(The Center Square) – A lawsuit filed in federal court is seeking to halt the enforcement of a federal order that temporarily prohibits landlords from evicting tenants as a means to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Virginia resident Rich Brown, is asking a federal court to order the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop enforcement because it is unlawful and exceeds the limit of the Supremacy Clause. The lawsuit claims the CDC does not have the legal, statutory or constitutional authority to enforce the order.
The lawsuit names U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the Department of Health and Human Services, CDC Acting Chief of Staff Nina Witkofsky and the CDC as defendants.
The lead attorney on the case, Caleb Kruckenberg, told The Center Square the order should concern everybody because it sets the precedent that agencies can overreach their scope of authority just by claiming it is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Kruckenberg said his client is suffering serious economic damages from the order because he has a tenant who owes him more than $8,000 and he has to provide funding for the upkeep of the house, pay the tenant’s utilities and pay his own mortgage without the income from rent. Brown could face a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison if he evicts the tenant while this order is in place.
The organization representing Brown is the New Civil Liberties Alliance – a nonprofit civil rights group that seeks to protect constitutional rights that are threatened by the administrative state.
“These are perilous times, and the rule of law is a fragile thing,” NCLA Executive Director Mark Chenoweth said in a statement. “As sympathetic as many tenants are, the CDC has no power to stop landlords from using state court eviction processes. Left unchecked, this abuse of power would set a horrible precedent that would destabilize rental markets for tenants and landlords alike. Aside from future rental market impacts, CDC’s order purports to exercise authority Congress has not and could not give to the agency. Once again the Administrative State is running amok. If Congress wants to prevent evictions, it could pass an emergency rental subsidy, but it cannot force landlords to let tenants occupy their property.”
Kruckenberg said Congress needs to decide whether it should provide additional rent relief to ensure people do not get evicted, but an administrative agency should not shift the monetary burden exclusively on the landlord.
The Virginia Supreme Court temporarily suspended eviction proceedings throughout the state earlier this year but did not extend its order this week after the CDC's order went into effect Friday. The state created a rent relief fund that some tenants can access to cover the costs of rent.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment from The Center Square.