Landlord tenant disputes and evictions come in all shapes and sizes. In the end, there are only two legal ways for a landlord to get possession of rental property back from a tenant: (1) turnover of actual possession by the tenant or (2) an eviction order from a judge (known as an order for possession) executed (aka enforced) by the county Sheriff. If the tenant cannot be persuaded to turn over possession and the landlord has grounds for eviction, the landlord’s only remedy is to take the tenant to court. So how long does the court process take?
Before I get to that, a bit of perspective first. In my practice, I advocate that landlords use any and all methods available to avoid the eviction courts. A forcible entry lawsuit is costly, it takes a good deal of time (sometimes lots of time) and the eviction system, as it is currently set up, does not, usually, do “justice” to any party. No landlord leaves the eviction process anxious to do it again. But sometimes a tenant gives a landlord no other option but to enforce the landlord’s rights in court.
After the landlord has determined the appropriate basis for the eviction, prepared and served the appropriate notice of termination of tenancy, and waited the appropriate time period without the tenant taking advantage of any right to cure a default, the landlord can begin the actual court process. So what is that process and how long does that process take?
In Cook County, the process begins with the preparation and filing of a summons and complaint. Where is the case filed? All Cook County evictions in Chicago must be brought in the first district of the Circuit Court of Cook County. For suburban Cook County evictions, a landlord has the option of bringing the action in the first district (downtown at the Daley Center) or at the local Cook County district courthouse (ie. Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Markham) serving that particular suburban area.
When a case is filed, the court provides the plaintiff with a “return date”. In the first district, this return date can be as soon as two weeks from the date the case is filed. When a case is filed in the outlying districts, the first available return date is usually farther out (sometimes as many as 30 days, but this varies depending on the courthouse and their current caseload).
After the return date is established, the plaintiff has the circuit court issue a “summons” which is a legal document requiring the tenant to appear in court on the return date. In Cook County, all eviction plaintiffs must allow the Cook County Sheriff to attempt to make service (in other words to deliver a copy of the summons and a copy of the complaint to the tenant) on the tenant. The Sheriff has until one week before the return date to deliver the paperwork to the tenant in order for there to be “proper” notice on the tenant. In the event that the tenant is not successfully served (unfortunately, this is not uncommon), the case will not move forward on the return date. Instead, the landlord will have to appear in court and obtain a new court date, have a new summons (known as an alias summons) issued, and attempt to have the tenant served again (this can be done by the Sheriff or the plaintiff can motion that the court appoint a private process server to help with service). Until the tenant is served, the court has no “jurisdiction” over the matter and the case cannot proceed.
Once the tenant-defendant is finally served, the case will have an initial hearing on the return date listed in the summons. What happens on that date really depends on the tenant. Anything ranging from a continuance all the way to a trial in front of the judge can happen. If the tenant does not appear and the landlord’s paperwork is in order, the court will issue an order for possession and possibly a money judgment against the tenant. If the tenant appears and asks for time to get and attorney or to get paperwork in order, the court is likely to grant a continuance to satisfy that request. Judges are fairly lenient with continuances the first time a case comes before them and they are likely to give the tenant the “benefit of the doubt” and time to put their case together. These continuances are usually granted for one or two weeks. If a tenant appears and is prepared to have a trial, a “bench trial” can take place right then and there in front of the judge. At the end of the trial, the judge will make a ruling and a prevailing plaintiff will get an order for possession and possibly a money judgment. A tenant also has the right to request and receive a jury trial. In the first district, this procedure will result in the case being assigned to a new judge and the case being continued for one week where it will be heard before the jury trial judge and will proceed on a much different procedural timeline (this topic is beyond the scope of this post).
After the entry of a judgment against a defendant, a judge will impose a “stay” of eviction on the order for possession. This is basically an amount of time during which the landlord will not be able to enforce the order for possession. The stay period is usually at least one week, but, under certain circumstances, a tenant can be granted more time. After the stay period expires, the process can proceed to the Sheriff’s office where the landlord can “place” the order for possession with the Sheriff to be executed (that is where the Sheriff goes to the property and removes the tenant). At any given time, the Sheriff could be out as soon as three or four weeks and it is not unheard of in the history of the Sheriff’s department that it could take twelve or fifteen weeks.
In total, how long does a First District Cook County eviction process take? From the time of filing, a landlord should expect, at a minimum, that the process will take about thirteen weeks. It will rarely be better than that. Every time the process server “misses” getting service on the defendant, a landlord will experience a minimum of an additional two week delay. Every time the eviction court grants a tenant a continuance, the landlord will experience a minimum of an additional week delay.
So far, I have only discussed the best case scenario available to a landlord. The process can take much longer and can get bogged down in much more procedure and delay. If there are evidentiary problems that require additional witnesses, the court could require an additional continuance. If the tenant files a formal answer, the court will likely provide the tenant with a few weeks time to prepare the answer. If the parties engage in discovery or a jury trial, the case could add additional months of time (yes, months).
As a result, I advise all of my landlords to think long and hard about how long and hard the Cook County eviction process can be. The system does not move tenants out overnight. Many landlords get caught up in extreme frustration over the snail’s pace of the process. They can’t believe that a tenant who does not pay rent can stay for free in a rental unit without someone from the government getting upset and coming over to throw the tenant out. The reality is that the eviction process is not perfect. The eviction process attempts to take each case as it comes and judges each tenant on his or her own merits. Because of this, each tenant gets a certain benefit of the doubt in the process and this leads to delays. Could the system be reformed? To a degree, yes. However, in an age where Sheriffs are lauded for ignoring a judge’s order to evict, I don’t think landlord favorable reform is coming (in fact, right now, proposed tenant favorable legislation far outweighs proposed landlord favorable legislation).
The real “trick” to navigating the system is to proceed promptly in a straightforward fashion. The process must run its course. With the assistance of an experienced attorney, a landlord can navigate the system in a smart and straightforward way. An eviction lawyer can help a landlord set reasonable expectations about the eviction process and provide insight and counsel about the court procedure and help explore alternative options like settlement with a tenant.
If you are a landlord facing the possibility of an eviction and need some guidance, give us a call (773-399-1122) or contact us and we can discuss how we might be able to help.