Dallas Court Observation Project

Eviction has a devastating impact on families: involuntary displacement leads to greater material hardship, poorer health and avoidable healthcare costs for children and their mothers, negative impacts on children’s academic achievement, and greater depression and parental stress. Eviction disproportionately impacts communities of color, and the likelihood of receiving an eviction judgment is highest for mothers with children.

Between November 1, 2022 and April 20, 2023, 18,485 evictions were filed in Dallas County, an average of 108.7 per day. This represents a 3.2% change over this same time period in 2022 and a 117.5% change over the same time period in 2021. Evictions have been on the rise since the end of the CDC Eviction Moratorium in August 2021, and Dallas County realized its highest one-month filing total in at least five years in August 2022, with 4,355 evictions filed.

Eviction Court Observation Process

flowchart TD
  A(Tenant receives written Notice to Vacate.) --> B(Tenant given 1 or more days to move out <br>of rental depending on lease agreement.);
  B --> C{{Tenant moves out of rental or <br>resolves issue with the landlord.}}
  B ----> D(Tenant does not leave rental within <br>time frame dictated by Notice to Vacate.)
  D --> E(Landlord files eviction suit with <br>their local JP Precinct.)
  E --> F(Hearing is scheduled at least 10 days <br>after eviction filing is made.)
  F --> G(Case is heard at JP court.)
  G --> H(((Eviction Judgement)))
  H --> I{{Case is dismissed.}}
  H --> J{{Ruled in favor of the tenant.}}
  H --> K(Ruled in favor of the landlord.)
  H --> L(Case is abated or rescheduled.)
  H --> M(Other outcome.)
  K --> N(Tenant may appeal the case within 5 days.)
  K ----> O(The tenant does not appeal and <br>fails to move out.)
  O --> P(Landlord may obtain a Writ of Possession <br>from the Justice of the Peace.)
  P --> Q(Constable posts a 24-hour notice before executing writ.)
  Q --> R{{Constable executes writ and begins removing the tenant's property.}}

Project Background

In spring 2021, the Child Poverty Action Lab (CPAL) launched a court observation project to collect, analyze, and share eviction-related data not otherwise reported publicly. Eviction docket court observation has been ongoing since, with the purpose of (1) improving local understanding of how eviction unfolds, (2) uncovering barriers/challenges for tenants and landlords, and (3) identifying ways to better support tenants and landlords upstream of an eviction hearing. Observation first began in Dallas County Justice of the Peace Court 1-1, expanded to Dallas County Justice of the Peace Courts 3-1 and 5-1 in 2022, and has continued to expand in 2023.

Case Observation Protocol

The court observation project is powered by volunteer observers who attend eviction dockets in-person, take notes as eviction cases are heard, and then enter the data digitally for CPAL analysis. Since late 2021, volunteer observers have mostly been SMU Dedman School of Law students, primarily in their second or third year of law school, volunteering as part of a class requirement or to fulfill public service hours. CPAL staff on-board volunteer observers through a two-part training: the first is an introductory online session to explain the eviction process, and the second is an onsite session at a Justice of the Peace court focused on data collection through observation.

Once trained, volunteers sign-up for dockets to observe using a digital scheduler. Volunteers select dockets to observe based on their availability, so observed cases do not represent a random selection. During docket observations, volunteers take notes on cases heard using a paper template and then enter the data afterwards into a Google Form created and managed by CPAL. Before analysis and reporting, CPAL reviews and cleans the data, as needed.

Case Observation Findings

From November 01, 2022 through April 20, 2023, 16 SMU Law student volunteers observed 1,277 cases: 377 in Justice of the Peace Court 1-1, 17 in Justice of the Peace Court 1-2, 439 in Justice of the Peace Court 3-1, 51 in Justice of the Peace Court 4-1, and 393 in Justice of the Peace Court 5-1. The 1,277 observed cases represent 10.1% coverage of all initially scheduled hearings across the five courts.. Student volunteers expanded to JP Court 1-2 and 4-1 for the first time in Spring 2023, hence the lower coverage rate.

*The scheduled hearings indicator was calculated based on the hearing date set at the time of the eviction filing. If a hearing date was subsequently rescheduled for a date later than April 20, then the case is still included here in the ‘scheduled hearings’ count. Some scheduled hearings may have been dismissed in advance of the docket, so ‘coverage’ here is likely an underrepresentation of cases observed relative to the number of cases heard during a docket.

Across the 1,277 observed cases, we found:

Values below 7% are not labeled on chart due to sizing limitation.

*The reason for an eviction case might be unknown if a default judgment was awarded to a landlord and the facts of the case were not discussed. Reasons are rounded to the nearest whole number, so totals may not equal 100%.

Why this matters: Millions of dollars in federal rent relief have largely been expended at this time, but eviction filing data illustrates the ongoing need for financial assistance to renters who have fallen behind on rent.

Why this matters: When a tenant does not appear for an eviction hearing, a default judgment is usually awarded to the landlord, without consideration of the facts of the case. Tenants may not appear in court because they must go to work, lack transportation, are unclear about how eviction cases proceed, or have already determined to move out.

*In Summer 2022 across JP Courts 1-1, 3-1, and 5-1, 10% of tenants had legal representation. In Spring 2023 across JP Courts 1-1, 3-1, and 5-1, 25% of tenants had legal representation.

Why this matters: Unlike criminal cases, defendants in civil cases generally do not have a right to counsel and are not assigned a public defender to represent them in court. As a result, very few tenants in eviction cases have legal representation and must defend themselves. Renters with legal representation in eviction hearings are much more likely to win their case and remain housed. Attorneys may also help renters negotiate terms with their landlords, keep eviction judgments off their records, and navigate other housing supports, like rent relief.

*In Summer 2022 across JP Courts 1-1, 3-1, and 5-1, a Notice to Vacate was confirmed 33% of the time. In Spring 2023 across JP Courts 1-1, 3-1, and 5-1, a Notice to Vacate was confirmed 45% of the time.

Why this matters: Unless a lease agreement states otherwise, Texas law requires a landlord to give a renter at least three days to move out, and the landlord must provide this notice (called a Notice to Vacate) in writing. An eviction cannot be filed in court before providing a Notice to Vacate. If a Notice to Vacate was not properly administered, then the renter may have recourse to have the case dismissed. If the Notice to Vacate is not confirmed during an eviction hearing, then there may be a missed opportunity to dismiss the eviction suit.

Across all cases, the average length of time for each hearing was less than 4 minutes.

Average hearing length calculated by (1) counting the number of cases observed in each docket, including default judgments, (2) calculating the total time of the docket (end time - start time), (3) calculating the average length of each hearing by dividing docket time by number of cases observed, and then (4) calculating a weighted average across all observed dockets. Because not all cases in a single docket may have been observed, average length of time here is likely conservative – i.e., average length of time per hearing is likely an overestimate.

Outcomes are rounded to the nearest whole number, so totals may not equal 100%.

Values below 7% are not labeled on chart due to sizing limitation.

In Summer 2022 across JP Courts 1-1, 3-1, and 5-1, the judge ruled in favor of the landlord in 72% of cases and in favor of the tenant in 3% of cases. In Spring 2023 across JP Courts 1-1, 3-1, and 5-1, the judge ruled in favor of the landlord in 58% of cases and in favor of the tenant in 5% of cases.

Why this matters: Evicted low-income renters face a host of consequences: eviction increases the risk of homelessness, elevates long-term residential instability, and increases emergency room use. Eviction is also a matter of public record and can appear on public consumer reports (even if a renter won an eviction case), so evicted renters have a harder time finding a new place to live. Rent or court fees may also go to collections, negatively impacting a renter’s credit score.

About CPAL

CPAL is a Dallas-based nonprofit organization committed to cutting child poverty in Dallas, Texas in half within a generation by (1) generating relevant data insights to break big problems into small, actionable ones, (2) facilitating cross-sector, collective action based on data insights, and (3) applying principles of human-centered design to solve problems in partnership with communities. One of CPAL’s five areas of focus is housing, and CPAL’s long-term aspiration is to ensure all Dallas families have access to stable housing without worry of an involuntary move.