When Charles L. Brace began to face eviction after a contentious foreclosure of his Worcester home, he ticked a specific box on the court form: “I claim my right to a jury trial. “
Months later, Brace said, a housing court judge told the retired police officer his case would proceed without a jury trial because he waived his right after filing documents a day late. – a delay which, according to Brace, was the result of undelivered mail.
Brace faces eviction from his home over the past two decades following a foreclosure that he says raised several red flags. Now, the process will take place without Brace being able to argue his case before a jury of his peers.
“A judge arbitrarily, as punishment, decided to withdraw, to drop my jury trial, to write that I have waived it,” Brace said in an interview. “I never gave it up. I have been in law enforcement for 28 years. I understand what “erase folder” is. This is what is happening here.
Brace is a client of HSI Trust Home Savers in Worcester, a non-profit consumer advocacy and advice center. And in the eyes of HSI Trust Founder and Executive Director Bruce Boguslav, the case is part of a bigger picture.
Boguslav, who contacted the press service to highlight Brace’s situation and another lockdown involving Auburn resident Steve Okanlawon, said he believed housing court judges were trying to speed up the process and denied the accused access to jury trials or discovery en route.
Boguslav alleges that for years courts have sometimes failed to respond to requests for jury trials, but the problem has ‘become widespread’ in recent months amid a backlog of cases fueled by the COVID pandemic -19.
“The judges made it clear that it was based on nothing other than the length of jury trials. They take it into account, ”Boguslav told the News Service. “Every judge I’ve heard do this, and now it’s like four, don’t even try to explain the fact that it’s about time.”
Court officials declined to comment on details of individual cases, but defended the housing court as working professionally and fairly.
“While it is not appropriate for me to comment on specific cases, judges, clerks and housing court staff work very hard to ensure that litigants are treated fairly and that the cases that come before them are under scrutiny, ”Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan said. said in a statement to the press service. “Cases before the housing court are dealt with in a deliberative and thoughtful manner. “
The “biggest order book”
The Massachusetts Constitution states that parties “have the right to a jury trial” in many cases, although judges have the power to waive jury trials and limit discovery at their discretion depending on circumstances such as the fact that an accused disrupts or misses important deadlines.
Summary process rules current court procedures require that requests for a jury trial be made “on or before the date on which the respondent’s response is due” in courts where the option is available, such as the housing court.
In Brace’s case, he filed documents a day late, he said, because a postal notice the court sent him was not delivered.
As Brace recalls, a judge approved his motion to file late and granted his jury request, but a second judge later told him his jury trial had been called off and he should consider himself ” lucky ”that his late documents were even accepted. .
As with so many other aspects of public life, the pandemic has turned legal operations upside down. Massachusetts courts have stayed jury trials for nearly a year. In May, the housing court began deploying six-person juries in civil cases rather than the typical 12-person juries to maximize the number of events that can take place.
Many evictions and foreclosures that could have been filed under more normal circumstances also did not progress on a typical timeline, while different versions of state and federal moratoria remained in effect.
Senior judicial officials said last week that the system was equipped to handle the re-acceleration in business, although trial court chief justice Paula Carey noted that jury trials are the “biggest back”.
The Baker administration and court leaders jointly launched an eviction diversion initiative in October 2020, when Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers allowed the state’s moratorium on evictions to expire, putting tenants and residents alike. landlords in contact with rental assistance, legal assistance and mediation.
“We have started to take many steps to prepare to deal with any crisis that may arise,” Sullivan said during a briefing on the status of the program. “Filings are considerably lower than our historical figures would be, so we think we can certainly manage the case flow very effectively over the long term.”
“We are working,” added Carey. “We have a great team, as Chief Sullivan said, especially in the housing court, but throughout the trial court that is really working on the backlog of jury trials. “
The news service asked if there was any data that could demonstrate trends in jury trials at the housing court, and a spokesperson for the state’s trial court system replied that they did not have of this information.
This matches what the courts told HSI Trust, according to correspondence the nonprofit shared with the press service.
The group asked for information indicating the number of cases filed, parties who requested a jury trial, jury trials that ultimately took place, executions handed down and decisions. On September 13, trial court administrator John Bello responded with links to online databases listing eviction and foreclosure cases filed and executed by month. Data does not refer to jury trials.
“The mass court of first instance regularly provides a significant amount of information regarding seizures on mass.govBello wrote to Boguslav. “Compiling more detailed information would be too cumbersome. “
Brace bought his house at 36 Moreland Street in 2002, and for years he investigated his concerns about the house’s mortgage. He said these include dates from documents that do not match, signatures of people who were not present at the events and a bad middle name initial appearing in his name.
“I had three cars. I sold all of my cars. I have sold all possible things of value. I used all the money I saved in retirement each quarter, ”he said. “It took all the money I had just to get this far, and then the slap in the face is, by the way, you won’t have a jury trial.”
Okanlawon, the other HSI Trust client who spoke to the press service, said the judge in his case had scheduled a jury trial for September 29, a date Okanlawon felt was too early to give him time. to proceed with the discovery.
On Thursday, six days before the scheduled jury trial date, the court postponed it sine die.
“A lot of people go through this, mainly because we’re either black, Hispanic, or low-income. They take us to court and threaten us, ”Okanlawon said. “They pick quick dates, quick court dates, which we’re just going through.”
The vast majority of defendants in eviction cases, including those involving residents who refuse to leave their homes following foreclosures, go through the legal battle without a lawyer. In the more than 21,000 residential eviction cases for non-payment of rent filed since the start of 2020, nearly 93% of defendants are in prose, compared to just 15% of plaintiffs, according to the trial court. The data.
Adam Sherwin, a real estate attorney who has represented landlords in court, said he hadn’t watched many requests for jury trials, but knew from experience that they “always had blocked a case in the housing court “.
“I haven’t seen any judge necessarily take it away from a litigant, but they will do it multiple times – and that’s primarily with COVID, it happened before COVID and it continues – multiple times, if he’s a pro is gone and this is someone who represents themselves, it is very common for the court to encourage them to reconsider having a jury trial, ”Sherwin said. “It is also not uncommon for a judge to overturn a request for a jury trial if the litigant has not followed any of the legal procedures or if he has not done what he is supposed to do to prepare. at this trial. “
Disputes over access to jury trials have been brought before state appeals courts in the past. In a case decided in 2017, the judges ruled that a Boston Division Housing Court judge erred in striking out a tenant’s request for a jury trial because the tenant failed to file a pre-trial brief.
The defendant had asked court workers to help her understand the demands she was facing and they replied that she should appear by the date of the trial. The Court of Appeal ruled that the defendant’s jury’s request “should not have been quashed before considering less severe penalties.”