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Long Story Short: Oklahoma Evicted

Oklahoma Watch, March 13, 2024

Cory Johnson waited for his turn on the February 14 evictions docket at the Oklahoma County Courthouse. His 11-year-old daughter, Hazyl, tried to get comfortable on a hard wooden bench, resting her head on his shoulder, his arm, his lap. Johnson had to pick up Hazyl from school and bring her to court because she felt sick.

From health problems to car problems, utility cut-offs and other emergencies, sometimes rent money just isn’t there, Johnson said.

“Things happen, you know, where other things come up,” he said.

His was one of 83 cases on the day’s docket.

In Oklahoma, more than 48,200 eviction cases like Johnson’s were filed in 2023, 17,868 of which were in Oklahoma County, Shelterwell data shows.

In a typical year, landlords file 3.6 million eviction cases in the United States, according to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. That means that every four minutes, someone is served with an eviction notice in the United States, according to The Network for Public Health Law.

Evictions hurt the country’s poorest citizens by adding obstacles to finding new housing, especially during the current nationwide affordable housing crisis. Housing instability can lead to homelessness and can affect people’s prospects for education, employment, health and family stability.

In Oklahoma, most eviction records remain publicly available indefinitely unless they are sealed or expunged by a judge. Even eviction filings that were dismissed in favor of the tenant, filed mistakenly or wrongfully, or were discriminatory, remain available to the public; most are easily retrieved via the internet.

Johnson said he was late on rent several times, but he always got it paid, plus late fees. His landlord finally lost patience. This wasn’t Johnson’s first eviction. He said he’s even been homeless at times, staying in shelters with his two children.

“If an eviction’s still on your record, you know, it’s very hard to find places to move,” Johnson said.

He said he wishes evictions could be removed from his record.

Scarlet Letter E

When someone is evicted in Oklahoma, the case file is a public record and remains viewable to the public, a stigma many organizations call The Scarlet Letter E.

Evictions can create or contribute to a host of problems including poverty, generational trauma, job instability, family separation and legal issues, Shelterwellsaid on its website.

“Eviction has been linked to worse physical and mental health outcomes in certain regions,” said Jacob Haas, a senior research specialist at Eviction Lab. “So when you talk about the Scarlet Letter E of eviction, kind of following a family around, it really does happen in a lot of cases. It really does make housing much harder to find for certain families.”

The Scarlet Letter E is a nationwide problem that does discriminate. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, households of color are more likely than white households to have an eviction filed against them. Black women are at the highest risk, with one in every five evicted during her lifetime.

Families with children and low incomes are also disproportionately affected by evictions, the coalition reported.

In 2016, The Eviction Lab named Oklahoma City as the 20th worst in the country for its high number of evictions. Since then, eviction numbers have climbed by about 27%, the group’s data showed. Tulsa ranked worse for evictions than Oklahoma City at number 11.

Reasons to Evict

Many evictions are filed because renters simply didn’t pay their rent for months. Some evictions occur because renters broke their lease agreements by having a pet or an unapproved roommate, said Richard Klinge, director of the pro bono Housing Eviction Legal Assistance Program at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

Lawyers from Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma confirmed that a renter can be as little as one month late on rent for an eviction to be filed.

If a tenant doesn’t pay for their housing, even for short periods, it puts landlords in a financial bind, said Oklahoma City Property Manager Ed Keeler. That is especially true for landlords who remain patient for months before filing evictions.

Some people are evicted because they withheld rent, with the belief that until the landlord fixed problems in their rental, they weren’t legally required to pay. A process for withholding rent exists, but most renters don’t follow the proper steps, Klinge said.

As written, he said, the Oklahoma Residential Landlord and Tenant Act condones the landlords’ failures to make repairs and to provide fit and habitable residential premises.

“After handling almost 2,200 cases in the last five years, I am convinced that until the duty to pay rent and the duty to repair are made dependent and not independent duties, tenants will continue to be exploited by landlords under the (law) as it exists today,” Klinge said.

Some evictions are accidental filings, such as when a landlord files against the wrong tenant, said Teressa Webster, Statewide Director of Litigation for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc., an organization that provides free legal services to people facing evictions.

And some evictions are discriminatory, Webster said, which can result in federal discrimination cases.

One such case Webster handled in a rural Oklahoma court involved a landlord who evicted a tenant because she had a pet, a violation of the rental agreement. The tenant had health issues causing problems with balancing, and the dog, a pit bull, was strong enough for her to lean on for support. Since the woman had a disability and the dog was a registered service animal, the eviction amounted to discrimination, Webster said.

However, many landlords evict rarely or never, Haas said.

“Year after year, it’s a small concentration of buildings and landlords that really disproportionately drive eviction activity within an area,” he said.

Off Their Records 

A sealed record is removed from the public’s access and restrictions are placed regarding who can access the eviction record. An expunged record is completely erased as if it never happened.

These tenant protections can be passed either through the legislative process or through executive orders and policies.

In some states, eviction records can be expunged or sealed from the records of the tenants who were evicted. Recognizing the enormity of the eviction problem, at least nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted sealing or expungement protections for tenants, the Coalition wrote in itsEviction Record Sealing and Expungement Toolkit.

Oklahoma is not one of those states.

California and Colorado, in contrast, allow automatic sealing of eviction filings as soon as a lawsuit has been filed. Other states, such as Indiana and Minnesota, allow a tenant to apply to have their record sealed or expunged after a judge’s decision has been delivered. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, have enacted their own rules that enable tenants to seek expungement or sealing of their records, under strict guidelines.

“In some of those areas, like Philadelphia for example, that have taken eviction seriously as an issue, we have seen sustained lower eviction filing rates relative to what we were seeing prior to the pandemic,” Haas said.

Oklahoma and Open Records

Oklahoma courts are reluctant to seal or expunge eviction records, favoring the public’s right to know against a tenant’s ability to move on from their financial problems.

“Eviction records, like the vast majority of court records, are subject to the Open Records Act,” wrote Renée Troxell, trial court administrator of the Oklahoma County District Court, in an email to Oklahoma Watch. “As such, no judge from any Oklahoma county can seal the entire case.”

If a renter wants to have an eviction partially sealed, they face a heavy burden of proof to show why their request for sealing outweighs the public’s right to know what is happening in courts, Troxell said.

Maintaining transparency in our nation’s courts is an important cornerstone of American democracy. But the problem of evictions has created a compelling reason to examine Oklahoma policies and the prospects of sealing some eviction records, which some lawmakers are working toward implementing.

For the 2024 Oklahoma legislative session, Rep. Amanda Swope, D-Tulsa, introduced House Bill 2121, which would allow sealing eviction filings from public view beginning three years after the judgment has been entered.

Other lawmakers have proposed lengthening the amount of time between being served an eviction notice and attending a court hearing and new rules meant to forbid retaliation-motivated evictions.

“I think we really do need, in Oklahoma, maybe some compulsory laws that provide for automatic sealing (of eviction records) under certain circumstances,” Webster said.

Some Criminal Charges Easier to Shake

Evictions are civil cases, usually handled in small claims courts. The official term used in civil court for an eviction is forcible entry and detainer. Compared to the relative ease of expunging certain criminal cases, evictions may seem unduly difficult to move past.

In Oklahoma, it’s possible to expunge many criminal records that put the public at significant safety risk.

Misdemeanor charges of DUI and Actual Physical Control of a vehicle while under the influence of an illegal substance can be expunged permanently if a judge’s requirements are met.

According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Oklahoma Offices, in October, 2023, 317 DUI cases were heard in Oklahoma County Criminal Court. Of those, 40% resulted in deferred or delayed sentences. According to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, in these deferred or delayed sentences, when the person has never been convicted of a felony and no other misdemeanor or felony charges are pending against the person, after one year since the charge was dismissed or reduced, the record can be expunged.

It’s not clear how many of those cases were expunged because, by their nature, they disappear from public records and expungement data is not recorded.

Suggestions for Renters’ Rights 

After eviction moratoriums ended following the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration introduced, on Jan. 25, 2023, a Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights. The Blueprint includes suggestions to reduce the high number of evictions and ease the negative effects that can stem from evictions when they occur.

The Blueprint’s fifth principle, Eviction Prevention, Diversion, and Relief, offers sealing eviction records under certain circumstances as one of several components that could minimize the long-term effects evictions can have on evicted families’ well-being, such as problems being approved for housing, finding jobs and the potential of becoming homeless.

Judges in some rural Oklahoma counties use their discretion more liberally in sealing evictions than judges in Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties. In these counties, Webster has been successful in helping some renters get their evictions sealed. Usually, those were erroneous evictions, accidental filings and discriminatory filings by landlords, Webster said.

“Even in cases where the court does not want to fully seal the record, under the Open Records Act, the court has discretion to partially seal the record,” Webster said.

If a record is partially sealed, identifying information about the tenant would potentially be redacted, though the filing and judgment would still exist in searchable court records.

“This ensures that the public can have access to the portions of the record that the court deems are important for the public to view, while protecting the interest of the party who seeks to have the record sealed,” Webster said.

Keeler said in some cases, an eviction should remain on a tenant’s record, such as when a tenant causes significant property damage. In other cases, it should not haunt a person’s record forever.

“Sometimes things happen that make paying rent hard,” Keeler said, while waiting in the courthouse to attend a hearing for an eviction he filed against a tenant. “I think there are times when an eviction should stay on your record, and times when it could be sealed.”

Ed. Note: This Oklahoma Watch storywas updated on Feb. 27 to delete two sentences that were not verifiable.

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