2023 Report - Default Judgements in Eviction Court

The most common reason why a tenant receives a judgment of eviction in Dane County is because of a “default judgment,” which occurs when a tenant fails to show up for their scheduled court hearing. A default enables the landlord to automatically get an eviction judgment and obtain a writ of restitution without any further legal arguments.

Tenants missing their court dates is a critical issue in eviction: out of the 270 cases that ended in an eviction judgment in 2023, a staggering 94% were due to default judgments.

By working directly with tenants, the EDDP has gained an understanding of the reasons behind these missed appearances. EDDP staff has pinpointed three main causes: unawareness of the hearing, technological hurdles, or a physical inability to attend.

Many tenants have reported to not being informed about their initial eviction hearing. In fact, 92% of all default judgment occurred at the initial court appearance. Frequently, the EDDP team is the first to inform the tenant of their court date. In some cases, the tenant has moved, and the landlord is unaware. For others, service is not accomplished, and the tenant never receives the Summons and Complaint. This lack of notification can inadvertently lead to a default judgment.

Since 2020, initial appearances for eviction actions have been held online, which has introduced another layer of complexity for many. Technical issues, unfamiliarity with the platform, or not receiving the login information can prevent tenants from joining their virtual hearings. Some manage to login but then find themselves stuck in a virtual waiting room, unable to participate. For those not adept with technology, even simple actions like unmuting can become barriers to being counted as present.

Physical incapacity to attend can also significantly contribute to default judgements. The EDDP team has encountered numerous situations where tenants, either hospitalized or incarcerated, received a default judgment due to absences that are outside of their control. The difficulty of rescheduling hearings compounds these challenges, leaving little wiggle room for tenants to maneuver.

The EDDP team frequently encounters tenants who have legitimate reasons for missing court dates, making the case manager’s role in addressing and resolving these issues critical to ensuring tenants can attend their hearings. The EDDP staff have even personally visited tenants’ homes to assist with logging into Zoom, ensuring that no technical barrier prevents their participation. Since the EDDP team is present at every hearing, they can inform the court if the tenants have a reason for the non-appearance at court. This proactive approach by the EDDP team has helped to minimize default judgements by informing tenants of their hearings, facilitating their virtual attendance, and intervening when physical circumstances hinder their ability to be present.

Access to justice issues have been a serious topic of discussion among tenant advocates throughout the United States. Many communities have struggled to create the available resources needed for access to technology and education about how to utilize technology. In some cases, this has involved partnerships with libraries, service providers, or other municipal services. Many of these organizations and institutions were already stretched thin (both in budgets and in capacity) prior to the pandemic, so with added responsibilities there has been a huge strain on the ability to cover the increased need. In the City of Madison, for example, libraries utilized resource navigators to help guide tenants through rental assistance programs and how to access technology for things such as Zoom court while surrounding communities lacked similar resources for vulnerable households. These investments have made a huge difference for many tenants, but there are many more who were unable to access these services or were unaware of their existence.

Looking forward, the EDDP team is placing an increased focus on educating tenants about how to reopen cases to contest default judgements. This work requires significant investments from our staff, especially in situations where the household has limited access to the court system due to limited English proficiency or technology. We have already seen how successful this approach can be, with reopened cases regularly being dismissed outright after payment or negotiated with the help of EDDP’s mediators and attorney partners. Filing a motion to reopen offers a critical opportunity for tenants to argue their case and balance the scales in a system that is often tilted against them.