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D.C. Seniors Forced to Choose Between Risking Health or Eviction

D.C. courts have now set new protective order legislation in place — yet another hurdle amid the coronavirus pandemic for elderly residents potentially forced to risk their health to fight their cases in court.

Established on June 19, the District Landlord Tenant Court order mandates litigants to deliver payment of active protective orders directly to their landlord — although the directive technically operates against the legal rule of order, which directs tenant payments to the Court Clerk’s Office until the case is deemed closed.

“The purpose of the protective order is truly to protect the interest of both parties, and this is not protecting the interest of tenants. It’s only protecting the interest of landlords,” said Daniel Palchick, a senior staff attorney for the Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE).

The motion essentially leaves little to no room for alternatives, as elderly residents are left choosing between risking their health by going out to purchase a money order and deliver the payment to one’s landlord — with the possibility of no proof of payment or acceptance on their behalf — or risking a loss in court.

“I think it’s fair to say when choosing between your health and your [court] case, most people are going to choose their health,” Palchick said.

If tenants fail to comply with the stated procedure, landlords can file a motion for sanctions, which in turn can summon a judgment against the tenant, creating grounds for the eviction.

Palchick said that courts have denied motions made by LCE requesting that its clients be allowed to withhold their monthly rent payments while still maintaining the obligation to eventually pay the full amount, but to the court upon its reopening, as dictated by law.

Meanwhile, although the courts have decided to take existing circumstances into account if a landlord does decide to file a motion against a tenant, there have been no parameters communicated to clarify which circumstances are applicable.

The court orders are arguably irrational, considering that a healthy number of these cases are elderly residents living in substandard homes, not having their disputes remedied in court, and not being notified of the required payment order which is a due process that should always be issued to litigants.

“Landlords, to me, have many other remedies that they can take,” Palchick said. “They’re small-business owners, they have the right to get a small-business loan, if they have a federally backed mortgage they can go into a forbearance if needed. They could also, if they have a protective order, dismiss the need of the protective order, and the tenant will then be paying the landlord directly.”

Palchick has spearheaded efforts by the LCE to mediate with landlords, proposing that his clients should be able to hold onto the protective order, and pay due balances in a lump sum once the courts reopen. While a few landlords agree, some refuse to mitigate the issue.

Recently, District courts have enacted online payment processing for protective-order litigants. Although it would seemingly rectify the delivery risks, the process isn’t perfect — the system restricts payments to $1,000 or less, in addition to charging tenants a $1 processing fee and 2.5% processing fees for credit card payments, adding financial burdens on elderly tenants already having to watch every dollar during the ongoing pandemic.

Remote hearings were slated to begin July 6. The District courts have also officially begun Phase Three of their openings as of July 20 and are now hearing a broader range of cases than previously allowed.

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