This morning, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura published a ruling in favor of the City of Seattle and the State of Washington, and denying a request for a preliminary injunction blocking the city and state moratoria on residential evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Creatura is a magistrate judge, and not a full sitting district court judge, his ruling is officially a “report and recommendation” that will go to Judge Richard Jones for his review and likely official order. But it’s likely that the two have been discussing the case along the way and it would be a surprise if Jones didn’t approve it in its existing form.
The case, challenging the city and state eviction moratoriums, was filed by a group of landlords who argued that the moratoria violate their property rights and cause them irreparable economic harm. Today’s ruling adds to the collection of similar cases in jurisdictions across the country that have mostly upheld eviction moratoria as constitutional acts during the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs must demonstrate four things:
- that they are likely to win the case on the merits of their argument;
- that without an injunction they will suffer irreparable harm;
- that the balance of equities between the impacts on the defendants of imposing an injunction and the impacts on the plaintiffs of not doing so) tips in their favor;
- that an injunction is in the public interest.
In cases such as this one where the government is a party, the last two components are merged together, since it’s assumed that the government represents the public. In his ruling, Creatura found that the plaintiffs failed to make its case on all four.
On the merits, the judge had many different issues to sort through. Some he dispatched fairly quickly:
- Governor Inslee, who was a named defendant, is immune from this type of lawsuit.
- The city and state argued that the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue right now because the CDC’s separate eviction moratorium is still in force; but since one of the plaintiffs has a tenant who he could still evict under the conditions of the CDC moratorium but not under the state and city moratoria, he has standing and therefore all the other plaintiffs have standing under case law precedent.
- The plaintiffs argue that the moratoria violate the “takings clause” of the Constitution, which prohibits government taking of private property without just compensation. However, the plaintiffs only argued that the hard that they would suffer is economic, and under such circumstances the proper remedy is monetary damages, not an injunction. So he dismissed the”takings clause” charges.
That left one big issue on the merits: whether the moratoria violate the “contracts clause” of the Constitution that prohibits the government from impairing contracts. But the case law around the contracts clause is more nuanced: it says that that the prohibition isn’t absolute, but the reasonableness of the impairment must be measured against the purpose and government interest in imposing it.
Judge Creatura found that the defendants had successfully presented a “laundry list of undisputedly legitimate purposes,” including to reduce COVID-19 transmission and to avoid increasing homelessness (since most evicted individuals in Seattle become homeless). He also found the lack of a requirement for tenants to demonstrate hardship to be reasonable, accepting the city’s argument that many renters are unable to provide adequate proof of economic distress.That said, he also found that the “fit between the moratoria and the interests involved are not perfect here… Nevertheless, the State and the City are given some altitude to address the legitimate public interest posed by the pandemic even if they do not always achieve their intended purpose with each individual application.”
Turning to the question of whether the plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm, the judge quickly came to the same conclusion as he did on the “takings cause” argument: economic injury alone doesn’t qualify as irreparable harm since monetary damages can be awarded to compensate the plaintiffs.
On the issues of the balance of equities and the public interest, the judge also quickly landed on the side of the city and state. The plaintiffs had argued that since it was alleging constitutional violations, case law provided that those violations were sufficient to tip the balance in its favor. But since the judge had already rejected the merits of the constitutional arguments, he rejected that approach. Going even further, he found the COVID-19 crisis to be a substantial factor tipping the scales toward the defendants. “Catching a potential virus is a risk of a different order than the risk of rental income with a possibility of other financial consequences,” Creatura wrote. He also weighed the potential for a wave of evictions — which the governments had presented evidence for — against the potential for a wave of foreclosures against landlords who couldn’t pay their mortgages for lack of rental income. However, he found that the plaintiffs had not provided compelling evidence that a large number of foreclosures were inevitable and imminent, and found for the defendants on this point too.
Having found fault with the plaintiffs’ arguments at every step, Judge Creatura denied their motion for a preliminary injunction. He did, however, let it be known that he isn’t entirely blind to the pain that landlords are feeling right now under the moratoria:
In reaching this conclusion, the undersigned is not unsympathetic to the concerns that the lessors have raised. Without a doubt, these moratoria have significantly disrupted plaintiffs’ businesses—on top of dealing with the other consequences of a pandemic.
The undersigned echoes the concerns of a District Court judge, who, in denying a preliminary injunction motion aimed toward enjoining a similar residential eviction moratorium, observed,
[c]ourts are an imperfect tool to resolve such conflicts. So too are ordinances and statutes that shift economic burdens from one group to another. The court respectfully implores our lawmakers to treat this calamity with the attention it deserves. It is, but for the shooting, a war in every real sense. Hundreds of thousands of tenants pitted against tens of thousands of landlords—that is the tragedy that brings us here. It is the court’s reverent hope, expressed with great respect for the magnitude of the task at hand, that our leaders, and not the courts, lead us to a speedy and fair solution.
The case will continue on without an injunction in place, and the plaintiffs will have another chance to plead their case — and demand to be compensated by the governments. Though at the moment, it looks unlikely they will succeed.
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