There is a common misperception that eviction cases are simple and routine matters involving relatively low stakes. This misconception leads some to conclude that eviction actions may be resolved without following the basic rules of civil procedure.
Landlords almost always ignore the rule that requires every plaintiff to attach to their complaint all the documents upon which the complaint is founded, but the Illinois Supreme Court just took decisive action to address this problem.
It adopted a rule that specifically requires the plaintiff in an eviction action to attach to their complaint the notice of termination of tenancy. Furthermore, if the complaint alleges a violation other than nonpayment of rent, the plaintiff must attach the relevant portions of the lease agreement.
As Lawrence Wood, a supervisory attorney in our Housing Practice Group, testified during an Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee Hearing on June 24, the new rule is vitally important for three reasons.
First, the new rule will ensure that the termination notice and, in many cases, the lease will always be available to the judges who preside over the high-volume eviction courtrooms where so many litigants appear without counsel. These documents will help judges quickly focus on relevant issues.
Second, the new rule will help tenants’ advocates properly assess each case and decide whether it warrants their involvement, a decision that must be made quickly in a summary proceeding like an eviction action. The tenants who come to Legal Aid Chicago are, for the most part, subsidized housing residents facing eviction from the only decent housing they can afford. They always have copies of their landlords’ complaints, which allege only that the tenant unlawfully withholds possession of the property to which the plaintiff is entitled, but they rarely have copies of their termination notices and lease agreements. If the tenant lost or never received copies of these documents, it is difficult to (1) determine why they are facing eviction, and (2) identify the federal statutes and regulations, HUD Handbooks, and lease provisions that govern their tenancies.
Third, the benefits of complying with the new rule far outweigh the costs. Plaintiffs always have the termination notices and lease agreements in their possession, and if the lease is long (as many are in the subsidized housing programs) the relevant portions are no more than a few pages.
This marks the end of a long battle—one we had initially hoped to win through appellate advocacy. But it proved difficult to bring the issue to the appellate court’s attention. Any trial court that granted our motion to dismiss a defective complaint always gave the plaintiff an opportunity to correct the defect by filing an amended complaint. And we could not challenge a decision to deny our motion to dismiss unless we lost the entire case, and we don’t lose many. (Our success rate in eviction cases hovers around 95%.) Years ago we filed an interlocutory (i.e., prior to the end of litigation) appeal after a trial court denied our motion to dismiss. Such appeals, however, must “materially advance the ultimate termination of litigation,” and we could not satisfy that requirement in an eviction action, which is designed to move quickly. We, therefore, needed a rule that would establish what should never have been a disputed principle—that plaintiffs in eviction actions must, like all civil plaintiffs, attach supporting documents to their complaints. Today the Illinois Supreme Court adopted that rule.