Superior Court Clarifies How To Satisfy Judgment For Possession In Philadelphia
Written by: Alan Nochumson
When a tenant breaches a lease agreement, many times the landlord rushes to the courthouse to file a complaint seeking to evict the tenant from the leased premises, only later to find out that the tenant may “pay to stay” in the leased premises if the complaint is based solely upon the nonpayment of rent due under the lease agreement.
In Johnson v. Bullock-Freeman, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently delved into what constitutes the appropriate amount to “pay to stay,” involving a monetary lease dispute between a landlord and tenant in Philadelphia County.
In Johnson, the tenants, who resided in a single-family home owned by the landlords, failed to pay all of the rent due under the lease agreement entered into by the parties, the opinion said. The landlords then filed a complaint in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Thereafter, a judgment for possession was rendered in favor of the landlords and against the tenants solely for nonpayment of rent.
The tenants then appealed the Philadelphia Municipal Court’s ruling to the trial court and obtained a supersedeas on the condition that they make timely installment payments against the past-due rent, the opinion said. After the tenants failed to make an agreed upon payment, the trial court terminated the supersedeas and the landlords filed a writ of possession in the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
To prevent an eviction from taking place, the tenants attempted to pay the amount designated on the writ, the opinion said. However, the landlords declined to accept the payment from the tenants upon the grounds that, by the time of the attempted execution, additional sums had become due under the lease agreement. When the tenants refused to pay beyond the amount set forth in the writ, the landlords elected to proceed forward with the eviction, the opinion said.
The tenants responded with a petition to satisfy the judgment based upon their attempt to pay the writ amount. After the Philadelphia Municipal Court denied that petition, the tenants appealed that ruling to the trial court.
Subsequently, the tenants filed an emergency motion to pay the judgment amount and, thus, stay in the lease premises, but, following a hearing, the trial court denied both the petition to satisfy the judgment for possession and the “pay and stay” motion.
The tenants then appealed the trial court’s ruling to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
On appeal, the Superior Court first compared the statutory language of the Landlord and Tenant Act with that of the Rules of Civil Procedure for Magisterial District Judges.
Section 250.503 of the Landlord and Tenant Act provides that a writ of possession issued solely for nonpayment of rent will be rendered of no effect upon payment of “the rent actually in arrears and costs.”
The Superior Court pointed out that the rules substantially track the language of the act in providing for writs of possession to be superseded by payment of back rent they also define the pivotal term “rent actually in arrears.”
In comparison, Rule 518 of the Rules of Civil Procedure for Magisterial District Judges, which allows for the practice known as “pay and stay,” provides that “at any time before actual delivery of the real property is made in execution of the order for possession, the defendant may, in a case for the recovery of possession solely because of failure to pay rent, satisfy the order for possession by paying to the executing officer the rent actually in arrears and the costs of the proceedings.”
According to the Superior Court, the rules committee’s explanatory comment to Rule 518 “clarifies the amount of money required to satisfy rent in arrears and the costs of landlord-tenant proceedings as the sum set forth on the order for possession” and “since tenants are often confused regarding the amount of monies to be paid to satisfy a judgment, especially when additional rent may have accrued between the time of the judgment and the scheduled eviction, Rule  specifies that rent in arrears includes only those sums set forth on the order for possession.”
After concluding that the meaning ascribed to the term “the rent actually in arrears and costs” in Rule 518 should equally apply to those in the Landlord and Tenant Act, the Superior Court next addressed whether the trial court abused its discretion by ruling that “Philadelphia County has its own local court rules, and for that reason, any Magisterial District Justice [sic] Rules of Civil Procedure are not relevant to this action.”
The Superior Court stated that the trial “courts analysis of this point is inadequate.”
While acknowledging that the rules are not directly applicable to proceedings in Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Superior Court emphasized that “the analogous Philadelphia rule does not vary in substance from the statewide rule and does not distinguish Philadelphia practice from that applied elsewhere.”
According to the Superior Court, Philadelphia Municipal Court Rule 126 directs that execution and revival of judgments (including service of writs of possession) must be conducted in conformity with practice followed in the Court of Common Pleas and prescribed in the rules for magisterial district judges.
As such, the Superior Court posited that “inasmuch as the language of Municipal Court Rule 126 does not track the language of Rule 518, [its] holding … establishes a bridge by which conformity can be achieved” and “until the Philadelphia Municipal Court rules are amended in language that clarifies the current ambiguity and halts the practice we have addressed here, the protections of [Rule] 518 shall apply fully to the residents of the city of Philadelphia.”
In Johnson, the tenants did not pay any rent to the landlords after the judgment for possession was entered. Based upon the Superior Court’s ruling, however, the tenants in Johnson are now allowed to stay in possession of the leased premises by merely paying the rent due through the date of the judgment for possession. In other words, the landlords in Johnson will now have to file a separate complaint for the rent due after the date the judgment was entered. This game of possum could continue to play out until the term of the lease agreement expires under the “pay to stay” doctrine.
While there may not have been any nonmonetary breaches of the lease agreement in Johnson, attorneys representing landlords in the state should look long and hard if any such nonmonetary breaches do exist, simply because the “pay to stay” doctrine does not apply where the judgment for possession is partly based upon non-monetary breaches of the lease agreement.
Reprinted with permission from the March 19, 2013 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2013 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com.