As eviction moratorium nears end, N.J. to begin settlement conferences for renters, landlords

Posted Jul 24, 2021

The first mandatory settlement conferences in more than 56,000 pending landlord-tenant cases will begin next week, nearly a year-and-a-half since a statewide eviction moratorium began amid the coronavirus pandemic.

If the landlord does not appear at the settlement conference, the case will be dismissed. If the tenant does not appear and the landlord establishes entitlement to relief, the court will enter a default judgment.

If no settlement is reached after both parties attend the settlement conference, a trial will be set for a date after Aug. 31. Even as cases begin to be heard, residential evictions will still not occur until the eviction moratorium ends — which could be Dec. 31.

But that date still hangs in the balance, pending a bill that was passed by the state Legislature and has yet to be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy. The bill (S3691) would move up the end date of the moratorium to Aug. 31 for renters if their annual household income is above 80% of their county’s median income. Those who make less than that would remain under the moratorium until Dec. 31.

“The result could be that someone settles a case today and agrees to vacate, and then all of the sudden the legislation is passed and they have all these protections and they arguably couldn’t be put out,” said Lawrence Sindoni, an attorney with Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, of the legislation that hasn’t been signed yet. “So that’s certainly going to raise issues.”

The bill would also give millions in rental assistance. Renters who file for the financial help would have their eviction cases dismissed for nonpayment of rent or failure to pay rent increases between March 2020 and Aug. 31, 2021.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment when asked when Murphy would sign the bill or why he hasn’t done so yet.

Regardless of the pending legislation, Sindoni stressed that tenants still have to show up to a settlement conference or risk having the case ruled in favor of the landlord automatically.

New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order July 1 that began the scheduling process for the settlement conferences. Rabner noted in a second order this month that trial dates “may need to be adjusted in light of legislation currently awaiting action by the Governor and ongoing collaboration with the Department of Community Affairs.”

The second order says landlords and tenants must file a case information statement on new and pending cases five days before any mandatory conference. The landlord will have to include a lease, registration and rent control statement.

The settlement conferences — and additional information that should be sent ahead of them — is seen by the judiciary as a way to identify issues in cases and allow parties to connect with rental or legal assistance to resolve disputes.

“Our expectation is that most cases will not settle,” said MaryAnn Spoto, a spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. “The mandatory settlement conferences were designed to bring the parties together and to provide them with accurate information, including about the rental assistance available for tenants and landlords’ responsibilities in accepting rental assistance.

“These conferences are mandatory but no one is required to settle.”

Priority for settlement conferences goes to the oldest pending cases with the most unpaid rent and newly filed cases when more than 12 months of rent is owed. Settlement conferences have still been occurring on a voluntary basis since the summer of 2020, but participation has been limited.

The settlement conferences will be primarily virtual, but courts will provide on-site technology resources to parties who need them. Judges will have the discretion to schedule mandatory in-person conferences based on the circumstances of a case.

There have been nearly 69,000 landlord-tenant cases filed in court between April 2020 and June 2021, according to data from the judiciary. Almost 14,000 have been pending for more than a year.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-07-25 02:45:22 -0700