Evictions, foreclosures could be halted under Florida Supreme Court coronavirus order

First, though, the public officials responsible for carrying out the change have to figure out how to apply it.
The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee.
The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. [ Times (2019) ]
Published March 27, 2020|Updated April 2, 2020

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The Florida Supreme Court this week quietly altered the rulebook on evictions and foreclosures, potentially giving relief to Floridians wondering how they can shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic if they’re kicked out of their homes.

The change was tucked in a 10-page administrative order issued this week to address court operations during the pandemic and affects only the final step of the eviction and foreclosure legal process.

First, though, the public officials responsible for carrying out the change — the state’s 67 clerks of court — have to figure out how to apply it.

“It is a very unclear picture,” said Sarasota Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Rushing.

The change has to do with a legal document called a writ of possession, the final record produced at the end of the eviction process. That is what law enforcement takes to a dwelling to kick out a tenant and transfer ownership back to the landlord. In foreclosure cases, it can be used to boot out residents of a foreclosed property and transfer the property to its new owner.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady
Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady

The order, issued Tuesday by Chief Justice Charles Canady, appears to suspend, or at least give clerks the option to suspend, issuing writs of possession through April 17.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with clerks’ offices in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties to learn how they were interpreting the order. All but one said they read it as requiring them to temporarily stop issuing writs of possession.

“It’s not reversing your eviction or anything," said Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke. “It’s just basically putting it on hold.”

But one Tampa Bay area clerk’s office doesn’t see it that way. Hillsborough County will continue issuing the writs, said clerk’s spokesman Tom Scherberger.

However, writs of possession won’t be carried out by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. That’s because Sheriff Chad Chronister announced last week that his office would not execute them through April 20.

The clerk has issued nearly 1,300 writs over the last two months, including about 80 since Chronister’s March 18 announcement, according to data from the Hillsborough clerk’s office.

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In Pinellas, Burke’s office has issued 879 writs in eviction cases and 42 in foreclosure cases since the beginning of the year.

Related: Evictions suspended in Hillsborough through April 20

Aside from the different interpretations, the Supreme Court order also contradicts state law, which says clerks must issue writs when a judge sides with a landlord or buyer in a foreclosure sale, Sarasota’s clerk said. The Supreme Court can alter rules of court procedure — but only the Legislature can change laws.

“We want to do what we’re supposed to do, and there’s a dilemma about what we’re supposed to do," Rushing said. “For me, I want to lean in favor of what the (Supreme) Court’s asking because you take that and you take this extraordinary time, and it seems like less people get hurt.”

Leaders at the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, a group representing those public officials across the state, are working to provide guidance on how best to implement the high court’s order, CEO Chris Hart said Thursday.

“Currently, each of Florida’s 67 Clerks of the Circuit Court are working directly with the Chief Judges within their own local judicial circuits to determine the proper procedures within their communities,” Hart said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

When asked about the confusion, a spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court said Thursday he has not received clarification about the high court’s intent for that section of the order.

The chief justice didn’t discuss that aspect of his order in a video address to the public posted to YouTube on Tuesday.

Meantime, lawyers on the ground are working to keep up with the many changes to eviction and foreclosure procedures made since the virus started spreading across the U.S., spurring event cancellations, business closures, job losses and calls to stay home. This week, both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties approved shelter-in-place orders, barring residents from leaving home except for necessary activities and services, such as grocery trips and doctor’s visits.

Related: Your questions on Pinellas and Hillsborough’s safer at home orders, answered

Gulfcoast Legal Services, which provides legal aid to vulnerable people in the Tampa Bay area — including tenants and those facing foreclosure — said it has seen an uptick in eviction calls. The organization is hearing from people who are confused about “rapidly changing rules regarding their housing situations," according to a statement it issued this week.

First, the federal government halted evictions and foreclosures on Department of Housing and Urban Development-owned properties, said Robin Stover, the legal aid agency’s deputy director for housing and financial stability. Soon, some individual clerks began issuing their own orders. Then this week came the Supreme Court’s order.

The agency scrutinized the order, Stover said, trying to figure out what it meant. They ultimately decided to call individual clerks to learn how those offices were interpreting it.

Stover believes the ambiguity was intentional, to give clerks and judicial circuits flexibility to decide how to best apply it in their communities. She encouraged Tampa Bay area residents who are confused about housing issues or any legal matter to call her organization at (727) 821-0726 or apply for assistance online here.

“It’s not statewide, and that’s okay, but it requires some research," Stover said, adding that the chief justice’s order was “an important step.”

“We’re all doing our best.”

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