A federal judge in Boston on Monday denied the attorney general’s request to let the state courts decide a challenge to the COVID-19 moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, concluding that the time sensitivity of the case and nature of the challenges under the federal Constitution warrant a decision.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf issued his ruling on Monday afternoon after hearing more than two hours of arguments in the morning about whether he should abstain from the case and let the state’s Superior Court — where a separate case is pending — decide.
Wolf said the federal court is the “only efficient opportunity” to have the federal claims decided after lawyers representing landlords separated their challenges to the state and federal constitutionality of the eviction moratorium into two separate lawsuits.
“This is a case where the present lack of a alternative forum and the significant risk of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights makes it appropriate for this court to retain jurisdiction,” Wolf said, orally describing his decision on a conference calls with lawyers and the public.
Wolf further said that his decision to retain jurisdiction in the case would interfere with the case proceeding in Suffolk Superior Court.
Assistant Attorney General Pierce Cray accused the plaintiffs of “venue shopping” after the Supreme Judicial Court declined to hear an identical case and remanded it to the Superior Court. Cray argued the case pending before the Superior Court challenging the moratorium under the state constitution and the federal case should be combined and decided by the state judicial system.
“A major theme in abstention law is to discourage reactive litigation, forum shopping, and it should not be countenanced here, especially when it’s so explicit,” Cray said.
Wolf, however, rejected that argument, noting that the plaintiffs lawyer Richard Vetstein filed the federal case in July before any state judge had issued a decision on the merits of the original lawsuit.
The moratorium approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in April was extended until Oct. 17 in an effort to allow people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to stay in their homes to fight the spread of the virus.
Vetstein argued that the moratorium on evictions breaches the contracts clause of the constitution and violates a landlord’s right to petition the judiciary, their First Amendment right to free speech, and their right to compensation for unlawful land taking under the Fifth Amendment.
After issuing his decision, Wolf began to listen to arguments for preliminary injunction on the grounds that the moratorium violates the Constitution’s contracts clause.
The lead plaintiff, Marie Baptiste, is a nurse who owns property in Randolph and is owed close to $20,000 in unpaid rent since the start of the pandemic.