Tennessee says court ruling prohibits new eviction pause

August 5, 2021 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s court system won’t follow a new COVID-19 pandemic eviction moratorium by President Joe Biden’s administration, reasoning that a federal appeals court for its region has already decided the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t have authority to issue pauses on eviction.

Attorneys helping tenants say the legal interpretation leaves those facing eviction with limited options. The attorneys said they seek to negotiate with landlords, including convincing them to accept federal pandemic housing aid applied for by tenants. The goal is to avoid an eviction that could inhibit their ability to get a new place to live in the future.

“It’s a lot of tenants who are being surprised,” said Zac Oswald, managing attorney with Legal Aid in the Nashville region. “They hear national news that the eviction moratorium is in place, or is in back in place, and they don’t realize that it doesn’t apply in Tennessee.”

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio, ruled in late July that CDC lacks the authority to issue pauses on eviction. And the CDC order itself says it does not apply “to the extent its application is prohibited by federal court order.”

Tennessee Supreme Court General Counsel Rachel Harmon circulated a message Wednesday to court officials, saying “this new eviction moratorium does not apply in Tennessee” because of the 6th Circuit ruling.

Biden’s administration is counting on differences between the new order, scheduled to last until Oct. 3, and the eviction pause that lapsed over the weekend to bolster its legal case. At the very least, as Biden himself said, the new moratorium will buy some time to protect the estimated 3.6 million Americans who could face eviction from their homes.

In June, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow the previous moratorium to remain in place through the end of July, even though one justice in the majority, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that he believed CDC lacked authority to order it.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency announced it received $384 million in federal funding for rental assistance. The statewide program is estimated to help 25,000 to 30,000 families cover up to 12 months of rent or utility payments as long as the financial difficulties were sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program applies to 91 out of Tennessee’s 95 counties, with the state’s largest metro areas excluded because they have their own federally funded rent relief programs.

The state did not respond to a request about how much money has been disbursed. Nashville’s program, meanwhile, says it has paid or payments are pending for nearly $13 million in rent and utilities.

The moratorium has not been in effect for months in West Tennessee, where a district court ruling came down against the pause in March. Evictions not protected by the CDC declaration have proceeded in Tennessee, as have some cases in which landlords assert nonrenewal of a lease, Oswald said.

Cindy Ettingoff, CEO of Memphis Area Legal Services, said she’s preparing people for the reality they may be evicted, while pointing people toward the federal aid and negotiating for wiggle room with landlords. She said another strategy is to simply ask landlords to cut ties with their tenants if they agree to move out sooner than required.

“That’s really our only hope right now, is to try to give people a real understanding of, ‘This is going to happen,’” Ettingoff said. “We in this area have no more protections. We’re trying the very best we can to negotiate settlements, but you’re going to need to try to find somewhere else to go.”

In Middle Tennessee, Oswald said his focus is on hoping judges will accommodate a delay in cases if someone has applied for the federal aid and is waiting for it to arrive. He said in Nashville specifically, landlords and tenants can agree to go a specific mediation court that helps them navigate the federal rent aid process and avoid eviction.

“People who have been evicted during COVID because they lost their job or they had a major medical expense or any of those things, those evictions are going to be a scar on their record for the rest of their life because there is no mechanism in Tennessee to have that removed,” Oswald said.