New Law Allows Courts to Limit Information in Tenant Screening Reports

A landlord sued his tenants for eviction, even though the tenants had a valid lease and the tenants did nothing to warrant eviction. The eviction case was settled. The tenants claimed that—although they were not in the wrong to begin with—the eviction case being on public record made it difficult for them to find adequate housing.

The tenants moved to replace their names with their initials in the docket, so that their names would not show up on eviction screening reports. The motion was granted, but the court clerk appealed the order. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court of Washington.

The Washington State Constitution requires that “justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay.” Exceptions to this “vital constitutional safeguard” are appropriate only in the most unusual of circumstances. The party seeking sealing of records bears the burden of proof, and sealing or redaction must be justified by identified compelling privacy or safety concerns that outweigh the public interest in access to the court record.

The Court held that the tenants had not made such a showing, ruled that the public records must not be sealed or redacted, and that the court clerk would not replace the tenants’ names with their initials.

A new statute addresses this type of situation by granting courts the authority to limit the information that may be disseminated by a tenant screening service. The court records are not sealed or redacted, but if such an order is entered then tenant screening services cannot disclose the existence of the eviction action in a tenant screening report, or use the eviction action as a factor in determining any score or recommendation.

A court may enter an order of limited dissemination if the court finds the eviction was without sufficient basis in fact or law, the tenancy was reinstated, or for other good cause.