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11th Circuit launches pilot to resolve eviction disputes

Senior Editor Top Stories
Judge Nushin Sayfie

Judge Nushin Sayfie

Expecting a flood of evictions in the coming months, the 11th Circuit is using a voluntary, remote platform to encourage landlords and tenants to resolve their differences.

Called “courtHELP,” for Court Housing, Eviction, Landlord/Tenant Portal, the pilot program allows landlords and tenants to communicate, exchange information, and initiate mediation from a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

“We believe that courtHELP will make it easy for landlords and tenants to start communicating and resolving their differences early on – well before the case proceeds to a full court process,” 11th Circuit Chief Judge Nushin Sayfie said in a statement.

At a September 3 press conference, Associate Administrative County Judge Scott Janowitz referred to the recent expiration of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium.

“An online platform for landlords and tenants will allow for early resolution prior to the full-court process, and increase access to justice, always the court’s hope,” he said.

Limited to residential evictions, the pilot program is free and will soon be available in Spanish and Creole.

Tenants who receive an eviction notice initiate the process by going the “courtinnovations.com/flcourtshelp” website and registering with their case number.

The portal allows tenants to communicate with their landlords via email and SMS messaging. If the parties reach a settlement, the portal can help them draft it and file it directly with the court.

If the parties fail to reach an agreement, the portal can refer them to an 11th Circuit court mediator. If no agreement can be reached, the case proceeds.

Under Florida law, tenants who challenge an eviction are required to post back rent, or if that amount is disputed, what they believe they owe, in a court registry. Judge Janowitz warned that tenants can’t avoid that responsibility by using the portal, and that the pilot is not a diversion program.

“As judges we are going to follow the law,” he said. “We’re just trying to provide an avenue for the parties to talk.”

County Administrative Judge Gordon Murray said that in 2019 there were 18,000 eviction cases filed in the 11th Circuit, and the number is expected to double in the coming year.

Half of the 18,000 eviction cases ended in default, Judge Murray said.

“Meaning that the tenant never filed anything with the court, and that was discouraging,” he said.

Many of those evictions could have been prevented if the tenants had not been too embarrassed about their circumstances, or “intimidated” by the legal process to contact their landlord, Judge Murray said.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Raquel Regalado was credited with securing county funding that made the pilot possible.

“I think this program will allow, through the use of technology, the ability to get closer to the court system, and to be responsive,” she said. “That 50% default number is very frightening.”

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