The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Jan. 27 on a proposal to give judges increased discretion during eviction court proceedings.
LB45, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen, would repeal a current state law that prohibits judges from granting a continuance in eviction proceedings unless extraordinary cause is shown and back rent is paid.
Hansen said that it is important to make sure the court system is not depriving people of their day in court due to circumstances outside of their control, especially when it involves the potential loss of their home.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the issue more urgent, he said.
“Throughout the summer and fall, officials pointed to this [statute] saying it tied their hands in doing what is right — what almost every other judge could do — and pause proceedings as needed,” Hansen said. “Instead, eviction cases continued, even as courthouses closed to the public … while COVID cases continued to rise.”
Robert Larsen of Lincoln spoke in favor of LB45. The extraordinary cause standard imposed upon tenants during eviction proceedings is a higher standard than what is required of any other litigant in any other civil proceeding in Nebraska, he said.
“I’m not advocating for anything that gives tenants a new, unfair advantage or a special exception for tenants within our legal system,” Larsen said. “I’m merely advocating for the repeal of a statute that is a clear, unique and illogical outlier in Nebraska law.”
Erin Olsen, representing Legal Aid of Nebraska, also supported the bill. The extraordinary cause standard has been applied inconsistently throughout the state, she said, especially during the ongoing pandemic.
“LB45 effectively repeals a law that either doesn’t get applied at all in practice or, if it does, is used inconsistently to the detriment of tenants’ rights,” she said.
Opposing the measure was Gene Eckel, representing the Nebraska Association of Commercial Property Owners. Eviction proceedings are not always initiated due to nonpayment of rent, he said, but also can stem from noncompliance with lease terms, including criminal conduct.
“If that person is allowed to call in to the court and just give a reason why [the case] should be continued, that allows that tenant to remain at the property for a longer period of time, which could also be a danger to the other residents,” Eckel said.
Dennis Tierney, representing the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association also opposed LB45. It would be extremely unfair to a landlord for a tenant to ask for postponement of an eviction hearing without paying back rent as a bond, he said.
“The tenant would be allowed to continue living [rent-free] in the property,” Tierney said. “How long should the landlord have to continue without rent?”
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.