A judge on Monday rejected an emergency motion requesting the Philadelphia courts to postpone mortgage foreclosure and tax sales due to the ongoing shutdown of court computers.
The decision by Judge Arnold New at a hearing Monday afternoon means there will be no blanket postponement of all sheriff’s sales scheduled for the month, though homeowners can still have their cases postponed individually. He did not provide a reason for his ruling.
Legal and housing advocates had argued that the computer systems being offline affected the ability of homeowners to obtain information about their cases or file documents electronically, potentially denying them their due process rights.
“The prolonged system shutdown renders all homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure and tax sheriff’s sales vulnerable to mistakes, denies them basic due process protections, and creates fundamental unfairness by depriving litigants of full access to the courts,” Community Legal Services attorney Rachel Gallegos had written in the petition on behalf of Philadelphia Unemployment Project, a nonprofit group.
Gallegos argued that the court should postpone all sheriff’s sales scheduled for June. A mortgage foreclosure sale is planned for Tuesday, and tax sales are scheduled for Thursday and June 18, 19, and 20.
The city disagreed, joined by lenders and others in opposition to the request. They argued that the Philadelphia Unemployment Project did not have standing because it did not represent individual homeowners and was uninvolved.
“They will not be adversely affected. … They’re an interloper,” city attorney Steven Wakefield said. He argued that the city and lenders would bear costs if the sales were postponed, including that the tax money was needed at the end of the city’s fiscal year. Postponing the sales, he said, could hurt the city’s bond rating and ultimately cost taxpayers.
The request was based on the shutdown of court websites, email, and some internal programs. The city and courts took those systems offline May 21 as a preventive measure after malware was discovered on some computers.
The First Judicial District’s website and online civil-docket search are inaccessible. So is the eFiling system for civil and criminal cases, which attorneys use to file pleadings, motions, and petitions, and the publicly accessible Criminal Document Management System that can be used to find court filings in person at public computers in the Stout Center for Criminal Justice. Court staffers can’t access their email.
A courts spokesman said there is no timetable for when systems will be restored.
Gallegos also sent Sheriff Jewell Williams a letter last week urging him to postpone all sales this month.
“Such a step would not be unprecedented, as the sheriff has unilaterally postponed sales in the past when the interests of justice demanded it. In light of current circumstances, the court would likely look favorably on a decision to stop sales to avoid the unnecessary loss of homes,” she wrote.
“The sale of a person’s home is far too important to proceed under circumstances that make it impossible to determine with certainty that the sale is authorized and that all required rules and procedures leading up to the sale have been followed.”
“Unless and until there is a court order to postpone, tomorrow’s and all future sales will be held as scheduled,” said Dan Gross, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.