Sometimes what happens in eviction court doesn’t make sense

One of my associates appeared in court in one of our forcible entry cases.  Our client, being well based in reality, understood that the tenant was unlikely to ever have the resources to repay the landlord and really just wanted to regain possession of the property.  The tenant was genuinely sorry to be behind in rent and was willing to leave but needed some extra time to do so.  What could be done?With our help, the landlord and tenant agreed that the court would enter an Order for Possession against the tenant but enforcement of the possession order would be stayed for a few extra weeks to give the tenant more time to move out.  As an inducement to the tenant to actually leave on time without the need to endure the long delay that comes from the sheriff’s enforcement of the eviction order, the landlord and tenant agreed that if the tenant did not move out on time, the landlord could come back in to court and would be granted a full money judgment for all of the back rent owed.  As a premium for moving out without a problem, if the tenant moved out as agreed, there would be no money judgment.

Sounds fair, right?  Both sides were happy?  Yes.  Mission accomplished?

Nope.  The judge hearing the case refused to enter the agreed order.  The judge wanted the case off of the call and said that the parties were free to either continue the case to a date after the tenant was supposed to move out after which the issue of rent could be decided or to dismiss the rent claims without prejudice and if the tenant did not move out, the landlord could sue the tenant in a different court.

So, the landlord was faced with the choice of spending more money on attorney’s fees, finding more time to come to court (not to mention, wasting the judge’s time), and taking the risk that the tenant would not be so agreeable next time or taking what the landlord could get and hoping that the tenant left and if not, filing a totally new lawsuit and incurring more attorney’s fees and costs.

Neither of these results were optimal.  If the judge would have accepted the agreement as struck between landlord and tenant, the parties would have been satisfied and if the tenant failed to move, the judge would have merely heard the case one more time (something the judge would have to do under alternative #1 suggested by the judge anyway) and if the tenant left as promised, the judge would never hear about the case again.

Instead, the landlord got something less and lost the leverage that would have helped the tenant vacate on time without the need to waste time and money on the sheriff.

The point here is not to complain about judges.  Eviction judges have a difficult job and a busy call.  The point is that judges are humans and can make bad decisions, inefficient decisions, and even sometimes wrong decisions (otherwise, we would not need appellate courts!).  No, I don’t know what the judge’s concern was with our client’s agreement.  Perhaps the judge’s own experience with such agreements tainted his view of what was proposed.  The judge could just have wanted the case off of the call and fully resolved.  Who knows?

Litigants need to keep in mind that, unfortunately, nothing in litigation is certain.  Experience allows us to “know the ropes” when maneuvering through the court system, but, at its very nature, it is flawed and unpredictable.  Landlords need to be nimble enough to roll with those punches.

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