What Can Landlords Collect During the Eviction Moratorium, and What Can They Obtain After it Expires?

Landlords are eager to collect unpaid rent and repossess their property, but with the CDC’s eviction moratorium in place, what can landlords collect, and when?

In May, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf entered an executive order preventing owners of residential properties from evicting their tenants for the tenants’ failure to timely pay their rent. Though renters were never permitted to permanently withhold rent payments, the executive order also permitted renters to delay making month-to-month payments while they navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Wolf extended the provisions originally set forth in the executive order through July 10, and again through August 31.

However, landlords in Pennsylvania could not resume eviction efforts even after Governor Wolf’s executive order expired on August 31. On September 4, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) entered its own order under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act which placed a nationwide eviction moratorium on residential tenants effective when tenants submit to their landlords a document known as a “CDC Declaration.” The CDC’s order, which aims to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, will not expire until December 31, 2020.

With the prohibition on evictions lasting throughout the calendar year, landlords are undoubtedly anxious to reclaim possession of their rental properties. And though previously unable to collect owed money due to the Pennsylvania moratorium eviction, many landlords are eager to reclaim unpaid rent needed to pay the mortgages, taxes, and utilities on those rental properties.

So what is a landlord entitled to recover once the eviction moratorium expires?

Landlords can actually seek out monetary judgments at this time—the CDC’s order prohibits landlords from evicting tenants throughout December 31. Both Governor Wolf’s executive Order and the CDC’s order do not eliminate the tenant’s obligation to pay rent (though the Pennsylvania moratorium eviction permitted tenants to delay payments). That said, landlords can collect any monthly payments the tenant agreed to make in the lease, including all back rents and (if applicable) utilities. The CDC eviction moratorium merely prohibits landlords from repossessing their property.

What happens if the tenant cannot pay rent after the eviction moratorium expires?

If the tenant cannot pay his rent, but is still bound to several months’ of rent payments, a prudent landlord should inquire what payment the tenant can make. Landlords and tenants are always free to renegotiate the terms of the lease. Agreements to stagger payments of outstanding debts, such as a structured payment plan, can be viable alternatives to litigation. And, in some cases, agreeing to release a tenant from part or all his lease obligations can be mutually beneficial: the tenant avoids increasing debt from unpaid rent, and the landlord can re-let his property to paying tenants.

What happens if a landlord and a tenant cannot agree on renegotiation of payment?

Not all situations, however, can be resolved. Again, many landlords have gone several months without receiving rent income, and may have no choice but to move on from tenants incapable of meeting their lease commitments. Under these circumstances, landlords should begin eviction proceedings and would be wise to see the assistance of a landlord-tenant attorney. Again, landlords should be mindful that they cannot evict tenants throughout December 31 if the tenant has submitted a CDC Declaration.

What is needed to start the process of tenant eviction?

The first step in an eviction proceeding is the issuance of a “Notice to Quit” letter. The Notice to Quit acts as a formal notification from the landlord to the tenant indicating the landlord’s intent to remove the tenant from the property.

How many days in advance must a Notice to Quit letter be given before eviction?

If the eviction is based on the tenant’s non-payment of rent, the Notice to Quit letter must give the tenant 10 days notice of the eviction. However, a tenant can waive his right to be served with a Notice to Quit, and such a waiver is often contained within the lease.

Can a landlord change the locks or otherwise engage in “self-help” on a tenant who hasn’t paid rent?

Landlords should also know that they cannot engage in self-help to carry out an eviction. This has been the law before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and will continue whether or not the eviction moratorium extends throughout 2021. In other words, in the absence of a court order, landlords cannot change the locks on their property to coerce delinquent tenants to leave, nor can they hire a locksmith to do so. Rather, if the tenant remains in possession of the property after the period detailed in the Notice to Quit, a landlord must obtain an eviction judgment from the relevant court.

How does a landlord get an eviction judgement in Pennsylvania?

Typically, to get that eviction judgment in Pennsylvania, the landlord must file a Complaint with the Magisterial District Court that lies in the same jurisdiction where the rental property is located. That Complaint should request that the Magisterial District Court Judge enter an order for possession in the landlord’s favor as well as a monetary judgment against the tenant for all back rent and court costs. In addition to possession and back rent, the landlord can also request judgment for any new rent that will become due at the time of the hearing, and if the lease permits it, unpaid utilities and attorneys’ fees.

The Court will then schedule a hearing at some later date, at which time the landlord (or the landlord’s attorney) will argue before a Magisterial District Court Judge as to why he is entitled to the relief demanded in the Complaint.

However, the Magisterial District Court will only hear a case when a landlord demands less than $12,000.00 in damages. In light of the protracted eviction moratorium—which will have lasted over eight months by the time the CDC’s order expires on December 31—it is not uncommon for a landlord to claim substantially more than $12,000.00 in back rent, attorneys’ fees, outstanding utility payments, and other potential damages. In this case, the landlord cannot file a Complaint with the Magisterial District Court and instead must look to the local Court of Common Pleas for relief. Cases heard before the Court of Common Pleas can take several months to litigate—much longer than those matters heard in the Magisterial District Court level. That said, a landlord owed a significant balance but more interested in obtaining possession may take advantage of the expedited litigation provided by the Magisterial District Court and agree to cap monetary damages at $12,000.00.

Can a tenant appeal an eviction?

Even if a judge grants an order for possession and other relief in the landlord’s favor, the landlord must wait 10 days before he can file the order for possession. During this 10 day period, the tenant can appeal the judge’s decision. If 10 days pass with no appeal, the landlord can then file and serve the order for possession, but a sheriff or constable will not initiate the eviction until another 10 days after service of the order for possession has passed. During this period, which can last several weeks, if the tenant can come up with enough money to satisfy the monetary judgment and the landlord’s costs in obtaining the order for possession before the constable or sheriff can initiate the eviction, then the tenant may continue to posses the property. (This benefit to the tenant, known as the right to “pay and stay,” is available only when the tenant faces eviction for non-payment of rent.)

Can a landlord evict a tenant for other reasons during the pandemic?

The above information outlines the landlord’s options due to a tenant’s non-payment of rent. The CDC’s order does not prevent landlords from commencing eviction proceedings for other reasons, such as when a tenant engages in criminal activity, destroys property, or otherwise violates provisions in the lease or building code. Under these circumstances, there may be different notice requirements that the landlord must adhere to prior to evicting, and the timeframes set forth in a Notice to Quit are different than in a non-payment of rent matter.

What, exactly, a landlord may recover depends on what he and the tenant agreed to in the lease. An aggrieved landlord should contact a landlord-tenant attorney to review the lease and get a better understanding of what he is entitled to after the eviction moratorium ends.

Boundary Disputes in Pennsylvania

Boundary disputes between neighbors and their properties are nothing new, and are probably just about as old as the concept of privately-owned real estate.

Disputes between adjoining property owners regarding the location of their common property line can arise from a multitude of different factual situations. The property descriptions contained in some ancient deeds written by a quill pen and ink might have been ambiguous or contained inconsistent information. Or maybe a survey conducted many years later reveals that one neighbor’s fence (or deck, shed, or other structure) encroaches on the other neighbor’s property.

However they begin, these boundary line disputes can escalate quickly and require contacting a real estate attorney. Both neighbors may have some seemingly legitimate claim to title of the disputed area, and emotions often run high when it comes to the ownership of land that has been in the family for generations or for which significant sums of hard-earned money have been paid.

Sometimes all it takes is a conversation and/or a little research and the dispute resolves itself. Other times resolution will not be possible until you engage a real estate attorney and a court issues an order in an action to quiet title or ejectment.

Depending on the specific factual scenario, different legal principles may come into play, including adverse possession and the consentable line doctrine. Adverse possession and consentable line claims can allow a person who does not have legal title to a piece of land to acquire title through occupation of the land for a period of time. The requirements for claims made under these principles differ from state to state, and each case will require the analysis of a number of specific facts about the current and historical use of the property in dispute.

Adverse Possession

In Pennsylvania, a claim for adverse possession requires a claimant to show that it has occupied the land of another for a period of 21 years (or 10 years in certain, specific circumstances) in a manner that is:

  • Actual;
  • Continuous;
  • Exclusive;
  • Visible;
  • Notorious; and
  • Hostile.

These requirements are legal terms of art with specific legal definitions, and will require an in-depth understanding of the law and application of the facts by a real estate attorney. But importantly, title to the property can transfer to a person who continuously occupies and uses a portion of land in a manner hostile to the ownership of the title owner, and who has met all other requirements, for the required time period.

The Consentable Line Doctrine

The consentable line doctrine can be applied to cases where the existence of a boundary line is established by either recognition and acquiescence or dispute and compromise. It also requires a period of at least 21 years, but has much less stringent requirements than adverse possession. A claim based on acquiescence may only require that:

  1. that each party has claimed the land on their side of the line as their own, and
  2. that they have occupied the land on their side of the line for a continuous period of 21 years.

There are also less stringent requirements regarding the ability to satisfy the requirement of continuous occupation for at least 21 years by adding years that the property was used or occupied by prior owners, called “tacking”. In consentable line doctrine cases, the claimant does not need for the property for which they are asserting a claim to have been included in the property description of the deed by which they obtained title to their property, but need only show that the prior owner claimed the property and that the property is contiguous to the property they received by deed.

Whether you may be interested in assessing your own claim based on adverse possession or the consentable line doctrine, or need to evaluate the strength of a potential claim against you, it is vitally important to fully understand the law and assess the facts. It’s best to consult with a real estate attorney avoid issues.

What To Do If You Have a Boundary Dispute?

In many cases, neighbors will have good (or at least respectful) relationships and be able to work out some sort of private agreement between themselves. This is preferable where possible, since it will save significant amounts of time and money and help maintain the peace in the neighborhood.

Even in these cases, it may make sense to consult a real estate attorney for assistance and counsel in drafting or reviewing any agreement, as legal rights and real estate interests can often be complex and nuanced. It is important that the agreement protects you and your rights and interests now and in the future.

However, as stated above there are many cases in which the value of the property interest in dispute is significant enough or the neighbors involved are not able to come to an agreement on their own and litigation ensues.

It is important to engage experienced real estate attorneys with knowledge of the law and procedures involved to successfully enforce or defend your property rights. Contact Stephen Zaffuto at 610-275-0700 to discuss your specific boundary dispute in Pennsylvania. Our law firm has offices in Norristown and Doylestown.