A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

When Seeking Help Can Get You Evicted

By Anthony Vento

There’s an ordinance in Norristown, Pennsylvania that says if the police are called to respond to “disorderly behavior” on a tenant’s property three times within a four month period, then the landlord must evict the tenant. If he doesn’t, he could lose his rental license.

Enter Pennsylvanian domestic abuse victim Lakisha Briggs. The New York Times recently reported the story of Ms. Briggs, a tenant in federally subsidized housing. Police responded to two domestic disputes at her home and warned her if they were called to her house once more, she would be evicted. Not long after the warning was issued, Ms. Briggs was attacked and severely injured by her boyfriend. Before slipping into unconsciousness, she plead with her neighbor not to call the police out of fear that she’d be evicted. Her condition was so bad though, that the neighbor called the police anyway.

Ms. Briggs’ fears were justified; the landlord brought eviction proceedings against her. Although reluctant to evict his tenant, he dared not risk losing his rental license.

The ACLU chose to represent Ms. Briggs arguing that the ordinance incentivizing landlords to evict “nuisance” tenants was illegal. Is the ACLU correct? Is the ordinance illegal, or can municipalities penalize landlords for not evicting tenants when police are called too frequently to their property?

LASIS investigates.

It is well settled that a landlord may be held liable for failing to implement measures to control the behavior of their tenants. A landlord, for instance, may face federal criminal charges if he knows his tenants are using the property for illegal drug purposes and fails to take action to remedy the situation, such as evicting the tenants.

Landlords may likewise be liable for not properly responding to nuisances caused by their tenants. A Federal court upheld an ordinance, enacted by the Pennsylvanian town of Bloomsburg, which aimed to reduce disruptive conduct, such as loud noises, caused by individuals living in college dorms. Landlords of college dorm houses were required to take steps to try to eliminate repeated noise disruptions, and if the conduct recurs, landlords may be directed to evict the noisy tenant or risk losing their rental license.

Even though municipalities have the ability to impose liability on landlords for failing to evict tenants, the underlying reason for the eviction must be Constitutional and can’t be prohibited by state or federal law. The state of Minnesota, for instance, has expressly prohibited landlords from evicting tenants based on the number of times police are called to respond to domestic abuse. Ms. Briggs, however, lives in Pennsylvania, which has no such law.

Instead, the ACLU is challenging her eviction on other grounds. Because Ms. Briggs lives in public housing subsidized by the federal government, she is protected by laws including the Violence Against Women Act. This Act prohibits landlords from evicting tenants from certain covered housing programs for reasons involving tenants being domestic violence victims. In the 2008 New York case Metro North Owners, LLC v. Thorpe, a landlord attempted to evict a woman from public housing after she was assaulted by her ex-husband. The landlord claimed the tenant created a nuisance and was therefore subject to eviction. The court, citing federal law, held that because the supposed nuisance arose from domestic abuse and the tenant was the victim, she could not be evicted. This issue has not been heard by many courts, and the New York case will likely be influential authority as it closely mirrors Ms. Briggs’ situation.

If Ms. Briggs’ case does go to trial, it is likely that the court will rule in her favor as federal law provides protection to women who are victims of violence. The ACLU also challenged the ordinance on Constitutional grounds as well. It argues that individuals have the First Amendment right to “petition the government” by calling the police and evicting a tenant for exercising that right would be unconstitutional. No courts have addressed this issue and it is not likely the court hearing Ms. Briggs’ case will make such a sweeping ruling while the issue can be resolved on narrower grounds.

The ordinance’s validity to landlords and tenants of housing that is not subsidized by the federal government will likely remain unsettled.

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