Cheri Nicholson was on hold with the Jefferson County District Court when she learned from her landlord that the court had already ruled against her.
At 10:00 a.m. last Wednesday, when her eviction hearing was scheduled to begin, Nicholson dialed the Zoom number that the Court provided with her eviction notice. A voice recording instructed her to wait for the host to start the meeting.
Minutes passed. The longer Nicholson waited, the more anxious she got. She decided to text her landlord, who told her that court was already over, that the judge had already ruled, and that she had seven days to leave her residence.
"I've got this little peice of paper, a golden ticket from the court system that tells you 'Call this number,' but nothing is working. I was panic-stricken. The only thing I could think about was, 'If I don't get in here they'll think I'm lollygagging and don't care.' My mind was racing about a hundred miles an hour," Nicholson said. "You know if you don't touch base with these people you're screwed."
What Nicholson didn’t know was that beginning on January 25th, the Jefferson County District Court had changed the location of its Zoom eviction hearings.
The old number still appeared on the Jefferson County District Court’s website, and the new notice that the Court provided to people facing eviction did not list any information about how to appear at their Zoom eviction hearing.
Because nobody told Nicholson that the location of her hearing had changed, it was as if she sat waiting for everyone else to show up in one courtroom — not knowing that she was being evicted in another courtroom down the hall.
Nicholson is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that Kentucky Equal Justice Center filed today, challenging the Jefferson County District Court’s failure to notify Kentuckians facing eviction of the location of their Zoom eviction hearings.
Until recently, the Jefferson County District Court provided the phone number and other information that people facing eviction need to access their hearings in the notice that the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office serves them.
But the Jefferson County District Court decided to change the number for its Zoom eviction hearings effective January 25th. It has not notified people facing eviction of its new number: in fact, the new notice that the Jefferson County District Court sends with its eviction paperwork does not provide people with any phone number whatsoever.
Instead, people facing eviction in Jefferson County are now told to go to jeffersondistrictcourt.com, where the old number still appears on some parts of the website.
By at least January 27th, the Jefferson County District Court was aware that people were having difficulty appearing for Zoom eviction hearings because of its decision to change the location of the hearings, and its failure to notify them of that change.
After Nicholson found out from her landlord that her eviction hearing had happened without her, she called the Jefferson District Clerk directly. She explained her difficulty appearing for her hearing to a woman named “Lindsey,” who “giggled and said, ‘They changed that on Monday, but they never did tell anybody.’”
The only people that the Jefferson County District Court appears to have notified of the new number were attorneys representing landlords. Beginning on January 25th, Court officials spent time calling landlords’ attorneys who had not appeared for their cases to inform them of the change in phone numbers.
There is no record that the Court called attorneys representing renters to inform them of the change. When people like Nicholson did manage to appear for their hearings, the Court did not vacate the judgments against them or reschedule their hearing. They simply informed them that it was too late.
More than 600 Kentuckians like Nicholson have eviction hearings before the Jefferson County District Court in the next two weeks. For people like Nicholson, it is impossible to appear at an eviction hearing if they don’t know where it’s located.
The lawsuit that Kentucky Equal Justice Center filed today argues that the Jefferson County District Court’s failure to notify people of how they must appear at their eviction hearing violates the basic right to due process they are guaranteed by the Constitution.
The complaint, Toni Floyd and Cheri Nicholson et al v. Anne Haynie, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. It seeks prospective injunctive relief barring the Jefferson County District Court from conducting eviction hearings until it implements policies and procedures to guarantee Constitutionally-adequate notice to people facing eviction of the time and place of their hearings.
“We asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to make eviction processes uniform, safe, and fair in Kentucky back in May of last year,” said Ben Carter, Senior Litigation and Advocacy Counsel for Kentucky Equal Justice Center. “Eight months later, Kentucky’s ad hoc eviction processes are getting more dangerous and less fair.”
During a pandemic, the stakes of being evicted are exponentially higher. Nicholson is the primary caretaker for her disabled husband, who broke his neck and back six years ago. Working as a surgical technologist for 22 years, she just had a hip replacement and broke her femur twice.
For people like Nicholson, being evicted during the ongoing spread of COVID-19 is a health issue. Evictions often result in people staying with friends or families in environments that epidemiologists say exacerbate the risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
“If somebody has a positive test...and their living environment is doubled up, tripled up, quadrupled up, [isolation] strategies won’t work,” Dr. Kristen Bibbins-Domingo at the University of California-San Francisco told Capitol Public Radio in December.
The risk disproportionately falls on Black and brown renters. Because of our nation’s history of redlining and predatory lending, there is a 30 percent gap in homeownership between white and Black Americans (72 and 42 percent, respectively). This means that changes in Kentucky’s eviction processes disproportionately impact people of color in our state.
“The switch-’em-up the Jefferson District Court did last week would violate people’s due process rights in ‘normal’ times. During a pandemic in which 20 percent of the lowest-paid workers are still out-of-work, it’s not just a Constitutional violation: it’s a dangerous issue of public health,” Carter said.
It is a matter of due process anytime someone faces an eviction hearing that the Court inform them of its time and location.
During a pandemic, it’s a matter of life and death.