Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Evictions

Last Updated On: 4/28/2020 10:13:11 AM

Introduction

Because of the coronavirus emergency, the West Virginia Supreme Court has suspended virtually all court proceedings in West Virginia from March 23 through May 15, 2020.  What does that mean for tenants and for landlords during the suspension? What will that mean for tenants and landlords after the suspension is over?   

Legal Aid can tell you what the immediate suspension of court cases means, while it is in effect. After that, we can only make some guesses about what will happen next.  Some of the answers may change from time to time, as government action changes.  We will do our best to give you information, and update it when different information is available. 
 

Why did the WV Supreme Court Suspend Many Court Cases through May 15?

To protect public health the State is limiting the contact people have with each other, so we can avoid passing around coronavirus as much as possible.  That’s why the Governor shut down businesses and ordered non-essential workers to stay home.  That’s why the Supreme Court suspended court cases that aren’t emergencies.   
 

What is Congress doing to help?

Congress is enacting a huge new piece of legislation to put money in the hands of people who have lost their jobs or incomes because of coronavirus public health orders.  When that money arrives, then people will be able to pay their bills and their rent.  But we don’t know how long it will take for that financial help to arrive.   

What if I live in low-income, subsidized or public housing?

The federal government has temporarily stopped most evictions in many housing programs that get federal resources. These evictions will be stopped for 120 days starting on March 27th, 2020.  Note, however, these evictions are only stopped for non-payment of rent. If other rules are broken it is possible your landlord could still try to evict you.

Some common housing programs that are covered include: HUD housing (Section 8, Public Housing, or other programs where HUD pays a portion of a tenant’s rent); USDA housing (rural development rental assistance, multifamily rental housing, etc.); Treasury housing programs like Low-Income Housing Tax Credit properties; Rural Housing Voucher program; or other properties with federally backed mortgages or loans.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your housing falls under one of these categories. You may find it helpful to look at your lease or ask your housing provider. You can also contact Legal Aid of West Virginia with questions. 

 

WHILE THE COURT SUSPENSION IS IN EFFECT

How long will the suspension of court action last?

The WV Supreme Court order in effect now says the suspension of court cases will run through (and include) Friday, May 15, 2020.
After that, it will be up to the Supreme Court to decide based upon the public health conditions whether to extend the suspension or not.   
 
We know that several judicial system employees have gotten coronavirus apparently from their courthouse workplaces.  The Supreme Court will have to consider the safety of the public (litigants, witnesses, jurors, lawyers) and its own employees, based upon the recommendations of public health experts when we get closer to May 15.   
 

Before the coronavirus emergency shut things down, my landlord filed a court case for eviction against me.  Will there be a hearing on my case before May 15?

No.  The Supreme Court has said that Landlord-Tenant cases are not “emergencies,” so eviction cases will not be handled between March 23 and May 15, 2020.   
 
Cases filed before the March 23 Supreme Court order will be re-scheduled for some date after Friday, May 15.  Of course, the courts are not open for hearings on Saturdays or Sundays.  Theoretically, a case could be re-set for as early as Monday morning, May 18, but that is unlikely.   
 

Before the coronavirus emergency shut things down, my landlord gave me an eviction notice to be out before May 15.  Do I have to be out of the premises by that date?

If you know that the landlord has valid grounds to evict you, then traditional West Virginia law has always said that you should follow the landlord’s eviction notice.  If you remain in the premises anyway you will be responsible for all rent, late fees and other damages when the case does come up for hearing.  
 

But “traditional West Virginia law” has never had to consider a public health emergency like this.  The Governor has ordered most of us to “stay-at-home,” so we can avoid infecting others or being infected by others.  Is that an adequate reason to stay in the unit even though you violated the lease?  All we at Legal Aid can say now is that if you do not leave voluntarily, then:

  1. no court hearings will be held until at least May 18 to force you out; and  
  2. you will be responsible for all rent for the time you stay in the premises.
If you believe the landlord does not have valid grounds to evict you, then notify the landlord you are going to stay in the premises and fight the eviction whenever the case is scheduled for hearing.  Again, you will continue to be responsible for payment of rent for all the time you are there, unless a court says otherwise. 
 

I was laid off when my employer had to shut down under the Governor’s order.  Now I don’t have any income and I can’t pay the April rent.  This wasn’t my fault.  What can I do?

Short answer:  Apply for Unemployment Compensation benefits, or other money coming from new programs just adopted by Congress. Talk to your landlord to explain that you will pay when you get some money.   
 
Congress has passed several different programs to get money into the hands of people affected by the coronavirus epidemic.  The best thing you can do is apply for any programs that would cover you, and hope the money arrives soon. 
 
On March 23 Congress passed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act."  This law has two major programs to help people (at least for a short while). 
 
  • If you have not actually been fired or laid off yet, after the Two Weeks Paid Sick Leave is up you may qualify for partially-paid extended Family & Medical Leave Act Child Care Leave time if you have to care for children whose school or daycare is closed because of coronavirus.   
  • If you have been fired or laid off, you should apply for Unemployment Compensation immediately.  The Governor has waived the usual one-week waiting period.  You should be able to start drawing regular Unemployment Compensation benefits quickly. 
On March 27 Congress passed another, even bigger piece of legislation to help. 
  
  • Individual checks of $1,200 will be sent out to all Americans who made less than $75,000 in 2019 ($2,400 to couples who made less than $150,000 in 2019).  This will be done by the IRS.  Reports are that the government wants to get these checks electronically deposited to your bank account by the end of April.  We don’t know how long this actually will take.  (If you did not file taxes in 2018 or2019, and/or you don’t have a bank account, getting a paper check in the mail will take much longer.)
  • The Unemployment Compensation program will be expanded and improved during the coronavirus emergency.  The dollar amounts paid for Unemployment Compensationb enefits will be a lot higher than the traditional program paid.  Also, many more people will be eligible than the traditional program covered.  But we don’t know how long the State will take to process an application and make a payment to you.  
  • Small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees) can get money to cover the costs of keeping employees on their payroll even if the business is shut down.  You may want to go back to your former employer to see if you can get back on the payroll under this provision.  We don’t know how long this will take, and it will depend on your former employer’s willingness to cooperate with you.

Last, many churches and community organizations (like United Way) have established funds to help tenants pay rent and utilities. You may be able to get help from them.  

Waiting For This Financial Help, What Should I Tell My Landlord?

First, if you have any possible way to continue paying your rent, then do it.  If you can borrow from family or friends to pay the April rent, that will avoid any possible problem with the landlord.  You can pay the family or friends back when you get financial help from any of the new emergency programs.  
 
If that’s not possible, contact your landlord and tell her what’s going on.  This is a standard advice we at Legal Aid always give to tenants in a financial pinch:  talk to your landlord and explain what your plans are.  Landlords are much more likely to cooperate with tenants who are talking to them, than tenants who hiding from them.   
 
This is especially true now during the coronavirus emergency.  Everyone knows what’s going on.  If you’ve been a good tenant in the past, then landlords are likely to understand and work with you.  Landlords also know that most renters are going to be in the same position as you, and the landlord will have a hard time finding a new tenant with immediate ability to pay. For all these reasons, the landlord will expect you to catch up the rent when the financial help arrives. And that’s a fair expectation.  
 
All of this will take time.  But at this point, no one knows how much.  Don’t leave the landlord wondering whether you “have a plan.”  Your willingness to contact the landlord will help the landlord trust that you will pay when you get some money again. 

If you and your landlord can work something out, it’s always a good idea to put it in writing and have both sides sign it.  Be clear about details like how much is going to be paid; how it’s going to be paid (cash, check money order; in person, by mail, or something else); and when it’s going to be paid.  Both landlord and tenant should have a copy after it’s signed.  Keep it in a safe place.  This will eliminate confusion or argument later about what exactly was agreed. 

Can my landlord force me out without going to court? Can he shut off my utilities or change my locks?

No. A landlord cannot breach the peace to forcibly evict a tenant without a court order. A landlord can’t lock out a tenant, disrupt utilities or refuse to make repairs to force out a tenant without going through court.   
 
On March 26, 2020 West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced that he had sent a letter to landlords saying that the law “requires property owners to file a petition for eviction in magistrate or circuit court.”  The Attorney General said that “the landlord cannot evict or lock out the tenant, shut off utilities or do other things to evict a tenant without going to court.” 
 

Can I be evicted for getting sick?

No.  Your landlord is not supposed to ask about illnesses or other disabilities.  Nor can your landlord treat you differently than anyone else due to an illness.  This includes asking whether you have COVID-19, or any other illness of disability.

My landlord sent an e-mail requiring everyone to tell the office if they coughed, ran a fever, or had any other symptoms of COVID-19. Can my landlord do that?

No. A landlord should not ask about a person’s disabilities. You are not required to discuss this information with your landlord.

Can my landlord call the police and make me leave?

No. Law enforcement cannot force you to leave unless the landlord has already gotten a court order to evict. If your landlord does call the police, tell the officer that you are a tenant and that you have not been evicted through any court order.

Does my landlord need to go to Court even if I haven’t paid rent?

Yes. The Attorney General’s letter said that you have a Due Process right to have your case heard by a court to consider your circumstances and defenses before your landlord can evict you from your rental premises.  
 

Does this apply only to landlords and tenants that have agreed to pay rent?

No. These protections are in place even if there isn’t a ‘formal’ landlord-tenant relationship. These protections extend to persons that have lived in a place for an extended period (even if there was no commitment to pay rent or any other agreement). Usually such arrangements can be terminated quickly, but not before the person in control of the property seeks a court ordered eviction.  

AFTER THE COURT SUSPENSION IS OVER

Once the suspension of court proceedings is over, how long will it be before my eviction case is heard?

This will depend upon your local court, and how many eviction cases have piled up in your local court.  Most courts probably will schedule the oldest cases first, and then work outward from there. It could be as short as a few days or as long as a few weeks. 
 

Before the court suspension went into effect I was served with a “Wrongful Occupation” eviction, with a date scheduled.  Then the court suspension went into effect.  How will I know when my eviction case is re-scheduled?

We at Legal Aid believe that for any case where a hearing was scheduled and then cancelled, you should receive a new “Notice of Hearing” telling you the new date, time and place when your case will be heard. You must be given the opportunity to come to court and give your side of the story. 
 
Before this emergency, in many Wrongful Occupation cases tenants didn’t file an “Answer” but they did show up for the hearing.  That was okay when the system was running like normal. The tenant was served with the court papers telling them the date and time of hearing, and there was no uncertainty about whether the tenant knew about the hearing.  
 
After this coronavirus emergency court suspension, it’s different.  If you were served with papers telling you about a hearing that was later cancelled, you are entitled to have a new notice telling you the new date and time of hearing. If you have any questions or uncertainty, call the court clerk’s office and ask about the scheduling. 
 

I've lost my job because of coronavirus and I have no income.  I can’t pay April rent.  Suppose my landlord files an eviction case as soon as she can, and by the time of my hearing I still haven’t received financial help through any of the programs you described.  Will I be evicted for non-payment caused by the coronavirus emergency?

The first thing you should do is file an “Answer” with the court, explaining your situation:  
 
•      where you were employed;  
•      when you were laid off;  
•      why you were laid off (employer shut down; Governor’s Order; caring for a person diagnosed with COVID-19; caring for child whose school or daycare closed; whatever); 
•      any steps you’ve taken that will allow you to pay rent in the future and allow you to catch up on back rent. For example, let the court know when you applied for Unemployment Compensation or other benefit program; or that you’ve started another job; or that you’re waiting for your $1,200 check from the federal government; 
•      when you’ve been told you should get payment and be able to pay the rent; and 
•      give your proposal for when you will pay the rent, or at least a proposal for a payment plan to catch up the rent. 
 
Before the hearing try to work out an agreement with the landlord for catching up the rent.   
 
If the landlord won’t agree, then make the proposal to the magistrate or judge in your case. When you go to the hearing, take paperwork to show the judge that the information in your Answer is true.  Courts have authority to “consider the circumstances” in making any court ruling.   
 
Once the court system is holding eviction hearings again, then non-payment of rent cases likely will be decided based upon the tenant’s good faith efforts to fix the problem. If you’ve quickly applied for whatever you can but the government hasn’t paid out the financial help yet, then you have a legitimate argument that it’s not your fault.  But if you have started getting the financial assistance yet you still have not paid your rent, you are going to lose. 

This is general legal information. For guidance about your situation, talk to a lawyer.