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Philadelphia Municipal Court Pilot Program Provides Residential Tenants with an Opportunity to Avoid the Entry of a Judgment Against Them in Some Cases in which They Withheld Rent Due to the Conditions of the Leased Premises

June 7, 2017

By Kristine A. Phillips, Esquire
Co-Chair Municipal Court Committee
Philadelphia Bar Association

The Philadelphia Municipal Court has launched a pilot program that is applicable to residential landlord-tenant cases in which the court determines that the landlord is entitled to a monetary award based solely on nonpayment of money due under the lease and the rent due should be abated because of conditions of the property that affect its habitability. The Philadelphia Bar Association’s Municipal Court Committee brought the idea for the pilot program to the court’s attention based on dicta in Pugh v. Holmes, 486 Pa. 272, 292, 405 A.2d 897, 907 (1979), in which the Supreme Court observed that:

If there had been a partial breach of the [implied] warranty [of habitability], the obligation to pay rent would be abated in part only.  In such case, a judgment for possession must be denied if the tenant agrees to pay that portion of the rent not abated; if the tenant refuses to pay the partial rent due, a judgment granting possession would be ordered.

Before the launch of the pilot program, tenants were at risk of having judgments entered against them if they withheld more rent due to conditions affecting the habitability of the leased property than the court found was warranted. The pilot program addressed that situation by providing tenants with an opportunity to pay the amount that the court finds is due.  If tenants pay the amount found by the court, the court will enter a judgment in favor of the tenants.  If, however, the tenants choose not to make the payment, the court will enter a judgment in favor of the landlord in the amount that the court found was due minus any payments that were made by the tenants after the court’s finding.  Whether or not tenants avail themselves of the pilot program by making a payment, they and the landlord maintain their right to take a de novo appeal to the Court of Common Pleas after the Philadelphia Municipal Court enters a judgment.

The pilot program involves new forms. At the time of trial, the parties are required to provide contact information so that the court may easily contact them.  The court also makes written findings on another form that includes information about the location and person to be paid on behalf of the landlord.  Only money orders, bank checks and certified checks are acceptable means of payment.  If payment is made within four days, tenants must file an affidavit that includes information about when, where, how and to whom payment was made.  If an affidavit is filed, the court contacts the landlord via email to confirm that payment was made. If the landlord disputes the accuracy of the averments contained in the affidavit, the court will schedule a hearing.

The pilot program’s method was chosen because it does not unduly delay an eviction and provides an easily verifiable means of payment. The pilot program advances the goal of providing tenants with a way of withholding rent due to conditions of the property that affect its habitability without having to fear that a judgment will be entered against them if they withhold more than the court finds is warranted. All concerned recognized that an adverse judgment may have the collateral effect of impairing tenants in their effort to find housing and credit.  

The Municipal Court Committee worked closely with Supervising Judge Bradley K. Moss, who had the support of President Judge Marsha H. Neifield and the assistance of the court’s staff in implementing this program. Judge Moss reported that the pilot program is running smoothly without any problems.

 

“Philadelphia Municipal Court Pilot Program Provides Residential Tenants with an Opportunity to Avoid the Entry of a Judgment Against Them in Some Cases in which They Withheld Rent Due to the Conditions of the Leased Premises” by Kristine A. Phillips was originally published in the June 2017 edition/issue of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter (Vol. 46, No. 6). Reprinted with permission.

   
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