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In the past, concrete data on Cook County's eviction courts has been hard to come by. Proceedings aren't recorded, and data on the number of cases filed and their outcomes isn't reported by any county agency. For years, however, tenants' advocates and attorneys have been sounding the alarm about the speed at which cases proceed—decisions are made in a matter of minutes—as well as the shortage of court interpreters and other resources, and tenants' lack of legal representation.
Last week we published recently-acquired data from the clerk of the Circuit Court that shows that over the last ten years the number of eviction filings has dropped in Chicago but has grown in suburban Cook County. This week, we're taking a look at the outcomes of these cases, and how frequently landlords or tenants come out on top.
Of the nearly 33,000 cases filed in County County eviction courts in 2016, some 4,500 are still pending. But data obtained from the clerk's office reveals that of the ones that have been resolved, plaintiffs—nearly all of which are landlords—won their cases 62 percent of the time. Meanwhile 37 percent of cases ended in dismissals, which tenant advocates consider to be a good outcome for renters. Outcomes of the remaining one percent of cases adjudicated last year aren't clear.
Outcomes in 2015 were similar. With about 3,000 cases filed that year still pending, of the ones that have been resolved, 63 percent were wins for plaintiffs and 35 were dismissals that favored defendants.
In addition, better outcomes for eviction court plaintiffs held true for both the city and suburban courtrooms: Landlords in all suburban court districts won more than half of the time. Last year, defendants had the best chances of seeing cases dismissed in the northwest-suburban Rolling Meadows courthouse, where this happened 45 percent of the time, or in 762 of the 1,686 filed and completed cases. Meanwhile, results for defendants were the worst in west-suburban Maywood courthouse, where defendants saw cases dismissed only 34 percent of the time, or in 466 of 1363 adjudicated cases.
Plaintiffs usually file cases seeking to regain possession of a housing unit, or, somewhat less often, to get both possession of the unit and money owed (typically unpaid rent). In most cases, judges rule in their favor, granting them possession, money, or both. In nearly one-fifth of the cases plaintiffs won last year, defendants weren't present in court for the decision.
Conversely, a case can be dismissed for a variety of reasons, including plaintiffs deciding not to move forward, judges deciding that there isn't enough evidence to bring the case, or the parties coming to an agreement and choosing not to seek further legal action.
The prevalence of plaintiffs' wins doesn't mean that the majority of defendants are delinquent tenants who stopped paying rent. Rather, experts who study and work in eviction court say tenants' lack of legal representation is the biggest reason for the disparity in outcomes.
"An unrepresented litigant is not going to prevail against a plaintiff that has an attorney," says Lawrence Wood, director of the housing practice group at LAF (previously the Legal Assistance Foundation), which provides free legal aid to tenants facing eviction. "If a tenant is represented by an attorney, the outcome changes dramatically."
A 2003 study by the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing—still the most recent comprehensive study on what occurs in eviction court—found that 95 percent of tenants don't have a lawyer. More recent data on the percentage of tenants who appear in eviction court with lawyers wasn't immediately available.
And while advocates have long alleged judicial bias in favor of plaintiffs, Wood says this is less of a problem than the sheer caseload the judges have to deal with.
"I think most judges try to do the right thing," Wood says. "The judges also have very high volume of calls and they've got to get through the cases quickly, and that probably has a negative effect on defendants."
In our next post, we'll look into why one south-side neighborhood has become the eviction capital of Cook County.