By Mark Zinman | Zona Law
I have been an AZREIA member for years, and a landlord for just as long. I personally do my own background checks on applicants. I check the justice court website records for any cases that the tenant was involved in, whether criminal or civil. When I recently went to do this for a new applicant, I found a case that says it is sealed. I can’t tell what case it is; I can only see the case number. What does this mean and what should I do?
Before we give you the legal answer of what it likely means, we want to tell you what you should do: you should consider using a professional background screening company to run your background checks. We see too many clients attempting to save a dollar by doing their own checks and they end up missing critical information about their residents. For instance, while there is some information available publicly, most individual owners that do their own checks, miss information from out of state or from higher courts, such as the federal courts or bankruptcy court. The last thing you want to do is rent to an applicant who is in bankruptcy, only to have them not pay the first month’s rent and now you are governed by the bankruptcy automatic stay.
Also, when you do your own searches, you are largely relying on an applicant’s name and names are too common to be useful when completing a background check. You need to be able to complete a search using the resident’s social security number to ensure that you are verifying the qualifications of the correct person. Remember, you are going into business with this person for at least a year, so you want to make sure you qualify the right person and that the right person is qualified.
As to your initial question, if there is a sealed record in the justice court system and it relates to a civil case (CC case number), then it is likely an eviction action that was filed against your applicant. However, before you use that to deny them, realize that the fact that the case is sealed means that the case ended in the applicant’s favor. Just because they were a party to an eviction, doesn’t mean they did anything wrong and the fact that the case is sealed demonstrates the case was ended in their favor. They may have paid their rent, and the case was dismissed, or they may have won and gotten a judgment against their landlord.
The law provides that there are 3 instances when an eviction case can be sealed and not made available to the public: (1) The case is dismissed before entry of a judgment; (2) A judgment is entered in favor of the tenant; (3) A stipulation is submitted by both parties, to have the file sealed.
Effectively, if an eviction is filed and a judgment is not ultimately entered in the landlord’s favor, the case could be sealed. If a case is sealed, only the parties to the case and their attorneys will be able to access the file. In other words, such cases are not supposed to show up on a tenant’s credit or background check. Except in rare situations, the fact that it is sealed should not be held against them.