A federal district court judge on Wednesday issued an injunction to stop Los Angeles County from enforcing parts of its COVID-19 eviction moratorium, but not until Dec. 1.
Specifically, the ruling by Judge Dean Pregerson would prohibit the county from enforcing eviction protections for low-income tenants who failed to pay rent on or after July 1, 2022.
With the moratorium already set to expire at the end of December, the injunction – if allowed to take effect – will end portions of the moratorium one month early.
Pregerson, who cites defects in the way the moratorium is written in his ruling, wrote that he delayed the effective date of the injunction until Dec. 1 to give the county an opportunity to cure the deficiencies in the moratorium or, alternatively, to provide time for rental housing providers and tenants to “adjust to and plan for a post-injunction legal landscape.”
The injunction stems from a lawsuit filed in March alleging that the nonpayment moratorium, which the county was reintroducing after the previous nonpayment moratorium lapsed in September 2020, violates rental housing providers’ due-process rights.
The plaintiffs — the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) and the Apartment Owners Association (AOA) — asked the court to issue the preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of the moratorium while their case is litigated. Oral arguments took place in July.
Such injunctions are granted only in limited circumstances and require, among other things, a showing that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their case.
In granting the motion, the judge found that the plaintiffs had met that burden based on a relatively narrow claim that the nonpayment protections are “void for vagueness” – meaning they are too unclear to be enforced. Specifically, the judge found that the wording of the moratorium is not sufficiently clear for an ordinary person to understand either what level of COVID hardship was sufficient for a tenant to qualify for protections or the effect of the mandate that property owners accept tenant self-certification of their COVID hardship and income eligibility.
On the latter point, the county advocated for a strained interpretation of the self-certification requirement to avoid running afoul of a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down a nearly identical provision in a New York eviction moratorium law. The county argued that the requirement to accept tenant self-certifications merely required landlords to accept delivery of such self-certifications, but that property owners could challenge the truth of those certifications in court.
Judge Pregerson rejected that argument, calling it a “blinkered reading” and pointing to contrary provisions in the moratorium that prohibit a property owner from taking any action to evict a tenant, including serving a notice to pay rent or quit, unless the property owner had no reasonable basis to believe the tenant was protected by the moratorium. These conflicting and confusing provisions leave landlords in the untenable position of having to guess as to what their rights and obligations are.
“Without any meaningful guidance from the resolution, landlords are left to guess, not just as to the likelihood of success of any unlawful detainer action, but as to whether the very filing of any such action is prohibited,” the judge wrote.
Because the ruling is narrowly focused on the vague construction of Los Angeles county’s moratorium, the ruling does not appear to have any bearing on broader challenges made to eviction moratoria, such as AAGLA and AOA’s claim that the county’s eviction moratorium represents an unconstitutional government overreach in light of the progress made to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and CAA’s on-going legal challenge to the Alameda county eviction moratorium based on alleged violations of the Takings Clause and Contracts Clause.
The county has not yet commented on the court’s ruling. CAA will update its compliance materials for the moratorium as more information becomes available.