Several of the provisions of Wisconsin’s New Landlord-Tenant law, Act 76 (SB 179), were created or amended to speed up the eviction process. Evictions are supposed to be summary proceedings and per the Wisconsin Supreme Court (Scalzo v. Anderson, 87 Wis. 2d 834 (1979)) there are very limited number of issues permissible in an evictions action. Nonetheless, tenants were finding ways to delay the process. Hopefully Act 76 will resolve much of that delay.
First, Act 76, amends sec. 799.12, Wis. Stats. to allow circuit courts in the various counties to decide via local rule whether or not to allow service of an eviction summons via certified mail. Current law does not allow service of an eviciton by mail and requires that an eviction summons be served personally, or after reasonable diligence has been made, via substituted service or posting and mailing.
If a county allows service via mail, then the clerk shall mail a copy of the eviction summons to each defendant at their last known address. Service of the summons will be considered completed when mailed, unless the envelope enclosing the summons has been returned unopened to the clerk prior to the court date.
I personally think that service of an eviction summons via mail will cause logistical problems. I can tell you right now that Milwaukee and Dane counties certainly will not agree to service by mail in eviction actions but possibly it will work in smaller counties.
Second, Act 76 amends sec. 799.05(3)(b), Wis. Stats. and states that the return date (initial appearance) in court can be no less than 5 days and no more than 25 days after service is issued (i.e. the tenant is served with the eviction summons). Current law requires the return date be held no less than 5 days and no more than 30 days after service.
It will be important that landlords make sure that their process servers are aware of this law change starting March 1, 2014 otherwise it could result in their evictions being dismissed if the return date/initial appearance is scheduled more than 25 days after service is effectuated.
Third, sec. 799.206 and sec. 799.20(4), Wis. Stats, have been amended to require that all contested hearings in small claims actions (evictions, garnishments, replevins etc.) must be scheduled within 30 days of the return date/initial appearance.
Even more important to landlords is that all residential evictions trials on the first cause of action (i.e. return of the premises) must be held and completed within 30 days of the return date/initial appearance. This law new law applies to both trials to the court and jury trials.
I personally feel that this change is the most important part of Act 76 in terms of speeding up the eviciton process. While many evictions are not contested and the landlord obtains a default judgment, those that are contested can take a long time to get to trial. Many tenants and their advocates have been requesting jury trials on eviction matters. By doing so – at least in Milwaukee county – these cases are rotated to a large claims judge handling civil matters (as the small claims judge does not handle jury trials) and result in a lengthy delay. In some of my contested eviction cases, it was taking 2 months to even get before the judge for a Scheduling Conference and the jury trial itself was not being scheduleded until 6 months after the return date.
While tenants are entitled to their day in court — which includes a jury trial if they wish — they should not be given a 6 month reprieve just by requesting a jury trial. During those 6 months the landlord often is not receiving any rent payments and/or the “good” tenants in the building are stuck putting up with the actions of the breaching tenant. In my opinion, requesting a jury trial in an eviction action is nothing more than a delay tactic. Tenants and their advocates have been successful in buying more time and in making the eviction process more expensive for the landlord by driving up his/her costs and fees. Of all the jury trials requested by tenants in eviction cases that I have been involved in (which number over 20 – most of which occurred this past year) not one of them actually went to trial. So I am very happy to this new law hopefully put a stop to this abuse of the system. Tenants will still get their trials but they can no longer stretch it out for months and months. How the courts will assimilatate these jury trials within the 30 day time limit will be the key issue moving forward.
If you missed my prior posts on Wisconsin’s new landlord-tenant law you can click on the links below