Philadelphia courts saw more than 300,000 evictions filed from 2005 to 2020, and 90% cited missed rent payments as a cause. In 2018, landlord-tenant cases comprised about 22% of total cases in Municipal Court’s Civil Division, making them one of the most common types of civil court cases. In a city where more than half of renters struggle with housing affordability and many work in service jobs or other positions subject to economic shocks and variable hours, the threat of eviction can be a constant for many households.
And that threat may loom larger in 2022 as federal, state, and city eviction moratoriums that were enacted early in the COVID-19 pandemic expire or are modified. Previous research pointing to racial disparities in both access to housing and eviction rates in Philadelphia underscores the critical need to gain better insight into how the current eviction system operates. Accurate data is essential for developing policies that generate better outcomes for tenants and landlords.
In 2021, Georgetown University launched the Civil Justice Data Commons (CJDC) as a joint project between the Law Center and the Massive Data Institute at the McCourt School of Public Policy to make high-quality civil court data available to researchers. The Pew Charitable Trusts supported development of the platform, and a Pew team served as the CJDC’s pilot researchers. Team members analyzed Philadelphia Municipal Court eviction data to explore whether the type of landlord affected case outcomes, regardless of the original filing reason. The analysis shows that case dispositions do vary according to landlord type—typically individual, corporate, or government.
To be sure, case outcomes depend on many factors—including some not easily captured in an administrative dataset, such as the relationship between the landlord and tenant—but landlord type appears to make a difference. The data also shows that many cases may be resolved efficiently outside of court; more than half were withdrawn or resulted in a tenant and a landlord coming to a formal agreement.
Most cases have one of three outcomes
For an eviction case to proceed in court, landlords or their attorneys must demonstrate that tenants have been notified of a case against them. Tenants must be served with a court summons noting the date and time of their scheduled court appearance.
If the Philadelphia court determines that a tenant was not served, the case is automatically dismissed. In the data analysis, only 0.8% of cases were dismissed for no service.
Slightly more than one-third (36%) of cases ended in default judgments, which occur when tenants facing eviction do not show up for their court date and a judgment is automatically entered against them. Many factors can contribute to defendants not showing up to court, including whether they were actually notified of the lawsuit. It would seem that if a case receives any other disposition besides dismissal service must have been complete, but that may not always be true. A recent report in The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that some tenants never received their summons, even when the official record indicated that they had.
Although the rules governing service of process for debt collection cases differ somewhat from those for eviction cases, examining debt collection proceedings can provide useful insights. A recent Pew report on debt collection cases in Philadelphia Municipal Court found that some consumers struggle to understand service documents, feel too overwhelmed to attend court, or feel there is nothing they can do to change the outcome of the case.
Another factor may influence default judgment rates among those who do receive their eviction summons: Recent research from the universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago, for example, indicates that tenants with longer mass transit commute times to the courthouse are more likely than others to face a default judgment for failure to appear.
And those struggles can work against their interests. When defendants do not appear in court to take advantage of their right to due process, they cannot share their side of the story, and judges may not have all the facts with which to make a fully informed decision.