Philadelphia to replace judge that supervised landlord-tenant court

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Bradley K. Moss (Courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative)

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Bradley K. Moss (Courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative)

A judge who long oversaw Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant courts — and who had drawn criticism from housing advocates –– will step down from this supervisory role in the coming months.

Judge Bradley K. Moss served as the Supervising Judge of Municipal Court’s Civil Division for 13 years, overseeing its administrative functions and presiding over small claims, code enforcement proceedings, and the bulk of landlord-tenant disputes filed in the city’s First Judicial District.

But court officials confirmed he will transition out of this role on Oct. 1. Municipal Court Judge Matthew S. Wolf will assume Moss’ duties in the fall. He will step away from the role weeks after a moratorium on evictions lifts, amid a pandemic that city officials say has created a crisis for renters likely to result in an “avalanche” of evictions.

A spokesperson praised Moss’ work during the turbulent coronavirus pandemic, during which he oversaw the closing and reopening of the court, and responded to city and state moratoriums on evictions.

“Judge Moss’ service and tireless dedication to the court was most evident during the current global pandemic as he worked to maintain critical operations and reopen the Municipal Court Civil Division in a timely and safe manner,” said First Judicial District spokesperson Marty O’Rourke.

HAPCO, an association of city landlords, praised Moss’ tenure, describing the judge as fair.

“Judge Moss did a great job as the supervising judge of the municipal court civil division. He was very dedicated, worked extremely hard, and always listened to all sides involved,” said Paul Cohen, an attorney with HAPCO. “We will miss him and wish him the best of luck in his new role.”

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Some housing advocates painted a different picture, saying that he prioritized case efficiency over tenant concerns.

Court records show Moss sided with plaintiffs in about 78% of the landlord-tenant disputes he presided over, during the past five years.

City Councilmember Helen Gym, who has helped advance housing and anti-eviction legislation, acknowledged that there have been “controversies” around Moss’ supervision of landlord-tenant courts.

“This is a significant change in the direction of the courts and hopefully for landlord-tenant courts as well,” Gym said of the leadership change. “We need a strong partnership with the courts.”

Although a moratorium on new evictions remains in place through next month, over 1,000 pending evictions were frozen following a court shutdown in March. Efforts to advance these existing cases by reopening eviction courts in July drew an aggressive response from advocates like Gym and were ultimately delayed through September.

The reassignment comes on the heels of several reports outlining problems with Municipal Court’s handling of evictions.

A WHYY investigation found the courts have long employed a private attorney to execute evictions for profit –– a lawyer currently married to a Municipal Court judge who occasionally presided over eviction cases. An Inquirer editorial board investigation later detailed concerns about the opaque nature of this office and questioned the adequacy of its efforts to notify tenants ahead of evictions.

The change also comes on the heels of Gov. Tom Wolf announcing that he will likely be unable to extend an eviction moratorium beyond a September deadline.

Gym said the courts would be integral to stave off the expected wave of evictions linked to economic stressors.

“I appreciate the willingness of the courts to engage in meaningful dialogue to reform the practice of evictions in our city,” Gym said. “I am looking forward to working with Judge Wolf and Municipal Court leadership to enact truly groundbreaking programs and collaborative efforts that help our city meet this moment.”

O’Rourke did not detail the timing or reasoning for the reassignment. Less than two weeks ago, the Pew Trusts published an interview with Moss in which the judge detailed ongoing plans to safely reopen the courts.

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