By: James McNally and Steven M. Williams
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and the City of Pittsburgh have imposed important additional requirements and restrictions upon landlord/tenant evictions in Allegheny County. The ordinance passed by the Pittsburgh City Council is particularly impactful as it imposes a new standard of “good cause” and requires a residential landlord to seek an exemption from the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations prior to commencing an eviction. The controversial ordinance is already facing pushback as a landlord group has filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.
PA Supreme Court’s Order Applicable to Landlord/Tenant Cases in Allegheny County
On February 24, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania extended and modified COVID-19-related eviction procedures for landlord/tenant actions in Allegheny County. The court’s order contains separate procedures applicable for when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) September 4, 2020 order applies and when it does not apply. For the CDC order’s protections to apply, a tenant must provide his/her landlord with a CDC declaration attesting to the tenant’s financial hardship. Upon receiving a declaration, a landlord must submit an affidavit when it commences a landlord/tenant action stating it received the tenant’s declaration. If a tenant provides the landlord with a declaration or the court otherwise determines that the tenant has provided the landlord with a declaration, a case may be accepted for filing, but the case will be stayed until after the expiration of the current CDC order, currently March 31, 2021.
An initial hearing may be scheduled but only for the limited purpose of conducting a status conference to discuss Allegheny County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program or other assistance programs. Following the status conference, the matter shall be stayed until after the CDC order expires. In addition, any landlord/tenant action accepted for filing in the Court of Common Pleas shall be stayed until after the expiration of the CDC order, and a writ or order for possession shall not be issued and any previously issued writ or order for possession will be stayed.
It is likely that the CDC order will be extended beyond March 31. Since the CDC order prohibits landlords from evicting tenants who have submitted a declaration, and even allows for the imposition of criminal penalties and fines for any person who violates the order, a landlord who attempts to proceed with an eviction proceeding against a tenant for failure to pay rent should proceed with the utmost caution.
However, there are separate procedures for when the CDC order does not apply (i.e., a tenant has not provided the landlord with a CDC declaration). In landlord/tenant actions commenced in a local Magisterial District Court, based at least in part on non-payment of rent or end of a lease, initial hearing dates may be scheduled up to 45 days later if the judge finds it necessary due to the volume of cases already scheduled. At the initial hearing, if the tenant indicates that he/she has or will submit an application for rental assistance, the initial hearing shall be used as a status conference rather than a hearing so the parties can discuss and consider available rental assistance programs. Hearings already scheduled between March 1, 2021 and April 2, 2021 will be treated in this manner as well. If, at the status conference, the court finds that an application has been or will be submitted, the case will be continued to allow for sufficient time for the application to be processed. Multiple continuances may be granted and a substantive hearing will not occur while good faith efforts are being made to obtain assistance that would be likely to satisfy a potential judgment.
Finally, if it is determined that the case involves an end-of-lease situation in which the payment of money would not prevent an eviction and the tenant would not be able to satisfy a potential judgment by the payment of money, the case will be continued for a period of 21 to 35 days. The Allegheny County Department of Human Services and/or other relief agencies will provide the tenant with information and resources to assist the tenant in planning for alternative housing arrangements in the event of a potential judgment in favor of the landlord.
City of Pittsburgh Ordinance
On March 2, the Pittsburgh City Council passed its own temporary ban on evictions applicable only to landlord/tenant matters in the City of Pittsburgh, including its 12 Magisterial District Courts. The ordinance is awaiting the mayor’s signature.
Similar to the Supreme Court’s order, a tenant in defense of eviction for non-payment of rent may present a certification of COVID-19 related hardship to a court. A certification is defined as a signed written statement that a tenant has lost income due to the pandemic, detailing the COVID-19 financial hardship suffered and how the hardship has made timely rent payment impracticable. The certification will prevent the landlord’s eviction against the tenant for non-payment of rent. Presumably, a CDC declaration would suffice as a certification. While this does not absolve the tenant from his/her financial obligations under the lease, it does stay the eviction proceeding until at least the expiration of the ordinance.
However, the centerpiece of the ordinance and its intended effect is to replace the initial burden of the tenant’s submission of a CDC declaration with a new hurdle imposed upon the landlord. Under the ordinance, no landlord may “take action to cause the eviction of an individual or household except for good cause.” In relation to this “good cause” standard, the landlord may seek an “exemption” from the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), upon proof of any of the following:
- Non-payment of rent and utilities, unless such non-payment was due to substantial loss of household income or hours of work or wages due to loss of employment and/or medical expenses (both those that are COVID-19-related illnesses and pre-existing illnesses).
- Conduct that presents an imminent threat to the health or safety of other residents, inhabitants or property staff including criminal activity in the unit or housing premises, engaging in actions or behaviors that threaten the health or safety of residents and violating any applicable building code or health ordinance relating to health and safety.
- Another material breach of the lease terms, such as criminal conduct, damage to property, or another compelling basis not specifically enumerated herein, which breach or another basis shall be strictly scrutinized to ensure that the negative effects of a residential eviction during the pandemic are mitigated.
In effect, landlords shall be required to present their case and obtain the blessing of the PCHR before commencing any landlord/tenant action. While the ordinance requires the PCHR to develop procedures for accepting and reviewing requests for exemptions, those procedures have yet to be developed or published. Undoubtedly, the process will be costly and time-consuming for landlords.
In addition to the onerous and burdensome exemption process imposed upon landlords, the ordinance also provides that “no landlord can refuse to renew a lease or terminate a lease due to previous tenant non-payment or lease term violation.”
Significantly, a violation of the ordinance shall be subject to a summary offense which may lead to a fine of up to $10,000. Accordingly, landlords would be well-advised to heed the requirements of the ordinance and seek an exemption from the PCHR before taking any action to evict a tenant leasing property in the City of Pittsburgh. With the new challenge to the ordinance, landlords would be prudent to keep abreast of how the courts receive the landlords’ arguments. We will continue to keep you updated with any developments in the case.
For more information about the Supreme Court’s Order and the City of Pittsburgh Ordinance and the impact on your business or any particular matter, contact Steve Williams at (717) 234-5530 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or James McNally at (412) 434-5530 or email@example.com.