do people with disabilities and other protected classes; and

WHEREAS, more than 34% of tenants with an eviction filing in Philadelphia between 2010 and 2020 had a default judgment entered against them, while over half of all legal evictions are the result of a default judgment entered against a tenant;4 and

WHEREAS, tenants often fail to appear in court for reasons beyond their control and, according to the Reducing Default Judgments report by the Sheller Center, the five most common reasons cited by tenants who tried to open up a default judgment were “lack of notice, medical issues, childcare problems, lateness, and difficulty finding the courthouse and courtroom;”5 and

WHEREAS, a study published by University of Pennsylvania Law School in February 2021 examined 170,000 leases filed in support of Philadelphia eviction proceedings from 2005 to 2019, finding an increase in illegal and unenforceable terms in residential leases during the time period, and that geography and race affected the terms given to tenants and Black tenants were more likely to receive lease terms that make them vulnerable to eviction;6 and

WHEREAS, a landlord can file an eviction case against a tenant based on alleged breaches of such illegal or unenforceable terms; and

WHEREAS, in Philadelphia, the public court record of an eviction case filing is not sealable and is available to a prospective landlord, regardless of the outcome of the case; and

WHEREAS, in Pennsylvania, tenants cannot get the record of an eviction filing sealed or expunged, even when the judgment is satisfied or vacated, the case is withdrawn, or a judgment is entered in favor of the tenant; and

WHEREAS, many jurisdictions have laws and rules providing for the expungement or sealing of eviction records to help mitigate the harmful consequences of eviction and improve access to housing, including Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, the District of Columbia and Cleveland; and

WHEREAS, the mere filing of a court proceeding by or against a tenant, without regard to the ultimate results of the proceeding, has in many cases been used by prospective landlords and tenant screening agencies as the sole or primary reason for denying an application for a residential tenancy, or the preparation of a report which views the tenant unfavorably; and

WHEREAS, the result is that otherwise worthy applicants are being denied access to critically-needed housing, often severely limiting their housing options and subjecting them to possible homelessness, which can occur even if the actions which triggered the case filing were based upon common law or statutory remedies, such as rent withholding in the case of serious, even life-threatening deficiencies in the living conditions of the rented dwelling; and

WHEREAS, tenants who assert and rely upon valid legal defenses or established legal rights, or who otherwise prevail through litigation, settlement or dismissal, can nevertheless find their ability to move to and obtain another rental unit seriously compromised, causing serious difficulty for individuals and families applying for rental housing, and in some circumstances resulting in homelessness; and

WHEREAS, the unregulated use of eviction filings in tenant screening also has a serious “chilling effect” on tenants’ assertion and exercise of their statutory and common law rights, a result that is contrary to public policy; and

WHEREAS, in June 2018, the Mayor’s Eviction Prevention Task Force called for action on eviction records in its final report;7 and

WHEREAS, to further the interests of justice and fundamental fairness, changes should be implemented in local and statewide rules, procedures and practices to restrict access to eviction records in landlord-tenant cases that are dismissed by the court or decided in favor of the tenant; and

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Philadelphia Bar Association urges the Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Court of Common Pleas and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to do the following in response to the impact of eviction records on housing opportunities:

  • Work with judicial, City, and legal stakeholders to implement procedural and policy changes that allow parties to enter court-enforced settlement agreements without judgments attached, which are particularly appropriate in circumstances where a tenant has moved out of a property, and/or where an agreement has been reached regarding imminent payment of back rent or return of a security deposit; and
  • Propose administrative rule changes to the Minor Court Rules Committee or through statewide rule making process under Pennsylvania Rules of Judicial Administration Rule 103 and/or state legislative changes to allow the Philadelphia Municipal Court to seal evictions and corresponding civil matters between a landlord and a tenant in the interest of justice, placing restrictions on accessing eviction records for cases that were dismissed by the court or that were decided in favor of the tenant.

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Philadelphia Bar Association authorizes the Chancellor and/or the Chancellor's designee(s) to advocate for the creation and enactment of statewide legislation for eviction sealing that would restrict access to eviction records in landlord-tenant cases that are dismissed by the court or decided in favor of the tenant.

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Chancellor and/or the Chancellor's designee(s) shall communicate the Philadelphia Bar Association's position to the Courts, the General Assembly, the Governor, the Mayor, City Council, the legal profession, the media, and the public and take whatever additional action is necessary to effectuate this resolution.

PHILADELPHIA BAR ASSOCIATION
BOARD OF GOVERNORS
ADOPTED: August 26, 2021


1 Ashley Gromis, Eviction: Intersection of Poverty, Inequality, and Housing, Eviction Lab, Princeton University (May 2019); cited by CDC Eviction Moratorium extension order, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/pdf/CDC_Eviction_Extension_Order_Final_06242021.pdf

2 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Breaking the Record: Dismantling the Barriers Eviction Records Place on Housing Opportunities (November 2020), https://clsphila.org/housing/report-eviction-record-policy/; Julia Teruso, Why 1 in 14 Philly renters faces eviction every year, Philadelphia Inquirer (April 19, 2018), https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/eviction-philadelphia-poverty-broke-in-philly-solutions-20180418.html

3 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Breaking the Record: Dismantling the Barriers Eviction Records Place on Housing Opportunities (November 2020), https://clsphila.org/housing/report-eviction-record-policy/

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5 Sheller Center for Social Justice, Temple University Beasley School of Law, Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court, https://www2.law.temple.edu/csj/publication/reducing-default-judgments-in-philadelphias-landlord-tenant-court/

6 David Hoffman and Anton Strezhnev, University of Pennsylvania, Leases as Forms (February 2021) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3786326

7 Mayor’s Eviction Prevention Task Force Report and Recommendations, June 2018, https://www.phila.gov/hhs/PDF/Mayors%20Task%20Force%20on%20Eviction%20Prevention%20and%20Response-Report.pdf