RENTERS who get into a dispute with their landlord often find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to either move out on very short notice or risk ruining their hopes of finding quality housing in the future. Even if a renter is able to prevail in an eviction case, the mere fact that the renter has been a defendant in an eviction lawsuit puts an indelible stain on a rental history.
Both the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court have an opportunity to provide renters with greater protections and now, in this economy, is the time that renters need those protections the most.
Imagine this scenario: You sign a one-year lease on a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. A month into your lease, you discover that your landlord is behind on his or her mortgage and the house is about to be foreclosed. An investor purchases the house at the foreclosure sale and wants you to move out immediately.
Under federal law, you have the right, as a renter, to stay in the house for 90 days after the foreclosure sale or the remainder of your lease, whichever is greater. The problem is, if the investor files an eviction against you, even if you can beat the eviction in court, it’s now on your record.
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At the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, we advise renters on an almost daily basis not to challenge their landlord’s actions, even when the landlord is in the wrong, because of the risk of having an eviction on their record.
Over the past decade, tenant screening has become a big business. The most significant factor in a tenant’s screening report is whether they have been the defendant in an eviction lawsuit.
Most court-case indexes are available online, so with a few clicks of the mouse, the screening company can determine whether a prospective tenant has been the subject of such an action in Washington state.
However, it is much more difficult to determine whether the eviction action was filed erroneously, whether the renter was successful, or whether the landlord and the renter were able to reach some sort of a mutual agreement. Because it is difficult and time-consuming to obtain that information, screening companies simply advise landlords to reject any tenant who has been the subject of an eviction action.
Some renters, when they have successfully won in court against their landlord, have asked the court to change the court index so that only their initials appear in the index rather than their full name. This prevents the screening company from finding the case by looking up their name.
The laws that permit our state’s court records to be changed have not been updated to address advances in technology. However, the state Supreme Court could soon decide whether renters who defeat an eviction could ask the court to change the court index. In September, the Northwest Justice Project asked the court to review a case in which tenants are asking the court to remove their names from the court index because the tenants were the subject of an erroneous eviction lawsuit.
Other states have created much stronger renter protections. In California, all eviction cases are filed under seal and remain sealed if the tenant wins. In New York, the courts have started to refuse to sell court records to tenant-screening companies.
Erroneously filed evictions affect thousands of people every year. Thousands more are encouraged not to challenge an eviction.
State legislators should change the law, as California did, to give renters the greatest protection. However, until such a fix becomes law, the state Supreme Court should take note of the new technological realities and allow renters greater protection from unwarranted eviction filings.
Rory O’Sullivan is managing attorney of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. The views expressed are his own. Legal intern BrittaLisa Gess contributed to this article.