Sixth Circuit Denies Motion to Stay District Judgment that Ruled CDC’s Eviction Moratorium Order Unlawful

Characterizing the government’s arguments as unlikely to succeed on merit, the Sixth Circuit on Monday denied a motion by several federal agencies, led by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to stay a Tennessee district’s judgment that declared unlawful and unenforceable a temporary eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Law Street Media previously reported that the March 18 emergency motion by HUD, the CDC, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and each agency’s top official, among others — all defendants in the case — sought to preserve the CDC’s temporary order suspending evictions for people who meet certain criteria after the Western District of Tennessee said the order overstepped the agency’s authority under the Public Health Service Act (PHSA), rendering the moratorium unenforceable in the Western District of Tennessee.

The property management company plaintiffs were not, however, granted injunctive relief by the district court for alleged “irreparable harm” since the order was temporary and did not relieve tenants of their obligation to pay rent.

Still, according to the defendants, local courts in the Tennessee district have been told that evictions may again proceed. The defendants argued that evictions being allowed to continue presents a public health risk, citing data showing that in states with previous eviction moratoria that eventually lifted, there was a 40% increase in risk among those evicted and with whom the evicted individuals were forced to share housing after they were evicted, according to the CDC.

In their motion to stay, the defendants challenged the judgment that the CDC’s order reached outside the scope of authority that the PHSA grants, citing the provision of the act that gives the HHS secretary the power to delegate regulatory power and discretion to the bodies it governs, including the CDC, “to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases … from one State or possession into any other State or possession,” according to the PHSA.

In denying the defendants’ motion, the Sixth Circuit noted that the HHS secretary and thus the CDC may impose restrictions on “property interests” in the name of public health, pursuant to 42 U.S. Code § 264(a), which says the secretary “may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.” 

However, the court said the defendants’ broad interpretation of “other measures” to include an order halting evictions was misguided, asserting that intrusion of property in order to sanitize it “is different in nature” from an eviction moratorium.

Further, because landlord-tenant matters generally are governed by states, the circuit explained, the court “cannot read the (PHSA) to grant the CDC the power to insert itself into the landlord-tenant relationship without some clear, unequivocal textual evidence of Congress’s intent to do so.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Glankler Brown PLLC. The defendants are represented by government counsel.