Alistair Edwards—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
As a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency, various states and municipalities around the country have imposed moratoriums on evictions and prohibited landlords for a certain period of time from filing eviction complaints for possession of real property. For example, on March 17, 2020, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted a variety of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect District residents. Included among these measures was a moratorium on evictions "during a period of time for which the Mayor has declared a public health emergency."
In District of Columbia v. Towers, 21-CV-34, 2021 WL 4617981 (D.C. Oct. 7, 2021), the District of Colombia's highest court considered whether this moratorium violated the landlords' due process right to access the courts. The case came to the appellate court after the District's lower court (the Superior Court) held that the moratorium on eviction filings for the duration of the public health emergency was unconstitutional. Specifically, the lower court held that the moratorium infringed on property owners' fundamental right of access to the courts because "[a] landlord's interest in summary resolution of its claims against a tenant has a constitutional basis." The District of Columbia appealed the lower court’s decision.
In reversing the lower court's decision, and in holding that the moratorium did not facially violate the landlords' due process right of access to the courts, the court emphasized that the moratorium only temporarily delayed access, it did not abrogate contracts or deprive the landlords of their ability to file for eviction. The court went on to explain that the temporary filing moratorium did not eliminate tenants' lease obligations, including the payment of rent, or alter property owners' title to their property. After the moratorium is lifted, property owners would be able to file for eviction and pursue related claims. Therefore, the filing moratorium involved no abrogation of contracts or deprivation of the ability to file for eviction.
As of the writing of this article, the moratorium remains in place. However, the newly enacted legislation does allow a landlord to file suit for possession before that date based on non-payment of rent, property damage, or public safety concerns. D.C. Code § 16-1501(c)(1).