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During the COVID-19 pandemic the LSNJ Hotline will remain open during its normal business hours. Our Hotline staff will be working remotely and you may encounter delays when calling.


LEGAL TOPICS
Changes to How Evictions Will Proceed During COVID

All landlords must go through the court process and prove one of the grounds for eviction in court. Most tenants at risk of eviction cannot be locked out during the pandemic, due to the governor’s Executive Order 106https://nj.gov/infobank/eo/056murphy/pdf/EO-106.pdf. Unless the governor changes the order, a residential tenant cannot be locked out for two months after the public health emergency or state of emergency ends. At the time of this writing, the public health emergency goes through early October. This means most tenants facing eviction cannot be legally locked out until after December 31, at the earliest.

An Eviction Trial May Be Scheduled Only in Emergent Circumstances

A tenant facing eviction has the right to a trial, but courts are not scheduling landlord tenant trials now, unless a judge has determined that the case is an emergency. A landlord must file an “Order to Show Cause to Schedule a Trial” along with the eviction complaint and the court will review the complaint to determine whether an emergency exists. Emergent circumstances may include violence against other tenants, criminal activity, or extreme damage to premises. A court may also consider other circumstances, such as a nonpayment-of-rent case where the tenant has passed away and the unit is vacant; or a termination of employment case where the job included a rental unit, and a new employee may need that unit. The court will review these applications on a case-by-case basis.

A tenant who receives an “Order to Show Cause to Schedule a Trial” should read it carefully and seek legal advice as soon as possible. On the date the court orders the tenant to appear, the judge should hear from both parties to decide whether the matter is emergent. If so, it will be scheduled for trial in the near future. At a minimum, the tenant should have the eviction summons and complaint at least 10 days prior to the trial date. If it is not emergent, the trial will be suspended, and scheduled in the future. Even if a tenant later loses at trial, the landlord cannot lock the tenant out before the moratorium ends, unless the landlord can demonstrate that it is “in the interest of justice.” This means there are few circumstances when a judge will order a lockout before the end of the governor’s order.

Voluntary Settlement Conferences

While most cases are not proceeding to trial right now, courts are scheduling voluntary pre-trial settlement conferences. Tenants may receive a notice about a settlement conference, asking for contact information or listing a scheduled time and date to “appear” for a hearing. These conferences are held either by phone or video-conference, not in person. They can be a way to talk about your case in a safe setting.

If you are unable to attend or are uncomfortable with the process, remember that settlement conferences are VOLUNTARY. If a landlord or tenant is unable to attend or chooses not to attend, the landlord tenant case will continue. The case will not be dismissed nor will a default judgment be entered. You will still get a trial date, just like everyone else.

Preparing for a Settlement Conference

Tenants should try to get legal advice before a settlement conference. If you are a low-income tenant, call the LSNJ LAW Hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529), visit https://lsnjlawhotline.org, or contact a regional Legal Services office at www.lsnj.org/LegalServicesOffices.aspx. Legal resources are also listed on the “Landlord/Tenant Information Sheet” that tenants receive.

A settlement conference may be an opportunity to resolve a landlord tenant dispute before an eviction trial. Before the conference, tenants should think about what they want to get out of an agreement with the landlord, and be prepared to propose specific settlement terms. Here are some things for tenants to consider addressing in a settlement agreement, depending on the circumstances: 

  • If there is a state or federal rent subsidy, is a recertification needed to adjust the rent?
  • Are repairs to the property needed? 
  • Does any agency require information from the landlord in order to pay the rent? 
  • Do you have other legal claims against the landlord to make clear in writing that you are not waiving (letting go)?

When negotiating, it is helpful to point out to the other side why your proposed terms are in their best interest. Tenants want to avoid eviction and landlords want to receive rental income. An agreement that satisfies both sides may include some compromise, but make sure that if you agree to something, you will be able to meet the terms you are agreeing to. If you are unsure, you can always stop a settlement conference and seek legal advice.

Consent Judgments

If the parties come to an agreement at the settlement conference, they will enter into a consent judgment. The order also states that failure to comply with the terms of the agreement will result in eviction. This means that if the tenant breaches the agreement, the landlord can request a warrant for removal and proceed with a lockout once the moratorium is over. If you agree to pay and vacate, then you are agreeing to move out of the premises after paying the rent. You must testify on the record that you understand you are paying the rent and giving up your right to stay in the apartment. It is very important for tenants to read settlement agreements carefully. All agreements must be signed by the judge.  

What If the Parties Don’t Settle?

If the parties do not agree to settle the case, it will be scheduled for a landlord tenant trial when eviction trials resume.  Even if a tenant fails to show up to a settlement conference, the case will still be scheduled for a trial date.         


For updates on landlord tenant issues relating to COVID-19, including but not limited to information on landlord tenant court, governor’s executive orders, the public health emergency, and the state of emergency, go to www.lsnjlaw.org/Health-Care/Coronavirus/Pages/FAQ-tenants-housing.aspx. ​​​​​​​​

10/13/2020
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