Madison County Court Allowed Eviction Cases To Proceed Despite Illinois' Statewide Ban
EDWARDSVILLE — Madison County Circuit Court has allowed landlords to file hundreds of eviction cases despite an order from the governor banning filings during the coronavirus pandemic.
In late April, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker barred individuals and organizations from filing residential eviction actions in court to help keep people who may have fallen behind on rent for their homes during the state’s stay-at-home orders.
“The ongoing public health emergency requires further action to prevent the initiation of residential eviction proceedings,” Pritzker wrote in his April 23 executive order.
But Madison County’s 3rd Circuit Court has continued to accept eviction filings. Some landlords filed new eviction suits with the court as early as April 27, according to court records.
Circuit Court Chief Judge Bill Mudge told St. Louis Public Radio the governor’s order is subject to interpretation and has been contradicted by other court orders and the federal government. He said that his court has allowed eviction filings but that only cases that meet exceptions to the governor’s order are being carried out.
In an emailed statement, Mudge said eviction judges Tom Chapman and Clarence Harrison moved forward with cases earlier this year after a May 22 order from the Illinois Supreme Court allowed courts to start hearing cases again.
“There are varying interpretations of what is permissible and what is not,” Mudge wrote. “Reasonable minds may disagree on this point.”
Mudge said the court received various and sometimes “ambiguous and conflicting eviction directives” from the governor, the Illinois Supreme Court and the federal government.
“No orders entered in the past several months were done so with any purposeful defiance of these ever-changing directives or orders,” he wrote.
“This whole ordeal has taken a toll on my health. I don’t know what to do, I’ve never had an eviction in my life. Ever.”
Cases continue to be filed
Landlords have filed nearly 200 eviction cases with the Madison County Circuit Court since the governor’s moratorium, with some already ending with judgments ordering that tenants pay back rent and be evicted.
In at least one case, court documents show the Madison County Sheriff's Department executed an eviction order in early August. The department confirmed it carried out the order.
On Friday, Mudge issued an order that stays all eviction orders in the county until Jan. 1.
The decision to continue eviction proceedings since April left renters confused and frustrated after thinking they were safe from official filings.
“I was seriously taken aback with receiving the eviction summons. I didn’t know what to do,” said Robert Johnson, a Granite City resident who received a court summons in late July. “At first I was like, ‘This has got to be a joke.’ Especially with the COVID going around.”
Court documents show Johnson, 56, consistently paid his monthly $485 rent in the months leading up to March, when the coronavirus gripped the region. His case is like many others reviewed by St. Louis Public Radio.
“Right now, they just want their money,” Johnson said. “I’m still at a loss for words for the whole thing.”
Hartmann Realtors Inc., which manages the property Johnson rents, is seeking about $2,000 in back rent and other fees. Johnson made partial rent payments starting in April with the help of a Granite City Township rent voucher, which covers $312 of his rent as long as he’s actively seeking employment, he said.
But the voucher isn’t enough, Johnson said. He added that Kristine Hartmann, the named plaintiff in his case, refuses to negotiate an alternative payment plan.
“With the pandemic and my health the way it is, she was like, ‘Too bad,’” he said. “She actually stated that if I can’t afford to live here then get out.”
Hartmann said the vouchers from Granite City were a step in the right direction but did not eliminate Johnson’s outstanding rent balance. She said she sent Johnson several links to different emergency rental assistance before filing for eviction.
“I don’t know there is anything more we can do,” Hartmann said. “I want everyone to be fully employed and able to pay rent. In this particular case he wasn’t.”
Johnson said he has issues with his lungs and heart, which increases his risk of complications if he catches the coronavirus. It's also made it harder for him to find employment right now, he said.
“This whole ordeal has taken a toll on my health. It’s caused some depression and anxiety,” he said. “I don’t know what to do, I’ve never had an eviction in my life. Ever.”
Hartmann filed eviction lawsuits against Johnson and 15 other tenants during the moratorium largely because the courts were accepting them, she said.
“They read it [the moratorium] the way I had read it — and most everyone in Madison County had read it — we weren’t able to actually physically evict these people, but we were able to file and they have their day in court,” she said.
Hartmann added she has at least 55 more cases where tenants are actively working to meet their rent. She said she could file those cases in the future.
“People were calling in tears because their expectations, just like our own, had been dashed. They thought they had been protected but clearly something went wrong.”
Except in special cases, eviction proceedings are still banned by subsequent executive orders from Pritzker. The current moratorium expires on Oct. 22.
Under the moratorium, landlords can only file an emergency eviction case if a tenant poses a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants, an immediate risk to the property or breaks a health ordinance or building code. The vast majority of evictions filed in Madison County since late April do not include motions citing these examples as a reason for evicting.
“It’s embarrassing to be evicted because of a world crisis,” said Charles Hill, a Wood River resident who is fighting the order against him. “My job put me on leave for the safety of me and my children, and I’m evicted for that? It was very humiliating.”
Hill, 29, had been working at the Alton location of Integrity Healthcare Communities, a nursing home, he said. He received his summons in late June after falling behind on rent payments because of the pandemic.
“As long as the coronavirus has been going, I’ve been behind on rent,” he said.
Hill’s case is one of many that reached a final judgment during the eviction ban. The judge in his case ordered that he and his family be evicted and that he pay his landlord, Elsie Palmer, $7,109. In court motions, Hill explained he was trying to find ways to pay his back rent, like through the state rental assistance program. But the judge rejected them.
“That’s a big slap in the face. That’s telling you that we don’t care you’re suffering from the coronavirus impact,” he said. “It’s like he [the judge] said for me and my kids to get out.”
Attorneys for Palmer did not respond to a request for comment.
Hill has not been evicted yet. He filed a motion to contest the eviction order, which is to be decided by a non-jury trial on Oct. 8.
Interpreting the ban
Madison County’s interpretation of Pritzker’s executive order runs counter to the way many lawyers, housing advocates and realtors across Illinois understand it.
“The moratorium was supposed to protect against the commencement of eviction actions,” said Chelsea Hubbard, an attorney with the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, which offers free legal services to seniors and low-income individuals. “My understanding of that word was cases should not be started through the filing of a petition or complaint for eviction.”
Jeff Baker, deputy chief executive officer of Illinois Realtors, advised his members act in a similar fashion.
“To comply with those executive orders means that evictions cannot be filed in court unless or until that executive order is changed or lifted,” he said.
Baker’s organization represents nearly 50,000 licensed real estate agents in the state.
A spokesperson for the governor confirmed Pritzker’s executive order prohibits the filing of an eviction action in court, but did not specify what, if any, consequences there are for courts or landlords who break the order. Circuit court in neighboring St. Clair County has not processed eviction cases for months.
Some renters contacted lawyers at the Land of Lincoln believing they were about to be evicted, Hubbard said.
“People were calling in tears because their expectations, just like our own at legal aid, had been dashed,” she said. “They thought they had been protected but clearly something went wrong.”
Lawyers in the organization had already been overwhelmed with illegal “self-help” evictions, where landlords attempt to force a tenant to move out by cutting utilities, changing locks or using other tactics, Hubbard said.
“It’s embarrassing to be evicted because of a world crisis. My job put me on leave for the safety of me and my children, and I’m evicted for that?”
There are swift consequences for renters who had eviction cases filed against them.
“It draws someone who would otherwise be sheltering in place out of their home into the court to try and seek some legal help or remedy,” Hubbard said. “They have a deadline to respond and are trying to get a hold of a court system that isn’t yet fully functioning.”
The simple filing of an eviction can be very damaging for a tenant even if that case doesn’t end in a judgment against them, she said.
“Once an eviction is filed, that information is public knowledge,” she said. “A renter that wanted to move and avoid an eviction is now facing public record of an eviction that they hadn’t had a chance to address or resolve in court. Even if it was brought against them on an illegal or unjust basis.”
Judgments in eviction cases that proceeded under the ban in Madison County can be enforced immediately after the moratorium expires in October, Hubbard said. Renters can find some protection under the CDC’s new eviction ban, but just like Pritzker’s orders, that moratorium will eventually expire, she said.
“We still have people that are months and months behind,” she said. “And they’re expected to pay all of that at the end of this moratorium.”
Hubbard added landlords around the region are eager to file eviction cases as soon as they can.
“My conversations with attorneys who represent landlords have explained that those landlords are ‘chomping at the bit,’” she said. “There is no way that we’re going to see anything less than just a tidal wave of evictions at the end of this.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid