Misleading Information in Publicly Available Eviction Court Records Hurts Tenants

June 12, 2019

Misleading Information in Publicly Available Eviction Court Records Hurts Tenants

New MLRI Report Details How MassCourts.org is Creating Barriers to Housing in Massachusetts

Boston, MA – A new report by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) highlights how misleading information that is publicly and permanently available through the MassCourts system is harming already-vulnerable tenants, exacerbating a historic housing crisis.  The MLRI report “Evicted for Life” details the damage caused by eviction court records, available at MassCourts.org, particularly to women, people of color, and low-income renters, as well as children who are named on their parents’ eviction complaints.

“Massachusetts is in the midst of a severe housing crisis and waiting lists for subsidized housing are years long. People are locked out of the housing market simply because a case was filed against them, regardless of the details or outcome of the case. Having a permanent eviction record makes the difficult process of finding housing nearly impossible,” said Annette Duke, a staff attorney at MLRI and co-author of the report.

In 2013, the Massachusetts Trial Courts made eviction court case information publicly available online at MassCourts.org in an effort to automate the court’s case management system. At least 1 million eviction cases have been filed statewide since 1998 and records of these eviction cases remain permanently available forever, regardless of the outcome of the case.  The result of the unrestricted availability of these records, which include misleading, false, and outdated information, is creating a devastating barrier for many tenants seeking housing in Massachusetts.  Landlords, property owners, and tenant screening companies now use this information to conduct tenant screening and tenants can be unfairly denied housing.

“Because MassCourts was designed as a case management tool, all court activity in the case appears online and is displayed in legal shorthand… Many records also contain errors; for example, some eviction cases are erroneously listed as ‘cause’ that were actually ‘no cause,’ suggesting – incorrectly – that the tenant did something wrong. Records are not consistently updated; a tenant may have paid off a judgment in full but that fact may not be reflected anywhere in the court record or online,” co-authors Duke and Andrea Park of MLRI write in the report.

“Evicted for Life” also includes policy recommendations to limit access to certain eviction records based on case outcome. Two identical bills pending at the State House would clarify procedures for sealing eviction records, S. 824 and H. 3566, Promoting Housing Opportunity and Mobility through Eviction Sealing (HOMES).

“As a landlord I understand the need for due diligence when choosing a tenant. But as an advocate and Chair of Housing and Community Development, I know how hard many people are struggling to find a home. The HOMES Act balances needs for accurate information with needs for a second chance,” Boston City Councilor, Lydia Edwards.

As one tenant in the report says, “It feels like defamation of character. I was never found at fault. I am assumed to be guilty even though I have never done anything wrong.”

“The challenges that people living in poverty face go beyond their financial circumstances.  Administrative barriers are often put in place that keep them vulnerable. This is an example of that kind of burden,” said Georgia Katsoulomitis, MLRI’s Executive Director.  “The Commonwealth needs to address the harm that this information is causing to vulnerable individuals and families.”

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About the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) is a nonprofit poverty law and policy center. It provides statewide advocacy and leadership in advancing laws, policies, and practices that secure economic, racial, and social justice for low-income people and communities. MLRI advances its mission through legal initiatives and policy reforms that address the root causes of poverty, remove barriers to opportunity, and create a path to economic stability for low-income individuals, families, and communities.  For more information, please visit www.mlri.org or follow us on Twitter (@MassLawReform) and Facebook.

 

 

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