A side-by-side visual of Kentucky's Jefferson County court building and Shelby County's court building where tenants go for eviction hearings.
In Kentucky’s Jefferson County (left,) tenants in eviction cases are more readily referred to the Emergency Rental Assistance program. In Shelby County (right,) referrals to the program that could help people avoid evictions are inconsistent. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Back when she worked with victims of domestic violence, Judge Jennifer Leibson witnessed the terrible consequences of eviction.

Now, signing eviction documents is part of Leibson’s job as one of two judges in Louisville who currently handle eviction cases. She says she tries to sign as few as possible. 

“I think people don’t realize what an eviction does to a person,” said Leibson, a judge in Kentucky’s 30th District Court, which handles cases in Louisville-Jefferson County. “Of course, it affects their ability to get (future) housing. It affects their credit rating, their ability to buy a car … (and) so much more.”

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism observed Leibson run her courtroom — through Zoom — and interviewed her after seeing the stark differences in how Shelby County’s six General Sessions Civil Court judges handle eviction cases. 

Despite operating under state laws similarly landlord-friendly, Leibson takes steps to assist tenants that even the more helpful local judges never take. 

Leibson forces landlords to prove tenants are still living on the property, allows tenants to attend court using Zoom, calls tenants who don’t show up to court, recommends the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program to tenants, pushes landlords to accept rental assistance and initiates compromises that keep evictions off of people’s records. 

And the other Louisville judge who handles evictions operates similarly, according to Marilyn Harris, director of the Louisville Metro Office of Housing and Community Development. 

“(Our judges) have really bent over backward to help these tenants,” Harris said. “They are stretching (the law) as much as they can.”

In Shelby County, the judges who handle evictions — and are all up for re-election to eight-year terms Thursday — vary on whether or not they refer tenants to the Emergency Rental Assistance program and the degree to which they explain what happens in court. 

Shelby County judges who handle evictions spoke about the need to balance impartiality with compassion while in court. But Leibson thinks about her role differently; for instance, she is open with landlords’ lawyers about her desire to avoid evictions whenever possible within the confines of the law.

Jefferson County judge Jennifer Leibson

After reading MLK50’s article about Shelby County’s judges, Leibson said she doesn’t understand why judges wouldn’t refer tenants to the Emergency Rental Assistance program, which covers up to 12 months of past-due rent and two months of future rent. If landlords are willing to accept the funds, the program sends them a check and the tenant remains in their home. If not, the program gives the money directly to tenants, to help them find their next rental.

These referrals, Leibson said, greatly aid tenants and usually help landlords get more money than they would otherwise, since it’s difficult to collect back rent from people living paycheck to paycheck.

“The landlords get paid. The tenants don’t get evicted,” Leibson said. “I think it’s the best of both worlds.”

For cases when tenants don’t qualify for rental assistance or landlords don’t accept it, Leibson created a compromise: Tenants promise to move out before the first day landlords would be allowed to forcibly enter their home and if they do, the landlords commit to dismissing the eviction. 

Need rental assistance?

Shelby County accepts new applications for Emergency Rental Assistance during the first two weeks of the month, except from people who are imminently facing eviction. Click here to find more information about applying, or call 211.

For tenants, this deal keeps evictions off of their records. For landlords, it means they often don’t have to get the sheriff’s office involved — saving them time and money. 

Leibson said landlords and tenants are also both fans of participating in court by using Zoom. The court’s use of the technology started as a coronavirus precaution. But Leibson can’t imagine doing away with it, because it multiplied the number of tenants who appear in court and things work out better for tenants who attend. 

In Shelby County, it’s not unheard of for people to miss court dates because they’re in the hospital. In Louisville, Leibson said tenants will call into court from their hospital beds. 

Jesse McCoy, a Duke University School of Law professor who spends much of his time on evictions, said tenants in most cities have to frequently decide between attending court and going to work. In Leibson’s court, MLK50 watched a tenant attend from the farm where he works. 

When Shelby County tenants don’t show up for court — which happens in most cases — judges will largely grant whatever the landlords’ attorneys ask. 

In Louisville, the judges will try calling the tenant — twice — before moving forward with the case. 

“Yes, it takes (more time) per case, but I’m willing to do that if it saves an eviction on someone’s record,” Leibson said. 

Judge Betty Thomas Moore sits on the bench inside her courtroom where she hears eviction cases.
Shelby County General Sessions Civil Division judge Betty Thomas Moore at court. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Shelby County Judge Betty Thomas Moore, who takes more time on her cases than the other local judges, said calling tenants would be a step too far. She thinks most tenants know they have court, because she rarely hears from tenants who say they missed because they didn’t know. And if tenants do understand they have court, she thinks it’s their duty to show up. 

“The responsibility is always on the litigants to come to court, one way or the other,” Thomas Moore said. “That’s how we teach people to be responsible. You’ve got to be responsible for yourself. The court should not hold your hand.”

Leibson, though, thinks Shelby County’s judges could probably do a better job holding landlords accountable for their responsibilities — specifically landlords’ duty under both Kentucky and Tennessee law to mitigate their damages. Under this legal principle, landlords suing for unpaid rent should have to do everything they can to avoid losing that money before filing suit over their losses. If landlords turn down Emergency Rental Assistance, Leibson thinks they aren’t meeting this standard, so they should only be granted possession of the property. 

In Shelby County, landlords can receive both possession and the right to collect unpaid rent even if they don’t accept rental assistance. 

The local judges also don’t force landlords to prove the tenant they’re evicting still lives at the property, which Leibson thinks is necessary. Otherwise, the county runs the risk of tenants who have already moved having their records stained with an eviction. 

In an April story, a woman said that Reedy & Co. evicted her after she had vacated her apartment, and another former Reedy tenant said the same thing almost happened to him. Leibson, who was elected to a second four-year term in 2018, said this type of thing used to happen “all the time” in Louisville until she started trying to prevent it. 

When told how things work in Shelby County, Leibson was particularly surprised to hear that tenants have the right to a two-week continuance but aren’t told this at the courthouse and rarely receive it, unless they’re in Thomas Moore’s division. 

Whether it be pro bono lawyers or the judges themselves, she said somebody “needs” to recommend that tenants use these two weeks to either move or strike a deal with their landlord. This way, many tenants would likely avoid the dire consequences of eviction. 

Since she hasn’t received too much pushback on any of these tenant-friendly measures, Leibson thinks Shelby County’s judges could implement them — if they decide to.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

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