A case challenging the authority of local courts to ignore the law and deny landlords writs of possession in eviction cases has reached the Texas Supreme Court. In In Re Spring Branch Apartment Management, LLC. (No. 20-0737), the landlord seeks a writ of mandamus ordering county court-at-law judge in Harris County to vacate an order denying the landlord a writ of possession and to issue a writ of possession, despite the refusal of the tenant to pay rent into the registry of the court as required to retain possession of the property while appealing an eviction order. The judge relied on the CDC’s eviction moratorium and SCOTX’s Fortieth Emergency Order to deny possession. The Fourteenth Court of Appeals [Houston] denied mandamus on the ground that the trial judge’s order had expired and mooted the matter. On Tuesday SCOTX granted an emergency stay while it considers the petition.
The landlord’s complaint reflects the impact of federal, state, and local orders imposing eviction moratoria, beginning with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act enacted by Congress in March 2020. When the initial four-month moratorium expired, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the CDC, extended the moratorium. Congress granted an additional 30-day extension in December 2020, followed by further CDC extensions in January, March, and June 2021. A U.S. Supreme Court decision (Ala. Ass’n of Realtors v. Dep’t of Health & Human Services, 141 S.Ct. 2320 (2021) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring)) temporarily ended the CDC moratorium effective July 31, 2021. When the CDC once again placed a moratorium into effect in early August, SCOTUS moved quickly to vacate it on August 26.
Here the tenant had a lease that ended on May 30, 2020. In November 2020, the landlord notified all remaining tenants that it would close the aging apartment complex on January 31, 2021. The tenant failed to pay rent in December 2020 and ignored the landlord’s notice to vacate under the lease (which had expired several months earlier). The landlord filed an eviction action on December 28 and obtained a writ of possession from the justice court. The tenant filed a “CDC Declaration” to forestall eviction and appealed to county court. He failed, however, to pay rent deposits into the registry of the court to maintain his appeal. He also refused rent assistance and the landlord’s offer to pay the tenant’s security deposit, moving expenses, and three months of rent at his new residence. The landlord subsequently filed for a default judgment and writ of possession, to which the tenant never responded. The court denied the landlord’s argument that the CDC order was unconstitutional and declined to hear the case until the moratorium expired on July 31. When the landlord returned in early August, the court refused to issue a writ of possession based on the CDC moratorium extension and SCOTX’s emergency order, which the court claimed gave it discretion not to grant the landlord the writ. The landlord sought mandamus from the court of appeals, which denied it as moot.
On appeal to SCOTX, the landlord seeks adjudication of the underlying legal issues arising from the long period between March 2020 and September 2021 in which some type of federal eviction moratorium applied to many or all landlords. First, it challenges the validity of the court’s reliance on the CDC’s moratorium to continue indefinitely kicking the can down the road. It also seeks a determination of whether the Texas Supreme Court’s emergency orders, which permit courts to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines or procedures, whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order” during a declared disaster, deprives the landlord of its substantive rights under the Property Code. While it might be possible to consider these questions as “water under the bridge,” the fact is that local courts are still refusing to hear eviction cases. We hope that SCOTX takes this opportunity to provide guidance so that the incredible backlog of eviction cases can get moving again.