May 19, 2020:-  The Massachusetts eviction moratorium (Chapter 65) has several execrable features, and one of the worst is the abridgment of free speech. The speech in question is in the category that courts refer to as “commercial speech.” Should you care about State government violating people’s right to utter commercial speech? If you care about the non-commercial variety, yes.

Some, but not all, notices to quit

The statute — §3(a)(ii) to be precise — prohibits housing providers from sending “any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting, or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises” for non-payment of rent, for cause, or for no cause. However, the statute does permit notices to quit where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person, including the general public.

So if a tenant is violating the lease in a way that “may impact the health or safety” of another, the housing provider is allowed to terminate the tenancy and issue a notice to quit (a prerequisite for most eviction proceedings, called “summary process” in Massachusetts).  But if a tenant is simply not paying rent, the housing provider is not allowed to do so.

Before going any further, it is important to remember this key point: The law prohibits some, but not all, notices to quit.

Notices to quit are speech

A notice to quit is, literally, correspondence; a letter from one person to another. Both sender and recipient are parties to a contract, and the notice to quit is how the sender tells the recipient that the contract is at an end. It is a form of “expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience” so constitutes commercial speech.  Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557, 561 (1980). The housing provider who sends the notice to quit is not evicting the tenant. Only a judge can do that by way of legal proceedings called summary process (see below).

Even though the notice to quit is commercial speech, which means that it gets less protection from the courts than non-commercial varieties, the government does not have free rein. If it wants to restrict someone’s commercial speech, the government still has to follow some rules.

To be constitutional, commercial-speech restrictions must be effective

The Supreme Judicial Court has held that “a restriction on commercial speech will not be upheld if it provides only ineffective or remote support for the government’s purpose.”  Bulldog Inv’rs Gen. P’ship v. Sec’y of Com., 460 Mass. 647, 669–70 (2011) quoting Central Hudson, 447 U.S. at 564. If the restriction does not effectively support the government’s purpose, it is unconstitutional.

Does the ban on some notices to quit (but not others) effectively support the government’s purpose? And what is the government’s purpose, anyway?

The selective ban on notices to quit is ineffective

The express purpose of the Commonwealth, stated in the statute’s emergency preamble, is to establish “a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the Governor’s COVID 19 emergency declaration.” So for the duration of the emergency the government wants to temporarily stop evictions. Fair enough, some might say.

But evictions are not something housing providers can perform. Housing providers cannot evict anyone; only judges can do that. There are statutes that make this clear.  G.L. c. 239 and c. 186.

If landlords try to evict, that is called self help, and it is illegal in Massachusetts. In fact, tenants’ advocates recommend that if a landlord resorts to self help the tenants should call the police and file a criminal complaint. Don’t believe me? Follow this link to the Massachusetts Legal Aid site and scroll down to the words in bold: Call the police and file a criminal complaint.

In order to impose a moratorium on evictions, the Commonwealth need only prohibit the courts from issuing judgments and executions for possession, which it has done by way of §3(b)(ii) which states that the courts must not “enter a judgment or default judgment for a plaintiff for possession of a residential dwelling unit… (iii) issue an execution for possession of a residential dwelling unit… ; (iv) deny, upon the request of a defendant, a stay of execution, or upon the request by a party, a continuance of a summary process case; or (v) schedule a court event, including a summary process trial.”

Courts are not allowed to hold summary process trials, enter judgment, award possession to housing providers, or deny tenants a stay of execution (execution means the eviction itself, where the sheriff forcibly removes the people and their belongings). That part of the statute, §3(b)(ii), is the one part that actually does establish a moratorium on evictions.

But only some evictions. Remember, Chapter 65 prohibits evictions for non-payment of rent and evictions where the housing provider does not specify a particular reason, so-called “no cause” evictions. It does not prohibit evictions where the tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations” may impact the health or safety” of another person or the general public.

How does evicting someone for criminal activity that may impact the safety of the general public (thereby rendering that dangerous person homeless) help keep the general public safe, whereas evicting someone for nonpayment of rent makes the general public less safe?  That is a genuine question. I would like to know the Commonwealth’s answer.

Conclusion

The supposed goal of Chapter 65 is to establish a moratorium on evictions during the COVID 19 emergency. One part of the statute does exactly that (almost), by barring the courts from evicting people, except people who are potentially a danger to the public (putting them out on the street is OK, apparently). What does restricting the commercial speech rights of housing providers do to make the moratorium more effective? Nothing.

Chapter 65 is set to expire on August 18 unless the Governor exercises his option to extend it. Should he let it expire, or grant it an extension?

Exercise your speech rights while you can and let me know what you think.

man in blue crew neck shirt
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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