JUdge Todd Grace

Athens County Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace in court on Friday last week. Photo by Conor Morris.

After new guidance from the Ohio Supreme Court came down late last week amid Ohio’s worsening coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, Athens County Municipal Court has moved to temporarily cancel all hearings, including those on evictions.

Athens County Municipal Judge Todd Grace confirmed in an email Monday that all hearings have been pushed back to May 1, though that’s just a placeholder date for now as the court monitors the coronavirus pandemic.

“Contested eviction hearings will not realistically be scheduled again before May, and even May seems unlikely,” Grace said in an email. “I have also instructed my staff not to execute any of the set-out orders (writs of restitution) that had been granted prior to these most recent changes.”

There was some controversy locally last week after Grace confirmed on Monday, March 16, that he was continuing with eviction hearings despite economic hardships caused by the coronavirus, with many local employees being laid off from their jobs or otherwise experiencing serious cuts in their hours.

In an interview on Friday morning at Athens County Municipal Court, prior to the new order from the Ohio Supreme Court, Grace explained that he had changed the way he was reviewing eviction cases – with Grace moving to stay all eviction hearings related to non-payment of rent – but was not in favor of a blanket moratorium on all evictions.

All of that changed late Friday afternoon after the Ohio Supreme Court issued guidance to Ohio courts asking them to grant continuances to all “non-essential” court hearings.

The high court also asked judges to “temporarily continue eviction filings, pending eviction proceedings, scheduled move-outs, and the execution of foreclosure judgments (except in the instances where allegations of domestic violence are involved).”

Lucy Schwallie, managing attorney with Southeast Ohio Legal Services, said in a statement this Monday that her agency is glad to see this step being taken. SEOLS last week sent a letter to the local court on behalf of its low-income clients, asking it to stay all eviction hearings temporarily.

“We’re grateful and relieved that Athens Municipal Court has cancelled in-person hearings, including evictions, during this evolving pandemic,” Schwallie said. “We hope other courts in the region will take their example.  We would encourage any low-income tenants who have questions about how their eviction may proceed, or whose landlords resort to illegal lock outs or utility shut offs, to call our office for assistance.”

According to a general order of the court issued by Grace on Monday, the following measures are now in effect with the court:

• All in-person hearings will be temporarily canceled. “Hearings that can be resolved will be done by video conferencing or teleconferencing and shall be scheduled between the Court and Counsel,” according to a release from the court.

• “All in-person hearings will be scheduled for May 1 or after as a placeholder date as we monitor the evolving pandemic. Additional scheduling notices will be processed prior to that date for appropriate scheduling as the current situation allows.”

• “Persons under probation conditions should contact by telephone their probation officers and comply with their directives.”

• For people who owe on fines and costs, you can pay online at athenscountymunicipalcourtpayments.com or by phone at 740-249-2108. “You can also mail in a check or money order to the Court. If you cannot make your payment due to a COVID emergency, please contact the Court and we will work with you as well.”

Grace said Monday that despite the note above about teleconferencing, he expects there to be “significant logistical issues in getting those” video hearings started.

 

PRIOR TO THE Ohio Supreme Court’s new guidance on Friday, Grace sat down with this reporter to explain how he had changed procedures with regard to eviction hearings amid the coronavirus crisis. It’s important to keep in mind the methods Grace is outlining below have ALL changed since the new guidance from the Supreme Court. However, Grace said he wanted to make sure readers understood what his exact procedures were previously.  

He said that for any cases relating to non-payment of rent by lessees, even for those who hadn’t paid their rent before the coronavirus hit Ohio, in January and February, he would be staying those cases until at least May.

However, for eviction cases where lessees were accused of criminal activity or serious damage to the property they were staying in, Grace said he did not think it was appropriate to push back hearings on those cases. He said he had still planned to hold eviction hearings on those cases, to at least give property owners a chance to be heard.

However, even then, Grace said, he would still be granting tenants who did have an eviction against them an extended period of time to leave the property, at least 30 days (normally it’s between seven and 10 days).

“It needs to be clear, by having a hearing, I’m in a position to make that nuanced decision about what the factors are in that case,” he explained. “There’s no pre-judging of any of these cases…. All of this is (about) deciding if a hearing is necessary, not that an eviction is necessary or that a set-out is necessary.”

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