Groundless Answers and Why You Have To Come To Court

The resident owes the rent.  You send the three-day and get a court date.  After the court date, you get a call from our office.  The resident filed an answer, and you will need to be in court in a week for the trial.  AN ANSWER!  The resident didn’t pay the rent so how can they possibly contest the case?  Your even more outraged when a resident files an answer when you have non-renewed a resident.  What possible valid defense can the resident have when you serve a notice to vacate at the end of the lease, and the resident fails to move out?  The answer is none.

However, unfortunately, the vast majority of time in eviction cases, the resident doesn’t need a valid defense to have the case set for trial.  Why?  In many cases, residents don’t need a valid defense to get a trial because most of the time, the courts don’t or won’t perform their gatekeeper function.  Simply put, the courts fail to perform their duty to weed out the garbage (exclude non-meritorious defenses).  Unless a resident asserts a valid legal or factual defense, the resident should not be entitled to a trial.  Residents often admit in their answers that they owe the rent, but that they just need more time, or they didn’t pay the rent because of some personal circumstance such as losing their job.  These are not valid legal or factual defenses.

The courts have a procedure for dealing with non-meritorious answers.  This procedure is called judgment on the pleadings.  If a resident doesn’t assert a valid defense, you should be entitled to judgment on the pleadings on the initial court date (the return date).  The judgment on the pleadings procedure is simple at least in theory.  Once a bogus answer is filed, as your attorneys, we are allowed to move under the rules for judgment on the pleadings.  The court should review the answer.  When ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court gives the resident the benefit of the doubt by assuming that everything the resident has said in the answer is true.  However, even if everything the resident says is accepted as true, and the resident still has not asserted a valid defense, the court should immediately enter judgment for possession in your favor, and thus not require a trial or for you to waste your time by showing up for a trial when the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

We make every effort to save you time by moving for judgment on the pleadings when a resident files a groundless answer.  However, the reality is that courts rarely enter judgment on the pleadings in eviction cases on the return date.  In some courts, we can’t have the file called up on the return date to make a motion for judgment on the pleadings.  The magistrate or judge is too busy attending to other matters to have the case called up on a return date.  In other courts, the judge or magistrate that hears returns gives the extreme benefit of the doubt to the resident.  “I know there is not a lot there counselor, but I’m going to let them have their day in court”.  One magistrate would actually coach or steer the residents towards asserting valid defenses.  In some cases, the residents file the answer before the return date and are not present when we go to court.  No court will hear a motion for judgment on the pleadings when the resident is not present.

Ok, the courts have failed to weed out my resident’s groundless answer.  But, why do I need to show up at court?  Doesn’t my resident have to prove that he paid the rent?  Yes, he does.  But only after you prove that he owed the rent.  You bear the initial burden of proving that the resident owed the rent, you served a three day demand for rent, and that after three days, the resident still did not pay the rent.  Only after you have meet your burden of proof, does the burden of proof then shift to the resident to prove his defense.  Imagine the scales of justices.  At the start of the case, the scales are tilted in the resident’s favor.  The resident’s scale is at 100%.  You are at 0%.  In an eviction case, you meet your burden proof by getting the scales to tilt at least 50.1% in your favor.  Until you do that, the resident doesn’t have to do a thing to prevail at an eviction trial.

While it’s possible to win (get the scales to tilt in your favor) without you having to appear in court, attempting to do so is a risky proposition.  When forced to, we have won plenty of cases without our clients being present in court.  We put the resident on the stand, and get the resident to admit that he lives in your unit, didn’t pay the rent, got posted with a three day, and still didn’t pay after three days.  But there is no guarantee that resident is going to admit what you need to win.  The resident might also lie to prove a defense.  For example, the resident might say “I offered the full amount during the three day period and they wouldn’t take it”, or “I was never posted with any kind of notice.”  In either case, you would lose.  You have to be in court to counter the resident’s testimony when a resident lies.

Some clients have asked us why they can’t just give us the documents to prove the case.  Because documents such as leases, rent ledgers, and three day rent demands are not admissible in court without a witness to authenticate them, and overcome a hearsay objection.  Hearsay is a fairly complicated subject, but what it really comes down to is the denial of the right to cross examine.  When documents are admitted without a witness, there is nobody to cross examine.  It’s as if the rent ledger walked up and took the stand.  The resident might dispute the ledger.  However, the resident can’t ask a piece of paper questions.  For similar reasons, we are not allowed to testify for you.  We have no personal first hand knowledge of the facts.  We only know what you have told us.  For example, if the resident denied they were posted with a three day notice, we couldn’t testify that the notice was posted.  The resident has the right to ask the person who posted when and how they did it.

Because we know how valuable your time is, we make every effort to ensure that your time is not wasted.  When a resident files a groundless answer, we attempt to dispose of the case right then and there so you don’t have to waste your time coming to court.  Unfortunately, this is not always possible because judgments on the pleadings are rarely granted. Given the fact that the courts are already extremely overburdened, we are at a loss to understand why the courts are run this way.  We don’t understand why the courts wouldn’t want to immediately dispose of groundless defenses.  This would give more time to meritorious cases, and create less work for the judges.  When we don’t get judgment on the pleadings, we continue to try to save you time by getting the case resolved prior to the trial date so you won’t have to show up.  If after everything we can’t get it resolved prior to the trial date, you have to show up.

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