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Wealth & Poverty Review Courts Are Dismissing Eviction Cases on the Grounds of “Confusion”

A couple living in Kent, a city south of Seattle, was issued an eviction notice in May 2023 and then granted a continuance in court – a delay in eviction proceedings – five times over the last eleven months. Then last month, a King County Superior Court judge dismissed the case. The landlord has lost more than $23,000 in unpaid rent, a cost that continues to grow by $2,100 every month.

Why was the case dismissed eleven months after the eviction notice was served? According to the judge, the notice was “confusing.” To understand the source of confusion, we have to go back to spring 2020, when the federal government passed the CARES Act. Alongside other measures to provide economic aid and relief during the COVID pandemic, the act established a lengthy eviction moratorium and required landlords to provide tenants with 30 days to pay or leave the property before an eviction process could begin.

The federal 30-day rule conflicted with Washington’s 14-day pay or vacate rule, and a Washington State Court of Appeals ruled that that the 30-day rule took precedent. In Sherwood Auburn LLC v. Pinzon, judges state that an eviction notice must “unequivocally inform the tenant that, pursuant to the CARES Act, they had 30 days from the date of the notice to cure the alleged nonpayment of rent or to vacate the premises.”

When King County Commissioner Brad Moore dismissed the Kent couple’s eviction case on April 5, he argued that the tenants were “not afforded clear and accurate notice” because the housing provider informed the defendant that “you may be required to vacate the residential unit in not less than 30 days from the date of this notice.” The supposed source of confusion lies in the fact that a lengthy eviction process can legally only start once the 30 days are up. Commissioner Moore concludes, “thus, an order which would require the tenant to vacate the residential unit cannot occur until well past the 30 days stated in the CARES Act notice.” It’s fitting that in this case, 330 days passed before the Commissioner made this ruling to dismiss it.

Obviously, nobody wants to be evicted from their home. At the same time, no one wants to give away the use of their home for several months, all while paying for legal support, only to have to start the whole process over months later because the very first notice didn’t acknowledge that their tenants could stay in the home for a long time.

The burden of responsibility in the justice system seems off kilter. Tenants can expect a pro-bono legal team to keep them in their home for free on the grounds of confusion, while landlords can expect to be penalized for not being clear enough about a confusing law that hurts them.

Michael Webb, a senior policy analyst at the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, was recently quoted in the Seattle Times. Critical of the federal CARES Act, Webb explains how for the 30-day waiting period, “the tenant isn’t paying rent, and the rent balance keeps going up,” hurting housing providers.  

Rightfully, the CARES Act is a subject of continued criticism. So too is the way King County’s justice system has leveraged the law to dismiss at least one case because the law is confusing.  

Even if we assume the very best about the tenants and the circumstances surrounding the notice of eviction, dragging out the eviction process is not a victory of justice for two reasons. First, it is unjust to force landlords to pay their tenants’ rent. The Kent landlord is being strongarmed into providing free housing at a personal cost of $23,000 and growing with no hope of recovery. This is unfair and unsustainable. Second, delaying the eviction process is not a good stand-in for helping tenants out of the circumstances that got them there. If the circumstances were the “just one bill behind” scenario we so often hear about, there would be no reason for the case to continue for eleven months. More likely, this family is facing a complex web of circumstances – some they can’t control, but some they can.

No matter what the Kent couple’s circumstances are, their landlord isn’t responsible for providing them with free housing, and in a fair legal system, being confused about one’s eviction notice doesn’t change that fact.