Prejudged: The Stigma of Eviction Court Records

March 2018

Tens of thousands of families and individuals face eviction in Illinois each year. The vast majority live in Cook County, which has more rental units than the other 101 Illinois counties combined. This report presents data from 105,272 completed residential eviction cases in Cook County from 2014 to 2017 along with local perspectives from tenants, legal aid attorneys, and a landlord on the issue of eviction.

Our analysis revealed that tenants face several barriers when fighting eviction cases in Cook County. While 81% of landlords appeared with legal counsel, an overwhelming majority (88%) of tenants were self-represented. Tenants were often unfamiliar with what defenses and resources are available to them, or that not attending court could result in a default judgment against them. Although 33% of completed eviction cases resulted in a final judgment on the first court date, many tenants did not realize that their very first appearance in eviction court could decide the fate of their housing and leave them with a lasting eviction record.

Out of these 105,272 cases, the majority (61%) ended with a ruling in favor of the landlord. In the remaining 39% of completed cases, the eviction filing did not result in an eviction order and/or other judgment against the tenant. Available court data provided little or no information about what happened in these cases; the landlord may have decided not to pursue the case because the tenant moved or both parties may have resolved the issue. We estimate 15,091 people each year ended up or will end up with a public eviction record despite having no eviction order or other judgment against them, an experience that can have lasting consequences for a tenant.

According to the experiences of legal aid attorneys, a landlord, and tenants from Cook County, many landlords will refuse to rent to someone if they see an eviction filing on their record, regardless of a case’s context or outcome. Incomplete or unclear court records—whether accessed directly online or through a tenant screening company—only make this problem worse. Especially in a digital age where personal information is easily accessed and aggregated as soon as a court case is filed, eviction court filings should not automatically damage an individual’s rental prospects.

Since the impact of an eviction record is so detrimental to someone’s ability to secure housing, we propose that eviction cases should only become available to the public after the case results in an eviction order or other judicial finding against the tenant. We recommend that Illinois enact a law that seals eviction case records at the point of filing. Such a law would protect tenants whose cases could eventually be sealed from ever having the case appear in the public record and potentially create barriers to accessing housing. Additional policy recommendations focus on ensuring the court process works equally well for both landlords and tenants.