STATEWIDE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently extended Florida’s statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures — but the executive order isn’t as straightforward as it first appeared.

Amended language in the executive order is opening the door for broader interpretations of the law, according to legal experts and Floridians who are now seeing their eviction and foreclosure cases moved forward in the courts.

What You Need To Know

  • Amended language may not prevent all evictions, foreclosures

  • Port Charlotte family has trial date in August

  • Original order suspended and tolled "any statute"

  • Latest extension suspends “any statute providing for final action”

One of those Floridians is Port Charlotte homeowner Susan McLean. She and her husband James were grappling with a foreclosure case before COVID-19, when the moratorium drove all eviction and foreclosure proceedings to a halt. Now their case is moving forward once more, after DeSantis signed his latest executive order extending the moratorium.

McLean’s attorney, Ryan Torrens, said the executive order’s impact was “almost immediate.” The signed order was announced Wednesday night. That Friday, Torrens said he received an email from the judge’s assistant, setting an August date for their trial

But the coronavirus pandemic is still in full swing — meaning that the trial will be held virtually, via Zoom. 

Torrens and his client are questioning whether a virtual trial can fulfill the state’s constitutional mandate that Floridians have access to courts.

“I’m not exactly happy about the Zoom trial,” McLean said. “I don't think that we’ll get a fair trial if it's on Zoom. I would rather be in the courtroom to get our due process and have a legal hearing, you know, the way it's supposed to be.”

For his part, Torrens said he’s already participated in a Zoom trial during the pandemic, and there were real logistical issues.

“The court reporter had problems hearing the witnesses. We had problems introducing documents into evidence,” Torrens said. “When your homestead property is at stake, you should have your day in court.”

But the latest moratorium extension order has kick-started some eviction and foreclosure cases back into gear. That’s because the language in this new order is “hugely different” from the original, according to real estate attorney Mark Lippman.

The initial executive order, signed April 2, suspends and tolls “any statute” providing for either a mortgage foreclosure, or an eviction cause of action under Florida law. The new “limited extension,” signed July 29, suspends and tolls “any statute providing for final action” at the conclusion of either a mortgage foreclosure, or eviction proceeding.

And what that “final action” term actually means is subject to debate.

“It really depends on the interpretation,” Lippman said.

By all accounts, McLean’s situation is not unique. Several Spectrum News renters have written and called in, reporting that they’ve been served notices to leave their homes within several days. In one case, a renter said he was already evicted from his family’s home. The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it is moving forward with serving writs of possession — notices for eviction — for cases unrelated to COVID-19.

Yet across the state, confusion abounds about whether such action is actually protected under the new executive order. Doreen Overstreet, a spokesperson for Orange County, said the executive order does not allow writs of possession to take place.

“Writ of Possession can only occur after 12:01 a.m. on September 1, 2020,” Overstreet wrote in an email. “If you have received a three-day or 30-day eviction notice, we encourage you to contact your landlord regarding the nonpayment of rent.”

For his part, Torrens hopes the governor and other stakeholders will soon land on a more long-term solution for Florida’s current housing crisis.

“You can’t have lenders not getting paid any money forever, you can’t have landlords never collecting rent when they have their own mortgage obligations,” Torrens said. “You can’t have homeowners getting kicked out of their house when they’re losing their jobs.”

Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida provides access to legal aid and resources for low-income Florida residents facing litigation on issues, including foreclosures and eviction.

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.