September 7, 2021:- Massachusetts legislators are considering H. 1434, which would establish a moratorium on non-payment evictions. It would not ban all evictions, only a subset of evictions “where the plaintiff’s complaint is based upon or includes any claim for rent or use and occupancy.” The bill has an emergency preamble, and it’s supposedly related in some way to COVID-19.
Nothing can justify another ban on people regaining possession of their property from those who are occupying said property without paying rent. The article in this week’s Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on that subject quotes me, accurately:
“In January, the pandemic was killing about 3,000 people a day, notes Amherst attorney Peter Vickery. But as vaccines have been distributed, the death rate has declined dramatically, down to about 150 people a day.
Vickery references the New Jersey law that prohibits motorists from pumping their own gasoline. There may be some very real concerns that led to the passage of that law, but there is an ‘extraordinary mismatch between the threat and the policy.'”
I mis-stated the current daily death toll, which is now around 400-500, up from about 200 per day in July but still a far cry from the January 2021 average of 3,000. Yesterday (September 6, 2021) in the United States there were 246 deaths from COVID-19, according to the CDC. For the CDC’s tracker of daily deaths from CIVID-19, click here.
NJ ban on amateur gas-pumping
But what does the New Jersey law against pumping your own gas have to do with eviction moratoria? For readers who are curious, please consider the findings that NJ legislators included in the statute so as to justify the self-pumping ban (NJSA 34:3A-4), which findings include:
“(d)… [R]isks of crime and fall-related personal injury, which are a special burden to drivers with physical infirmities, such as the handicapped and some senior citizens;
(e) Exposure to toxic gasoline fumes represents a health hazard when customers dispense their own gasoline, particularly in the case of pregnant women;
(f) The significantly higher prices usually charged for full-service gasoline in States where self-service is permitted results in discrimination against low income individuals, who are under greater economic pressure to undergo the inconvenience and hazards of dispensing their own gasoline.”
These are all plausible risks. But do they really justify banning amateurs from filling our own gas tanks and leaving the job to trained pump attendants? No. In the rest of the United States, people manage to pump their own gas without triggering the Apocalypse. Similarly, nor does the potential for spreading COVID19 justify a ban on people regaining possession of their own property from those who are not paying rent.
As the Supreme Court of the United States held recently regarding the Biden administration’ unconstitutional non-payment eviction moratorium:
“The moratorium has put the applicants, along with millions of landlords across the country, at risk of irreparable harm by depriving them of rent payments with no guarantee of eventual recovery. Despite the CDC’s determination that landlords should bear a significant financial cost of the pandemic, many landlords have modest means. And preventing them from evicting tenants who breach their leases intrudes on one of the most fundamental elements of property ownership—the right to exclude.”
Alabama Ass’n of Realtors v. Dep’t of Health & Hum. Servs., No. 21A23, 2021 WL 3783142, at *4 (U.S. Aug. 26, 2021).
Massachusetts legislators should read this decision and, before criticizing it, think about the Court’s reasoning.
Our right to own property is one of the many rights that the State and federal Constitutions guarantee. It is not untrammeled, but it is is not something that legislators can violate on a whim. Here in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has held:
“[S]ubstantive due process requires a statute affecting a fundamental right to be narrowly tailored to achieve compelling government interests.”
Sharris v. Commonwealth, 480 Mass. 586, 593, 106 N.E.3d 661, 668 (2018). Is the right to exclude non-paying tenants from your property a fundamental right? If it is, the court should apply strict scrutiny and require the Commonwealth to show that the law is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.
Even if the court were to apply the weaker intermediate-scrutiny test, the non-payment eviction moratorium should fail. To pass this test, the Commonwealth would have to show a reasonable, proportional fit between the law and an important governmental interest. Here, what connection could there be between a ban on non-payment evictions and the governmental interest, i.e. slowing the spread of COVID19?
The reason that the CDC gave for its non-payment eviction moratorium — and that moratorium advocates continue to echo — was that “evicted renters must move.” They may move into “shared housing or other congregate settings” (of course, they may be moving from shared housing or other congregate settings, but no matter). And their relocation may even entail “crossing State borders.”
What H. 1434 would not do
Surely, if people moving from one place to another is such a risk enhancer, the Legislature should put a stop to it altogether.
But does the Legislature wish to ban all of us, renters and homeowners alike, from moving house? No, it is not trying to prevent people who own their own homes from selling them and going to live somewhere else.
Does the Legislature wish to ban tenants from relocating of their own accord? No.
Does the Legislature wish to ban all evictions? No.
Does the Legislature wish to ban judges from evicting tenants who are using the premises for illegal purposes, causing a nuisance, or interfering with other tenants’ quiet enjoyment? No.
For this bill to be a good fit, there would have to be some evidence that tenants who do not pay rent are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 than the tenants who are using the premises for illegal purposes, causing a nuisance, or interfering with other tenants’ quiet enjoyment. And that is just silly.
Yes, deaths from COVID-19 are higher than they were in July, but nowhere near the high of January-February 2021. Most adults in the United States — and about 90% of those aged 70 and over — have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and those vaccinations work (click here for a recent article in the Atlantic magazine on that subject). Even if there had been a good reason for H. 1434 in early 2021 (and there was not) that reason has gone.
The only kinds of evictions that the Legislature wishes to ban with H. 1434 are evictions where the landlord is trying to get paid. That might make the bill’s proponents feel good, but it would not reduce the transmission of COVI-19.
August 31, 2021:- If you are a regular reader of my posts, you already know that Massachusetts is one of the worst States in the nation for civil asset forfeiture (worst, that is, from the point of view of the people whose property the police seize). And you also know that police departments can keep whatever they take from someone even if that person is never charged, let alone convicted, of any crime. But you might still be wondering how Massachusetts officials spend the proceeds. A new report by WBUR and ProPublica has some answers.
The WBUR and ProPublica journalists looked at Worcester County, where the District Attorney, Joseph D. Early, Jr., obtained $4 million in forfeitures in the period 2017-20:
“Early has been criticized by the state auditor for spending forfeiture funds on a Zamboni ice-clearing machine and tree-trimming equipment. Over the years, his office has posted photos on its website of Early handing out checks for “Drug Forfeiture Community Reinvestment,” to pay for baseball and softball fields or to support a cheerleading team.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with baseball, softball, and cheerleaders, in my opinion. If the DA wants to spend his own money on that sort of thing, OK. But other people’s money? And who are these other people?
“WBUR’s analysis of Worcester County forfeitures from 2017 through 2019 found that more than half of the seizures in these cases were for less than $500. In one incident, Fitchburg police seized $10 from a man listed as homeless. In another, Sturbridge police took $10 from a 14-year-old boy.”
This helps explain why so few people bother challenging seizures in court: The cost of hiring an attorney is far higher than the value of the seized property.
August 27, 2021:- HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court of the United States for holding the CDC eviction moratorium unconstitutional. Here is the opening paragraph of the statement:
“I am deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the CDC’s eviction moratorium. With this decision, the Court has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes—even as the Delta variant heightens their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many of these Americans are among our most vulnerable—including senior citizens, people with chronic illnesses, young children, and families with the lowest incomes.”
The statement is inaccurate. As the Supreme Court’s decision points out, it is Congress, not the CDC, that has the power to enact an eviction moratorium. Congress has done so before, and it could do so again. If Congress had wanted to enact a new eviction moratorium, it could have. But it did not. That choice on the part of Congress did not magically empower another branch of the federal government to legislate in its place.
Many political actors have put people at risk of losing their homes, e.g. the governors who closed down businesses and the legislators who enabled them. The culprits do not include the justices of the Supreme Court.
August 27, 2021:- Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the stay (pause) on the District Court’s order vacating the Biden administration’s eviction moratorium. By way of a reminder about the separation of powers, the Supreme Court stated:
The Government contends that the first sentence of §361(a) gives the CDC broad authority to take whatever measures it deems necessary to control the spread of COVID–19, including issuing the moratorium. But the second sentence informs the grant of authority by illustrating the kinds of measures that could be necessary: inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of contaminated animals and articles. These measures directly relate to preventing the interstate spread of disease by identifying, isolating, and destroying the disease itself. The CDC’s moratorium, on the other hand, relates to interstate infection far more indirectly: If evictions occur, some subset of tenants might move from one State to another, and some subset of that group might do so while infected with COVID–19.
This downstream connection between eviction and the interstate spread of disease is markedly different from the direct targeting of disease that characterizes the measures identified in the statute. Reading both sentences together, rather than the first in isolation, it is a stretch to maintain that §361(a) gives the CDC the authority to impose this eviction moratorium. Even if the text were ambiguous, the sheer scope of the CDC’s claimed authority under §361(a) would counsel against the Government’s interpretation. We expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance… That is exactly the kind of power that the CDC claims here.
(internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
The Court was not saying that no branch of the federal government can impose an eviction moratorium. Congress can do it (and Congress has done it) but an executive-branch administrative agency cannot.
This article in scotusblog.com provides a clear description and link to the decision.
August 25, 2021:-Attorney Wayne Detring of Franklin, Tennessee, is not someone I had heard of before yesterday but, as a result of his letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, he is going on my Christmas card list.
Attorney Detring pointed out that after President Biden repeatedly said that there was no legal basis for extending his predecessor’s eviction moratorium (and then went ahead and did it anyway) the administration’s lawyer put his name to a court document arguing that, contrary to his client’s repeated and accurate public statements, the moratorium is lawful. That sort of conduct verges on the unethical, wrote Attorney Detring (see below).
Here is the President saying that the courts had ruled that the previous CDC eviction moratorium was unconstitutional and that although most constitutional scholars think that a new one would be “unlikely to pass constitutional muster” a few think it might and by the time a challenge gets through the courts the order will have served its purpose.
The court decision President Biden was referring to was the one that Judge Dabney Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued back in June. “The question for the Court is a narrow one,” wrote Judge Friedrich.
“Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”
The reason has nothing to do with the wording or extent of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. The reason is simpler than that. As an executive branch agency, the CDC may only act within the parameters that Congress has set for it, and Congress has never granted the CDC the authority to ban people who own rental property from going to court when tenants do not pay rent. The CDC does not have, and never has had, that authority.
At the end of June, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that a moratorium extension would need clear and specific congressional authorization via new legislation.
Nevertheless, when Congress did not enact any such clear and specific authorization, President Biden issued another eviction moratorium through the CDC.
The Alabama Association of Realtors quickly challenged the new moratorium.
In response, the Solicitor General filed a reply in which he argued that Congress had given the CDC authority via 42 USC 264(a), enacted in 1944, which provides that:
“The Surgeon General, with the approval of the Secretary, is authorized to make and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession. For purposes of carrying out and enforcing such regulations, the Surgeon General may provide for such inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, destruction of animals or articles found to be so infected or contaminated as to be sources of dangerous infection to human beings, and other measures, as in his judgment may be necessary.”
According to the Acting Solicitor General of the United Stats, Brian H. Fletcher, by way of this provision in the 1944 statute Congress gave the head of the CDC discretion to “prevent the movement of persons to prevent the spread of communicable disease.” To be fair, he was quoting the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when it rejected the request from the Alabama Association of Realtors to vacate the stay of Judge Friedrich’s previous order. But at the time the Solicitor General filed the reply it was already clear that five justices of the Supreme Court of the United States share the opinion of Judge Friedrich that the 1944 statute, which (prior to President Trump) had never been used in this way, does not confer the necessary authority.
If you think there ought to be a rule against this sort of thing, there is, as Attorney Detring points out:
“Rule 3.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers from bringing or defending a proceeding unless there is a basis in law or fact for doing so. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that by signing or submitting a pleading, an attorney certifies that it is not presented for any improper purpose, such as to ‘cause unnecessary delay.’ Rule 11 also provides a process for sanctioning violators… Ordinary practicing attorneys would be in grave danger of sanctions for filing a pleading knowingly unsupported by law or fact, and by admittedly filing the pleading for the purpose of delay.”
Good point, I think.
President Biden’s conscious decision to issue an unlawful order will be one of topics up for discussion at an event MassLandlords has scheduled for September 8 titled “Are Eviction Moratoriums the New Normal?” The other points up for discussion:
Courtroom challenges to the CDC moratorium;
The “state moratorium 2.0” currently pending the Massachusetts Legislature; and
What litigation might be brought to bear against a new Massachusetts eviction moratorium.
I will be one of the three speakers, together with Attorney Jordana Roubicek Greenman and Attorney Richard Vetstein. For the event link, click here.
August 6, 2021:- President Biden, like President Trump before him, has issued an eviction moratorium, via the CDC, without authorization from Congress. For an overview from Reason magazine, click here.
August 4, 2021:- If you lie awake worrying that there are too few people incarcerated, too few criminal offenses on the statute books, and too much unregulated speech (in fact altogether too much unregulated human activity in general) rest easy. Help is at hand. The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would criminalize videos that make it look as if people are saying things that they did not really say.
It seems unlikely that the bill, H. 1755, sponsored by Representative Jay D. Livingstone, will become law, not this session anyway. It is a refile of H. 3366, which he filed in 2019. For reasons that I explain below, I hope this bill does not become law, not this session, not next session, not ever.
The clue is in the typo
Whoever drafted the bill apparently drew inspiration, and most of the text, from a federal bill titled the Malicious Deep Fake Prohibition Act of 2018 filed by United States Senator Bill Sasse (R – Nebraska). If you want to read Attorney Nina Iacono Brown’s critique in Slate of Senator Sasse’s bill and similar proposals, click here.
Copying another legislator’s bill is not a violation of the Copyright Act, of course (on which subject see below). In fact, they should have gone the whole hog and copied the title too. Because what did the drafters choose as a moniker for Representative Livingstone’s adaptation of Senator Sasse’s bill? They called it “An Act to protect against deep fakes used to facilitate torturous or criminal conduct.”
Aside from the irony-laden, Freudian-slippy typo (I am quite sure that they meant to write “tortious” not “torturous”) it’s just too much of a mouthful. But that problem is a small one compared with the bill’s potential impact on freedom of expression. It would hand the shut-uppers yet another tool with which to silence heterodox speakers.
Trust me, I’m from Big Tech
H. 1755 was on the agenda for the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on July 27, 2021. If you would like to watch the relevant part of the hearing, click here and scroll to 1:09:40. There you can see and hear testimony from Nick Gatz, manager of State Government Relations for Adobe, who states that the company is neutral on H.1755 and offers the Legislature its expertise “on the topic of content manipulation and online misinformation,” which is the sort of thing Adobe is against, I gather.
Adobe is so very much against content manipulation and online misinformation that it has established an entity called the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. If that name was approved by a focus group, I am quite sure that its members either: (a) had no familiarity with Orwell’s 1984; or (b) considered the book to have been not so much a cautionary tale as an instruction manual.
Coalition of the all too willing
The purpose of the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity? To deploy technology that will help us — naïve saps that we are — sort the real-news wheat from the fake-news chaff, thereby obviating the need for legislation. Why should politicians bother to extend control over online speech with laws (laws that could conceivably be struck down by bothersome judges or repealed by the great unwashed) when Big Tech has an app for that? If the alternative to the Act to Protect Against Deep Fakes Used to Facilitate Torturous or Criminal Conduct is the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, forgive me for not sighing with relief.
One of the more famous members of the coalition is Twitter, the company that (like Google’s YouTube) runs advertisements for the Chinese government, says the Columbia Journalism Review:
“According to a number of reports, the most recent ads push the message that protesters in Hong Kong are violent extremists and that state police are simply doing their best to keep the peace.”
Yes, Twitter takes money to promote the Chinese Communist Party line that pro-democracy protestors are violent extremists, a falsehood that does not count as “online misinformation” so far as Twitter is concerned, apparently.
Another coalition member is Microsoft, which, according to Business Insider, complies with China’s censorship laws. For example, earlier this year, when users in the United States tried to find images of Tank Man via Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, their searches yielded no results.
Readers may recall that Tank Man was the protestor who stood in front of Red Army tanks during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He was being a “violent extremist,” I suppose. But Bing’s omission was merely the result of “human error,” according to reports on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
“Beijing is known to require search engines operating in its jurisdiction to censor results, but those restrictions are rarely applied elsewhere.”
The most important word in that sentence is “rarely.” Fans of Gilbert and Sulivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore may be recalling the Captain’s lines, “What, never? Well, hardly ever.”
Coincidentally, the BBC is another member of the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. For readers unfamiliar with the BBC, it is Britain’s publicly-funded media organization that makes popular dramas, documentaries, and situation comedies and, once upon a time, used to be a trustworthy source of news, at least in comparison with, say, TASS or Pravda. It is also the organization that employed Martin Bashir, the reporter who secured a TV interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, by using faked bank statements that fueled the princess’s paranoid delusions that she was the victim of a conspiracy involving, inter alia, royal bodyguards; her husband and heir apparent to the Crown, Prince Charles; the Secret Intelligence Service; and GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency.
The BBC followed up on Bashir’s fakery with an equally fake internal inquiry and not only retained his services but gave him a promotion. For the report of the independent inquiry, click here.
In addition to Martin Bashir, the BBC employed Jimmy Savile who, during his lengthy broadcasting career, sexually assaulted approximately 72 people and raped several more, including an 8-year-old girl, crimes to which the BBC later admitted it had “turned a blind eye.”
So Twitter, Microsoft, and the BBC are now coalescing with other media corporations in order to protect us — poor, credulous, undiscerning, gullible us — against content manipulation and online misinformation. What, as they say, could possibly go wrong.
During the hearing, the House chair of the committee suggested that deepfakes might be better dealt with via a new federal law. This brought to mind a current federal law, namely section 506 (c) of the Copyright Act, which makes it a crime to place on any work a false copyright notice:
“Any person who, with fraudulent intent, places on any article a notice of copyright or words of the same purport that such person knows to be false… shall be fined not more than $2,500.”
This provision came to mind for two reasons. First, it was only last year that the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Georgia, et al v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc., on the subject of copyright in legislative works (the public edicts doctrine). The court reiterated the well-established point that legislators cannot claim copyright in the works they create in the course of their official duties.
That’s why Senator Ben Sasse has no grounds to go after State Representative Livingstone. And it is why the Massachusetts Legislature cannot claim copyright in the documents that it publishes. If it did so, e.g. by fraudulently posting a false copyright notice on its website, it would be violating section 506 (c) of the Copyright Act.
And that was the second reason that the provision came to mind as I watched the hearing, because right there on the screen, at the bottom of the page, appeared the following words:
I wonder if that qualifies as “online misinformation.”
From tort to crime
If we cannot safely place total trust in Twitter, Microsoft, the BBC, and the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity as a whole (and we can’t), would we be any better off with Rep. Livingstone’s Act to Protect Against Deep Fakes Used to Facilitate Torturous or Criminal Conduct? No, and here’s why.
The proposed law would make it a crime to distribute a video in order to “facilitate criminal or tortious conduct” if the video was “created or altered in a manner that [it] would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.”
The word “facilitate” is pretty clear, I suppose, and the term “criminal conduct” is easy enough to grasp. It covers things like assault and battery, and fraudulently placing a false copyright notice in violation of section 506 (c) of the Copyright Act.
But what qualifies as tortious conduct? We have torts aplenty in Massachusetts, but here are two that tend to come up in the context of online spats: defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. To me, these are the two torts that seem likely to provide a pretext for political prosecutions under H. 1755, allowing Massachusetts politicians to use the courts to silence their opponents. Do such things really happen here? For just one example, see my post titled “Free speech wins (four years after judge bans candidate from mentioning opponent’s name.”
It can be difficult for public figures such as politicians to shut up their detractors with defamation lawsuits. They have to prove “actual malice,” i.e. that the speaker made a false statement knowing that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
Easier, then, if you are an elected tribune of the people, to seek a civil harassment-prevention order, as did the politician in the case I discuss in the aforementioned post. Even easier, perhaps, to bring a private criminal complaint under the proposed Act to Protect Against Deep Fakes Used to Facilitate Torturous or Criminal Conduct or, better still, get your friend the prosecutor to ask a grand jury to issue an indictment.
If H. 1755 becomes law and you share a deepfake with the intent to cause emotional distress to, say, Senator Suehappy Thinskin you won’t be looking at your screen for a while; you’ll be looking at two and a half years in the slammer.
To safely forward the video of the esteemed Senator without fear of criminal prosecution, you would need to know — prior to sharing it — that it was not “created or altered in a manner that would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.”
How could you be sure? Perhaps you could look for a certificate of authenticity issued by the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. But the Coalition (i.e. Twitter, Microsoft, the BBC, etc.) might not issue certificates to videos that criticize the powerful. It might routinely withhold certificates from people who say things that the powerful do not like.
But the absence of a certificate would not necessarily mean that the video was deepfake. So you could roll the dice, share the video, and hope that you don’t get a call from the offended hack’s lawyer or from law enforcement.
Even if the video is authentic, you might worry that people with friends in high places might be able to persuade law enforcement — and even a judge and jury — that it is not. Readers may have noticed that when somebody says something true, but embarrassing, about a powerful person, the powerful person first denies it and then attacks the somebody who said it, often with the eager help of the online mob. Even if the truth of the statement eventually becomes apparent, by that point the speaker’s life has been turned upside down.
Yes, H. 1755 says that “no person shall be held liable under this section for any activity protected by the Massachusetts Constitution or by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” But when do you, the speaker, find out whether your activity was protected by the Massachusetts Constitution or by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? When a judge says so, i.e. long after you’ve been interrogated and prosecuted.
Those risks, I suspect, would make you think twice about forwarding the video of Senator Suehappy Thinskin saying or doing something idiotic. We call this the chilling effect.
But shouldn’t there be laws against using deepfakes to defame people or cause them emotional distress? Yes, and we already have them, e.g. the torts called defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If you still think we need more criminal offenses for prosecutors to threaten people with, check out @ACrimeADay on Twitter. Spoiler alert: There are a lot.
Back in 2019, the Massachusetts bill to ban deepfakes had two cosponsors, but this time Representative Livingstone is going it alone. The bill is losing support rather than gaining it. You may think that I should take heart from this trend, but I do not. Why? Because of the difference between bad ideas and nuclear waste.
At some point, with the passage of time, nuclear waste stops being dangerous. Not so with bad ideas. You cannot summon forth the ideas that H. 1755 embodies, bottle them, bury them in a lead-lined underground vault, and wait for them to disintegrate into harmless nothingness. No, they remain in the atmosphere, floating freely like wraiths, sometimes for decades, until they suddenly make themselves manifest as emergency bills or outside sections in the State budget.
That is why I am no more relieved at the bill’s feeble prospects this session than I am about entrusting the task of identifying deepfakes to the likes of Twitter, Microsoft, and the BBC.
P.S. For the full text of Representative Jay Livingstone’s bill, H. 1755, scroll down below the image.
SECTION 1. Chapter 266 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 37E the following section:-
Section 37E 1/2. (a)As used in this section, the following words shall have the following meaning unless the context clearly requires otherwise:
“Audiovisual record,” any audio or visual media in an electronic format and includes any photograph, motion-picture film, video recording, electronic image, or sound recording.
“Deep fake”, an audiovisual record created or altered in a manner that the record would falsely appear to a reasonable observer to be an authentic record of the actual speech or conduct of an individual.
(b) Whoever (1), creates, with the intent to distribute, a deep fake and with the intent that the distribution of the deep fake would facilitate criminal or tortious conduct, or (2) distributes an audiovisual record with actual knowledge that the audiovisual record is a deep fake and with the intent that the distribution of the audiovisual record would facilitate criminal or tortious conduct shall be guilty of the crime of identity fraud and shall be punished by a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than two and one-half years, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
No person shall be held liable under this section for any activity protected by the Massachusetts Constitution or by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
A security deposit slip up can spoil a seemingly straightforward summary process case. So MassLandlords is holding a virtual lunch-and-learn session for housing providers (12 noon on Tuesday, July 20, 2021) where I will provide an overview of this slippery subject and answer questions.
June 24, 2021:- President Biden has extended President Trump’s eviction moratorium again. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that the moratorium will remain in effect until the end of July 2021.
June 7, 2021:- The owner of a short-term rental property was not liable for the shooting death of a man who attended a party at the property, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced today in the case of Heath-Latson v. Styller.
The shooting occurred in May 2016 at the Lynnfield home of Alexander Styller, who let the house to a group of people as a short-term rental. Here is a link to the NECN coverage.
Ostensibly the booking was for a college reunion but via social media one of the group advertised the gathering as a “Splash Mansion Pool Party.” Approximately 100 people attended and in the early hours of the morning the local police received a call that somebody had been shot.
The estate of the decedent, Keivan Heath, sued the organizers and Mr. Styller (the homeowner) in Superior Court. The judge allowed Mr. Styller’s motion to dismiss, and the case went to the SJC. In upholding the dismissal, the SJC stated:
“A duty to protect against harm caused by the conduct of a third person arises where there is a special relationship between a defendant and a plaintiff such that the defendant reasonably could foresee that he would be expected to take affirmative action to protect the plaintiff and could anticipate harm to the plaintiff from the failure to do so…
Here, the complaint alleges no facts suggesting that the defendant had a duty to protect the decedent from wrongdoing of a third party. Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that that short-term rentals have significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large, it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime.”
Heath-Latson v. Styller (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)
The decision reiterates the duties of a landlord and the limits on those duties.
The SJC issued another decision involving Mr. Styller today, namely Styller v Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield, in which the court upheld the ZBA’s determination that the zoning bylaw prohibited short-terms rentals even before it did so expressly in 2016.
June 3, 2021:- Today the Asset Forfeiture Commission held its sixth meeting, which consisted of a presentation by Attorney Dan Alban, co-director of the National Initiative to End Civil Forfeiture at the Institute for Justice (IJ). You can watch the hearing by clicking here.
Among Attorney Alban’s recommendations:
Not simply increasing the evidentiary standard from probable cause to preponderance of the evidence/beyond reasonable doubt. Instead, remove the financial incentive for the practice.
Using criminal asset forfeiture only and abolishing civil asset forfeiture, as New Mexico has done. IJ’s goal is not to defund the police but to restore due process. “Crime should not pay,” he said, “and it is legitimate for the State to confiscate the proceeds of crime.”
Enacting anti-circumvention laws to prevent State law enforcement simply outsourcing forfeiture to their federal counterparts. Massachusetts engages in “equitable sharing” with the federal government far more than most other States (the Commonwealth is 48th in IJ’s ranking)
Requiring greater detail in law enforcement’s reporting requirements in Massachusetts in connection with proceeds of civil asset forfeiture. Attorney Alban pointing to the 2018 report which states that 6% of the proceeds went to travel and training, 7% to equipment, with 53% listed as “other.”
After the presentation, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said that he agreed with the need for more information, which should be a prerequisite to any overhaul of the system in his opinion. He stated that forfeiture is necessary to deal with those who are “undercutting” the “pretty successful consumer oriented sale of drugs,” i.e. marijuana, in Massachusetts. He held up a photograph of one of the houses he had seized, stating that it had been used as a “grow house.”
DA Morrissey also stated that prosecutors stay (i.e. pause) civil forfeiture cases until the criminal case is resolved. My review of some of the 70 or so civil forfeiture cases filed under MGL c 94C, section 47, in Hampden County Superior Court over the last year did not support that assertion but that may be a result of my sample size or of my misreading the docket. I used masscourts.org and searched under Administrative Civil Actions. Readers with the time and inclination can double-check my search in Hampden Superior Court and look for cases in the Superior Court in other counties.
In response to DA Morrissey’s request for one example of an innocent owner whose property had been forfeited in Massachusetts, Attorney Alban cited the Motel Caswell case in Tewksbury, in which the owner had not only reported criminal activity but had cooperated in a sting operation. Law enforcement seized his motel anyway.
DA Morrissey pointed out that the Motel Caswell case was an instance of “equitable sharing,” i.e. local police working with the federal law enforcement and using federal law. The Malinda Harris case did not come up during the discussion.
Co-chair Senator Jamie Eldridge announced that the commission will issue its report, with recommendations, by July 31, 2021. Between now and then the commission will have one more meeting (date to be announced).
June 2,2021:- Where is the $12 million of public money earmarked for the Eviction Diversion Initiative actually going?
Finding out is harder than you might think because the body in charge of distributing the money (the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation) says that it is not subject to the Public Records Law. So on behalf of MassLandlords, I asked the Legislature to investigate.
To learn more, you can read my article in the MassLandlords newsletter by clicking here.
June 1,2021:- On Thursday, June 3, starting at 10:00 a.m., the Massachusetts commission on civil asset forfeiture will hold a meeting that you can watch live via malegislature.gov.
Readers will recall that civil asset forfeiture is where law enforcement seizes property that they have mere probable cause to believe may have been used in connection with a crime and then the owner has to go to court to prove innocence in order to get their property back. The system lets police and prosecutors treat ordinary people like an ATM.
Does this really happen in Massachusetts? Yes, as the experience of Malinda Harris, covered in Reason magazine, illustrates:
“On March 4, 2015, police in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, seized Malinda Harris’ 2011 Infiniti G37 because her son, Trevice, was suspected of selling drugs. Although Harris had let Trevice borrow her car, the cops never alleged that he used it for drug dealing or that she knew about her son’s illegal activity. Harris heard nothing more about her purloined property until October 2020, more than five years after the seizure, when she was served with a civil forfeiture complaint that had been prepared the previous January.”
Jacob Sullum, Reason, 3.2.2021
Law enforcement seized and held Malinda Harris’s car for five years before even allowing her an opportunity to try to get it back. There is nothing extraordinary about the experience of Ms. Harris, other than the fact that she came to the attention of a nonprofit organization that was able to represent her for free. That is what makes her case exceptional.
If you think that Ms. Harris’s case is an outlier, here are some facts and figures from the Massachusetts Trial Court that speak for themselves:
In the period 2017-19 the Massachusetts attorney general and district attorneys seized more than $20 million from people who had not been accused of, let alone convicted of, any crime
In 24% of cases the amount of money seized was between $2,000 and $4,999, in 25% the amount was less than $2,000, and in one case was $6.20
Section 47(d) of chapter 94C of the Massachusetts General Laws puts the burden on a claimant to prove that the property is not forfeitable
In most cases the legal fees that an innocent owner would incur in making a claim would exceed the value of the seized property
In approximately 80 per cent of civil asset forfeiture cases in the period 2017-19 the owner made no claim
I intend to watch the commission’s hearing and to post an update soon afterwards. And I will be right on the keyboard as soon as the Judiciary Committee schedules a hearing for the bill that I wrote (H.1724) to provide free counsel in civil asset forfeiture cases.
In the meantime, for the op-ed Malinda Harris co-authored in USA Today click here. For the latest report from the Institute for Justice, titled Policing for Profit, click here.
For a Cato Institute interview with Attorney Tom Sandefur on the subject of civil asset forfeiture (with a mention of the Malinda Harris case) click here.
And lest you think that this is a libertarians-only hobbyhorse, click here to read about the ACLU’s position.
May 28, 2021:- Rents are rising again in the United States, according to Fannie Mae as reported by Bloomberg.
This affects everyone, not just renters. Why? Because, as this article in the Wall Street Journal points out, it contributes to inflation:
“Higher rents could play a role in an anticipated rise in inflation, unleashed by waves of stimulus checks, low borrowing rates and pent-up demand after months when the pandemic damped consumer spending. Rent accounts for about one-third of the consumer-price index, which economists expect to tick higher in the months ahead.”
Will Paker, “Apartment Rents Rise; Perks, Discounts Fade: Covid-19 vaccine rollout, higher employment bring more people back into cities looking to rent,” Wall Street Journal (April 24, 2021). Paywall.
Talk of inflation always makes me think of Berlin, of which more below.
Why are rents rising? I do not pretend to be an economist but I suspect that the governmental response to COVID-19, e.g. eviction moratoria, might have something to do with it. After all, if you want to make something more expensive, you make it scarce.
The effects of rising rents on renters – known to politicians as “voters” – are obvious and unwelcome. How the politicians will respond to the predicament of these voters is less obvious. But were I a betting man, I would remember that the number of voters who are renters is vastly greater than the number of voters who are landlords, and put money on the politicians doing something that panders to renters. Sadly, as the Duke of Wellington once pointed out, something is usually the wrong thing to do.
Here in Massachusetts, I expect that lawmakers will enact new measures to supplement the laws that they enacted during the State of Emergency, measures that on the face of it look friendly to renters and not so friendly to landlords. Even if those laws helped cause rents to rise (the phenomenon that actually hurt renters) they will opt for more of the same.
I now refer to this approach to policymaking as the Father Ted Fine-Tuning Approach. Click here to see what I mean.
If they were trying to drive you out of business, what would they do differently?
What proposals have lawmakers tossed into the legislative hopper so far? At the start of the session State Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat and member of Democratic Socialists of America, sponsored a bill to cancel rent, HD.4072.
That particular bill seems to be in limbo, but another of Representative Connolly’s bills, H.1378, is moving along. It would enable towns and cities to impose rent control. Lest owners try to avoid rent control by taking their units off the market, Representative Connolly has another bill that would allow municipalities to impose excise tax on units that are vacant for more than 90 days (H.2852).
Representative Connolly’s bills reflect the mood of the Boston chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, which considers rising rents, along with evictions, something to “fight.” The Boston DSA site states that its Housing Working Group is
“concerned with organizing around one of our most fundamental rights — the right to a stable and affordable home. In Boston this right has come increasingly under attack as rent prices skyrocket, rising by 25% in the last five years. The Housing Group works closely with City Life Vida Urbana, a local tenants rights organization, as well as other community groups, to fight rent increases and evictions in the neighborhoods where these trends are most acutely felt.”
So in answer to the question I get asked from time to time by landlords in Massachusetts, “Are they trying to drive us out of business?” the answer is a qualified yes. If by “they” you mean state legislators, I do think some of them are trying to drive landlords out of business. Those who are committed socialists wish to bring real estate, including rental properties, under government control.
The first draft of the Democratic Socialists of America 2021 platform states that:
“As socialists we ultimately believe in the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a democratically run economy that would provide for people’s needs without the distortion of the profit motive, and we support economic regulation that moves us closer to that vision.”
Not surprisingly then, one of the party’s medium-term goals is to:
“Nationalize and socialize (through worker and community ownership and control) institutions of monetary policy, insurance, real estate, and finance.”
That is on page 4, under the title Economic Regulation. On pages 9-10, under the title Housing, the Democratic Socialists of America announce that:
“We seek to use this [COVID-19] crisis to build on the insurgent tenant movement and further decommodify housing and land. This can be done through canceling rent, closing eviction courts, and, as landlords exit the market, using State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.”
In this way the first draft of 2021 platform of Democratic Socialists of America offers a clear answer the question “Are they trying to drive us out of business?” Yes, they wish to use the COVID-19 crisis to cancel rent, close eviction courts, “and, as landlords exit the market, use State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.” Their words, not mine.
As the long-term demand, they want “democratically controlled, publicly run housing everywhere.” The medium-term demand?
Pass a universal tenants bill of rights that includes:
Right to renew your lease
Universal rent control
Right to organize a tenants’ union in your home
Universal right to counsel in housing court
Organizing a tenants union, or anything else, will pose a challenge if the Democratic Socialists achieve one of their medium-term Economic Regulation demands namely the “public ownership and control of social media platforms.” With the government controlling social media, good luck organizing anything more than the occasional day-trip to the tractor factory for the Young Pioneers.
But kudos to Democratic Socialists of America for their candor about wanting to use the COVID-19 crisis to drive landlords out of business and, more generally, “economic regulation that moves us closer to that vision.” What vision? The abolition of capitalism.
Onward to Berlin
When DSA legislators promote measures that a reasonable objective observer with some experience of rental housing, markets, and human nature would consider antithetical to the continued private ownership of rental properties, those legislators are not being naïve. They are being dedicated. In contrast, when non-DSA legislators – rank and file Democrats of the go-along-to-get-along variety – endorse these measures, naivete is the most generous word to describe them with.
Bills that are already popular among non-DSA Democrats in the State House are H.1434, which would effectively prohibit evictions for non-payment of rent, and H.1426, which would give tenants the right of first refusal if the owner tries to sell (thereby automatically delaying by months any sale to someone other than the tenants or the organization of their choice). This will make the business of being a landlord more difficult, and it is important to remember that this not a bug but a feature.
What’s next? How will they get from rendering the business of being a landlord increasingly difficult to making it completely non-viable? That is, after all, the avowed goal of Democratic Socialists of America. Perhaps they will look to Berlin.
As I mentioned, at the mention of inflation my mind turns to Berlin (here’s why) so I looked into what left-leaning Berliners are up to nowadays. As luck would have it, some of them are promoting a measure that I am sure the Democratic Socialists of America would approve of, namely the expropriation of rental properties. Expropriation is where the government takes private property (in the US we refer to it as eminent domain).
Slatecovered this campaign recently, putting in the context of rising rents:
“Data from Guthmann Estate, a real estate company in Berlin, shows that the median rent in the city rose by more than 70 percent between 2012 and 2021.”
Here’s a link to an article on the same subject titled “We Want a Society Without Landlords” in Jacobin magazine, a publication that describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” The authors explain that seizing 240,000 units of private housing is not really all that radical, which alone makes it is well worth a read.
Socialists in Berlin want to stop landlords from raising the rent by stopping them from being landlords. Like many ideas that people tried in the 20th century, it has the allure of simplicity.
To solve the rising-rent problem in Massachusetts, perhaps DSA will try to put a question on the ballot to take by eminent domain rental units that have remained vacant for 90 days or more (or just take all rental units, which would be more efficient).
I think not, but not because I doubt their candor. Democratic Socialists of America are admirably up-front about their wish to use the COVID-19 crisis to cancel rent, close eviction courts, “and, as landlords exit the market, use State action to acquire properties and leveraging disinvestment to convert thousands of homes into publicly and democratically controlled land/housing.”
Why would they not put expropriation on the ballot?
Because it is not necessary. All they have to do carry on making it harder and harder for private property owners to provide rental housing and before long those owners will, as the Democratic Socialists of America predict, exit the market. Onward to Berlin. East Berlin, that is.
May 19, 2021:- The Florida Association of Realtors® and R.W. Caldwell, Inc., have filed a complaint in the United States District Court in the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, asking the court to set aside the partial eviction moratorium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) imposed, first at the direction of President Trump and then at the direction of President Biden.
One judge did just that quite recently. In early May Judge Dabney Friedrich set aside the partial eviction moratorium but stayed the order, i.e. put it on hold, while the Biden administration appeals the case. This means that the CDC partial eviction moratorium remains in effect for the time being.
This new complaint asks for the same kind of relief that Judge Dabney ordered earlier in the month. I quote two paragraphs of the complaint that get to the heart of the matter.
Paragraph 40 of the complaint states:
“The Eviction Moratorium contains no findings and relies on no evidence to support its stated assertion that Covid-19 will spread between states or United States territories if landlords are permitted to exercise their contractual rights to evict tenants who fail to make rent payments as required by their leases.”
That is why I call it a partial eviction moratorium, by the way. It only covers some evictions, i.e. nonpayment cases. Why the tenants in that kind of case are more likely than tenants in other sorts of cases (e.g. those being evicted for, say, criminal activity) to contract and transmit COVID-19 is not clear, at least not to me.
And the CDC certainly did not issue a moratorium on moving house. House sales have done very well during the emergency, I believe. Lots of people are buying and selling, moving from place to place. The CDC did not try to ban residential real estate transactions.
Getting to the constitutional argument, paragraph 5 of the complaint states:
“The CDC predicates this unprecedented action on its statutory authority to prevent the interstate spread of disease, but that authority does not make the CDC the nation’s landlord-in-chief any more than it places the CDC in charge of citizens’ social media or the national minimum wage. Were it otherwise, then Congress would have impermissibly turned over its lawmaking authority to an unelected administrative agency. The United States Constitution and its nondelegation doctrine prevent Congress from doing so. Indeed, the Constitution does not authorize Congress or the CDC to interfere with the purely local matter of tenants’ occupancy of individual rental properties.”
What’s the problem with an unelected administrative agency exercising the lawmaking authority that the Constitution grants exclusively to the Congress? Why is it unconstitutional for unelected government employees to legislate?
The reason has to do with democratic accountability, an essential requirement for a self-governing republic of free people, and stripped of legal jargon it is this: We can’t throw out those rascals. The only rascals We the People can throw out are the rascals we elected in the first place. Unelected rascals are beyond our reach.
What will happen to the CDC’s partial eviction moratorium? Stay tuned.
May 18, 2021:- If you like to read judges’ decisions about landlord-tenant disputes, you will be glad to learn that Volume 9 of the Western Division Housing Court Reporter (an unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court) is available online. To see it, just click here.
May 12, 2021:- A few years ago, by way of an outside section to the budget, the Massachusetts Legislature established a Civil Forfeiture Commission to “study civil asset forfeiture policies and practices in the commonwealth… [and] submit a report of its study and any recommendations, together with any draft legislation necessary to carry those recommendations into effect.”
Before reading any further, it may be helpful to know these key facts about civil asset forfeiture in Massachusetts:
In the period 2017-19 the Commonwealth, through civil asset forfeiture actions under section 47(d) of chapter 94C of the General Laws by the attorney general and district attorneys, seized assets from people who had not been accused of, let alone convicted of, any crime, including more than $20 million in money;
In 24% of cases the amount of money seized was between $2,000 and $4,999, in 25% the amount was less than $2,000, and in one case was $6.20;
The statute puts the burden on a claimant to prove that the property is not forfeitable; and
In most cases the legal fees that an innocent owner would incur in making a claim would exceed the value of the seized property.
On March 30, 2021, the Commission reconvened after a lengthy COVID-19 State of Emergency-related hiatus. Here is a link to the video of the meeting.
When listening to the chair, Majority Leader Representative Claire Cronin, you will notice that she reminds the members of the need to confine their work to the charge that the Legislature gave them. When Senator Jamie Eldridge, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, suggests (at around minute 50) asking presenters to include stories from people directly affected by civil asset forfeiture, Representative Cronin says that it “may be beyond the scope of the charge.”
This is odd.
If you read the charge (follow the link above in the words “outside section”) you will see that one of the commission’s express tasks is to conduct “an analysis of any racial or socioeconomic disparities in the application of civil asset forfeiture laws in the commonwealth.” Analysis means something more than merely presenting the figures. Hearing the voices of ordinary people with first-hand experience of the practice could be very helpful in analyzing the racial and socioeconomic disparities.
In addition, the charge begins with the customary tautologous phrase, “the study shall include, but not be limited to.”*
The commission’s remit is quite broad, certainly broad enough to listen to residents who have committed no crime but have had their property seized by the government. I hope that Senator Eldridge and other members of the commission will persevere and invite voices from outside the political class to help the commission really analyze the disparate impacts of civil asset forfeiture.
Next the commission is going to look at the annual reports that District Attorneys file with the Legislature about how they spend the fruits of their seizures; seek data from the State Police about the number of forfeitures connected to cases that result in prosecutions; and ask Attorney General Maura Healy how long her office holds on to seized assets.
* I call it tautologous because the word “include” means to be part of a thing, as opposed to being the whole thing. Adding “not limited to” is redundant, in my opinion. Students of legislative drafting, please note: Nobody cares about my opinion.
In order to protect their intellectual property, Native American tribes can provide information to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) free of charge. The USPTO refers to the information when examining trademark applications to determine whether the applicant is falsely suggesting an affiliation with a tribe.
Here is the text of a recent announcement from the USPTO that explains the process:
“The USPTO’s Native American tribal insignia database is a part of the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS). This database records the official tribal insignias of federally or state-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes (Native American tribes).
The USPTO considers the tribal insignias in its database when examining trademarks in pending applications. Tribes who choose to participate allow the USPTO to evaluate whether a trademark may suggest a false connection to their tribal insignia and refuse registration. This gives tribes the benefit of helping to protect their intellectual property and cultural heritage.
“Your tribal insignia must be adopted by tribal resolution and consist of a flag, coat of arms, other emblem, or device. Your tribe must be recognized federally or by your state. A word or words alone are not considered a tribal insignia, and are not entered in the database.”
If someone believes that a trademark applicant is misappropriating or mis-using tribal intellectual property in a way that would cause confusion or that suggests a false connection, there are steps for the tribe to take, depending on the stage of the trademark application, e.g. a letter of protest, a notice of opposition, and a petition to cancel. The link above provides details about taking those steps.
March 29, 2021:- Today the Biden administration announced that it will extend the Centers for Disease Control partial eviction moratorium to June 30, 2021.
In the meantime, here in Massachusetts housing providers who go to Housing Court to try to obtain unpaid rent and to eventually regain possession of their property are up against taxpayer-funded lawyers. Tenants obtain counsel at no charge; housing providers must pay, unless they can find a lawyer who will work for free. To misquote Animal Farm, some equal protection is more equal than others.
To read my latest article on the subject for MassLandlords, click here.
January 21, 2021:- Yesterday President Biden extended the CDC’s eviction moratorium through March 31, 2021. For the Forbes article click here. For the CDC order itself, click here.
Housing providers in Massachusetts who take tenants to court for nonpayment of rent have to file an affidavit swearing that they have not received a CDC declaration from the tenants. In any event, even if the CDC moratorium does not cover the tenants in question, under a state law that was tacked on to the budget (Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020) in nonpayment cases judges are not allowed to enter orders for possession or issue executions if the tenants have a pending application for rental assistance.
Under Chapter 257, housing providers who send tenants notices to quit for nonpayment of rent have to also give the tenants a form stating that the tenants do not have to leave:
“THIS NOTICE TO QUIT IS NOT AN EVICTION. YOU DO NOT NEED TO IMMEDIATELY LEAVE YOUR UNIT. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO A LEGAL PROCEEDING IN WHICH YOU CAN DEFEND AGAINST THE EVICTION. ONLY A COURT ORDER CAN FORCE YOU TO LEAVE YOUR UNIT.”
They also have to send the Commonwealth a copy of the notice to quit via an online portal. Later, when filing the case in court, housing providers have to submit a sworn statement (another form) confirming compliance. This is in addition to the CDC affidavit and (if e-filing) an affidavit confirming compliance with the e-filing rules.
What does this mean in practice? Nonpayment cases involve more paperwork and take longer.
December 28,2020, Washington, DC:- Yesterday President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2021 (H.R. 133) which, among many other things, extends the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium on some evictions. The CDC eviction moratorium is now set to expire January 31, 2021.
For the House summary, click here and scroll down to page 22.
October 6, 2020:- The Housing Court has issued a new standing order (SO 6-2) that will govern pending and newly-filed summary process cases if the eviction moratorium expires on October 17 (and if the Legislature does not impose a new one).
I will provide a synopsis in a future post. In the meantime, housing providers should note that:
(1) for default judgments entered after March 1, the Housing Court is allowing all motions to remove the default;
(2) for already-filed cases summary process cases the Clerks will be sending out scheduling notices for conferences with Housing Specialists;
(3) for new summary process cases, the owner/attorney who completes the summons and complaint should not insert a trial date (write TBD instead); and
(4) because the CDC moratorium order is in effect, the Housing Court will provide an affidavit for housing providers to use in order to tell the Court whether the renters gave them the declaration that the CDC order requires.
October 2, 2020:- They say a week is a long time in politics. But a whole year is not, apparently. And a whole year beyond the expiry of the state of emergency is how long the next eviction moratorium will last if the Joint Housing Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature gets its way.
Under the new proposal, which now goes to Ways and Means and the Legislature as a whole, housing providers whose renters stop paying rent would be able to apply for a tax credit to cover the arrears “subject to availability.”
The term “subject to availability” does not sound like much of a guarantee and, sure enough, this article in CommonWealth Magazine quotes one of the sponsors as saying that the “funding structure is something intentionally left out.”
So they left it out on purpose. Thank goodness they didn’t just forget.
September 28, 2020:- Another small victory for freedom of expression in Massachusetts, again from a Federal judge rather than the State courts. The key point? Housing providers should not have to promote organizations that seek to strip away their rights.
In the case of Baptiste v. Kenneally, the U.S. District Court did not grant the plaintiffs an injunction against the Commonwealth’s eviction moratorium, but did find that the regulations issued under it impermissibly burden free speech.
In April, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) which prohibits landlords from sending notices to quit, but allows them to send missed-payment notices stating how much the tenants owe.
Then the executive branch issued emergency regulations (with no notice-and-comment period) that tell housing providers what to say in these missed-payment notices, including a link to certain “resources.” The “resources” include Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which in turn links to the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, the taxpayer-funded nonprofit corporation* that campaigns for measures that are (I will put this mildly) not entirely consistent with the constitutionally-guaranteed right to possess and enjoy private property, e.g.
“We will fight for legislation to protect and expand rights for all working-class renters and homeowners, including RENT CONTROL, RIGHT TO COUNSEL, and an EVICTION SEALING ACT. We’ll actively support efforts to make corporate developers pay for these initiatives through a TRANSFER FEE on the sale of luxury development” (all caps in original).
That quote is from the page on the corporation’s website titled Our Work. All those measures are diametrically opposed to the interests of housing providers, and members of the statewide organization MassLandlords have consistently voiced their opposition to them.
On September 25, Judge Mark L. Wolf held that the State government regulations infringe the speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
[T]he court finds that plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claim that the second paragraph of 400 C.M.R. §5.03(2) unconstitutionally compels speech by requiring plaintiffs to include in any notice of rent arrearage addresses of non-governmental websites that, in turn, refer tenants to tenant advocacy groups, including City Life/Vida Urbana, with interests adverse to plaintiffs’.
The judge went on:
“[I]t is a fact that organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana provide legal services to tenants who want to resist being evicted, they also engage in other activities including, among other things, advocating for legislation that restricts landlords’ rights to evict, and litigating against them.”
The judge explained that State government should not compel landlords to endorse and promote these activities, and that compelled speech of this sort would not survive intermediate scrutiny let alone strict scrutiny.
This part of the decision represents a welcome victory for free speech in the Federal District Court. What a shame the State-level courts in Massachusetts so rarely evince a similar regard for that right.
*The corporation’s legal name is Urban Revival, Inc. and according to its Form 990 (2017) its mission/significant activities are “racial/ethnic harmony through affordable housing and economic development,” which is more succinct than (and different in tone from) the mission statement on its website:
“City Life/Vida Urbana is a grassroots community organization committed to fighting for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power. We promote individual empowerment, develop community leaders and build collective power to effect systemic change and transform society.”
P.S. A note about my choice of image, which illustrates the idea of the mailed fist in the velvet glove. When I write about compelled speech, I like to offer a reminder about who it is, exactly, that is doing the compelling. If ever you disobey a law, you risk an encounter with agents of the only organization in society that (as Max Weber pointed out) claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, namely the government. If you refuse to do what the government tells you to do, or you refuse to speak the words that it demands that you utter, eventually you will come into contact with the government’s agents, people who wear uniforms, carry weapons, and have the power to alter your condition from free to un-free and from alive to dead.
September 18, 2020:- The New Civil Liberties Alliance lawsuit against the CDC eviction moratorium order (Brown v Azar) argues, among other things, that the agency’s order flies in the face of the non-delegation doctrine. This is the doctrine that says that the legislature cannot delegate its authority to the executive because doing do would violate article 1, section 1 of the Constitution of the United States, which vests all legislative power in Congress. It is supposed to help keep each branch of government in its own lane.
I find it hard to see how this particular argument can fail.
There is no doubt that the authority to establish a nationwide eviction moratorium lies (if anywhere) with Congress. To find evidence to support this, we do not have to look very far. In fact we only have to look back as far as April 2020, when Congress passed the CARES Act, section 4024 of which established a nationwide eviction moratorium.
If any branch of the federal government has the authority to bar property owners from going to court to seek the return of their own property, which is by no means certain, it is Congress. By imposing an eviction moratorium of its own, the CDC, an executive branch agency, is usurping the power that the Constitution vests exclusively in Congress.
September 9, 2020:- The New Civil Liberties Alliance filed a complaint that challenges the constitutionality of the CDC’s order that purports to ban evictions nationwide. For the press release, click here.
The organization is also seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar implementing the order. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the CDC order exceeds the agency’s authority by a country mile. Stay tuned for updates.
September 8, 2020:- Quite properly, Attorney General Maura Healey is cracking down on wage theft, according to this article on MassLive. Wage theft is where a worker provides a service but does not get paid.
It’s a shame that housing providers who provide housing without getting paid can’t look to the Attorney General for help.
September 2, 2020:- Imagine they passed a law saying that you’ve got to go to work every day of the year, and if the company doesn’t pay your wages, that’s just too bad. You can’t sue them. You can’t go on strike. You can’t even quit.
I have a client who is in a position something like that.
She works as a housing provider, in addition to her day job as a nurse. She owns her own home and one other house that she bought in order to rent it out. Her goal was to use the rental income to pay the bank, and then (when she’d paid off the mortgage) start making a profit.
“It was supposed to be my 401(k),” she told me.
Not a 401(k)
That’s not how it turned out. In November 2019, the tenant (then, as now, unemployed) stopped paying rent, so my client started summary process (eviction) proceedings in Housing Court. But then the Legislature and the Governor passed Chapter 65, the partial eviction moratorium, which prohibits the courts from moving forward with non-payment cases even if the reason for non-payment has nothing to do with COVID 19 or the state government’s job-destroying, livelihood-wrecking response to it.
So the summary process case is suspended until the moratorium expires, which could be in October or might be in January if the Governor chooses to extend it. Or it could be even later; who knows.
When the case emerges from limbo, it will be one among thousands waiting for a judge to hear it. In the meantime, is there anything my client can do to try to get paid? At this point, the rent arrears are somewhat north of $8,000, by the way.
Two attorneys brought a constitutional challenge to the partial eviction moratorium, namely Jordana Rubicek Greenman and Richard Vetstein. For details of the lawsuit, check out Attorney Vetstein’s blog.
I wrote an amicus brief for MassLandlords, and watched the oral argument before Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson online. In the course of the argument, Attorney Vetstein made the point that the moratorium is barring the courts to one class of litigants, i.e. landlords. Not so, responded counsel for one of the tenants’ organizations who said that the courts aren’t barred because landlords can still sue tenants for breach of contract.
In his order denying the request for a preliminary injunction, Judge Wilson said the same thing: “[T]he economic effect on landlords is mitigated not only by their ability to sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract, but by the temporary nature of the moratorium.”
Could that really be a viable route, I wondered? Could landlords, who can’t use summary process for the foreseeable future, sue for breach of contract? The client I’m writing about here agreed to try.
Breach of contract case
On her behalf, I filed a simple breach of contract case in Housing Court. The tenant’s (taxpayer-funded) lawyer filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(9) of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure on the basis that my client can’t have two cases about the same issue going at once.
Fair enough, you might say, why not just dismiss the summary process claim? Dismissing a case where the other side has filed counterclaims (which happened here) requires a motion that a judge has to rule on, and the partial eviction moratorium prohibits the courts from scheduling a court event.
More importantly, if my client did dismiss her summary process case, in order to regain possession of her house when the moratorium expires she would have to start all over again. She would be at the back of a line. A very long line.
Regarding those counterclaims that the tenant filed: Are there two sides to this story? Obviously.
But what if (after the moratorium expires) a judge, after hearing all the evidence, decided that even if some of the counterclaims were valid, the tenant owed my client, say, 75% — or even 50% — of the rent that had built up since November 2019? Does anyone really believe that the unemployed tenant will be able to pay several thousand dollars?
Anyway, we had a hearing, and the judge took it under advisement. When the court issues the decision, I will post an update.
No names, no pack drill
This story is far from being the most extraordinary that I have heard in the last few months. This one seems worth telling today, now that the federal government has established a nationwide eviction moratorium and there is some wider public discussion of the administration’s proffered justification and the likely impact.
My client gave me permission to tell her story online, but I decided not to use her name or other identifying information because you know how things are these days.
Like the tenant, she is a real person. She deserves some consideration from policymakers, and from the people who are supposed to hold them to account, i.e. the electorate.
She has to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code. The tenant won’t pay rent, and has not applied for the subsidies that are available to cover the rent. But without the tenant applying, my client can’t get access to those subsidies.
So my client doesn’t want to be a landlord any more, obviously. But she doesn’t have a choice. She can’t get paid, and she can’t even quit.
September 2,2020:- Yesterday the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) issued an order prohibiting evictions. For the fact sheet from the White House, click here. Before going any further, let me quote a pertinent passage:
“This Order does not apply in any State… with a moratorium on residential evictions that provides the same or greater level of public health protection than the requirements listed in this Order.”
If “public health protection” means eviction moratorium, then (assuming Governor Baker extends the moratorium through the end of 2020) the federal order would not apply in Massachusetts. The partial eviction moratorium here is much broader than the CDC’s.
Readers who care about old-fashioned concepts like law might be wondering, “what is the statutory authority for this order?” The agency cites section 361 of the Public Health Services Act.
As for whether the order is lawful and constitutionally sound, perhaps someone will sue and ask a judge to decide.
In terms of common sense, do the circumstances justify the order? I offer two screenshots from the CDC, and ask you to decide for yourself. The first screenshot is from the order. The second is from the agency’s recent provisional weekly COVID 19 death count. I urge you look at the full document.
If you have an opinion to share, please use the form that appears below screenshot 2.
August 26, 2020:- Today Suffolk Superior Court Judge Paul D. Wilson declined to issue a preliminary injunction against the Massachusetts eviction moratorium. Ruling that the moratorium does not amount to an uncompensated taking because “it does not deprive Plaintiffs of all economically viable use of their land” the judge also pointed out something that housing providers may find helpful:
[T]he economic effect on landlords is mitigated not only by their ability to sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract, but by the temporary nature of the moratorium.
For the purposes of seeking a remedy in the here and now, it is the first part of the sentence that merits attention. Picking up on a point that representatives of the tenants’ bar raised in oral argument, Judge Wilson statement suggests that even though they cannot start summary-process actions, landlords can still sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract.
July 30, 2020:- Perhaps I am a slow learner. But I think I just realized something important about the eviction moratorium.
Those following the Matorin v. EOHED case challenging Chapter 65 (the eviction moratorium) will know that earlier today the Superior Court held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.
What struck me while I was watching the oral argument was the size of the gap between the law’s supposed purpose and its actual effect. Then I realized that there is a gap between the two sides over the nature of the very thing they are arguing about, i.e. evictions. I will explain what I mean in a moment, but first a very brief explanation of a key term, namely “execution.”
In Massachusetts, only a judge can evict a tenant and award the housing provider possession of the rented premises. If, after trial, the judge decides to award the housing provider possession, the housing provider has to wait 10 days and then ask for a document called the writ of execution. This is the document that authorizes the sheriff or constable to physically remove the renters and their belongings. When the sheriff does so, it is called levying.
When non-lawyers think about evictions, what they have in mind is the event called levying the execution. It is quite rare, fortunately.
Before the constables or sheriffs can even get their hands on an execution to levy, the renters can ask the judge for a stay, i.e. a pause or delay. The law allows judges to stay execution for up to six months (12 months, if the renters have disabilities or are age 60+).
Rule 13 of the Uniform Rules of Summary Process lays out the steps.
Now back to the argument over Chapter 65.
How to stop executions
The proponents of Chapter 65 argue that the Legislature enacted the eviction moratorium in order to stop people being made homeless during the COVID 19 pandemic. If that had indeed been the real purpose, the Legislature could have achieved it by banning the courts from issuing executions and prohibiting the sheriffs from levying on any executions already issued. Here is the bill the Legislature could have enacted:
In any summary process case, the court shall not issue execution, and no person shall levy execution, until 45 days after the end of the state of emergency.
But the Legislature chose not to do that. Instead of banning the thing that non-lawyers think of as evictions (levied executions), it banned housing providers from even getting into court. And that, in turn, bars access to the trained Housing Court mediators who resolve disputes and help the parties work out payment plans.
If the Legislature and Governor had defined the problem they were trying to solve, they would not have created the unholy mess that will confront so many housing providers and renters when the moratorium finally ends. Defining problems before attempting to solve them is a big part of the job. And, unlike some of the housing providers I represent, the legislators are actually getting paid. Legislative salary moratorium, anyone?
As for the hearing in the Matorin case, the judge took the matter under advisement, which means that he will issue his decision at a later date. To stay up to date, and to read more about the case from Attorney Richard Vetstein, who is one of the two lawyers representing the Matorin plaintiffs, click here.
July 27, 2020:- What if the law forced you to go to work every day and then, if the boss refused to pay your wages, prohibited you from suing? Imagine having to provide the service, and not being able to make the other side stick to their end of the deal.
All work and no pay isn’t fair. But that’s the situation confronting many housing providers in Massachusetts right now. The law requires them to house their tenants even if the tenants can’t — or won’t — pay rent.
As if that weren’t bad enough, a bill that would flat out cancel the rent had garnered much support in the Massachusetts State House. Even as I write, an effort is underway to tack the proposal (together with the tried-and-failed policy of rent-control) onto another bill by way of amendments.
But it has not become law yet.
There is still time to tell your state representatives and senators what you think. The deadline is 12 noon tomorrow, Tuesday, July 28, 2020.
To submit your testimony on H4878/S2831 click here.
July 23, 2020:- The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has published a new rule about affirmatively furthering fair housing. It defines what the term “affirmatively further fair housing” actually means and makes it easier for communities to show that they are, indeed, doing just that (i.e. affirmatively furthering fair housing). This new rule replaces an old rule.
In 2015 President Obama’s HUD adopted a regulation that required towns and cities to explain in detail how their zoning, land use laws, and services such as public transportation were affirmatively furthering fair housing. This article from the Atlantic magazine describes the rationale for the Obama administration’s decision.
In 2018, citing the time-and-cost burdens that the rule-mandated assessment tool put on local governments, HUD Secretary Ben Carson suspended it. Several organizations, including the ACLU and the National Fair Housing Alliance, went to court in an unsuccessful effort keep the 2015 assessment tool in place. According to this ACLU statement, suspending it “puts housing integration in serious jeopardy.”
The State of New York joined the lawsuit. For Governor Cuomo’s announcement about the case click here. For a brief account of New York City’s track record as landlord from the National Apartment Housing Association click here. For another revealing story about affordable housing in New York, click here.
Several other States (including Massachusetts) and some cities (including Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington) signed on to an amicus brief in support of the effort to stop Secretary Carson suspending the 2015 rule. The new rule that Secretary Carson announced would seem to moot the case.
The new HUD rule about AFFH does not affect the need for local governments to avoid policies that have a disparate impact on protected classes, a form of discrimination that the Supreme Court of the United States recognized in Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2507 (2015) and that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognized in Burbank Apartments Tenants Ass’n v. Kargman, 474 Mass. 107, 122 (2016). To browse the SCOTUSblog material on Inclusive Communities click here. For Secretary Carson’s National Review article on the decision and its implications for HUD’s 2013 disparate-impact rule, click here.
My own post from 2013 discusses the disparate-impact rule that HUD had adopted prior to the SCOTUS decision in Inclusive Communities and the rule’s potential to address racially segregated housing and schooling patterns in an around Springfield, Massachusetts. In the 7 years since I wrote that post, I have not heard of any real progress on that front. If you know of some positive steps or have practical suggestions, please share them.
What should State and local government do (or not do) here in Massachusetts in order to reduce racial segregation in housing? If you have success stories or a policy proposal, I would like to hear from you.
July 21, 2020:- Today Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker informed the Legislature of his decision to extend the eviction moratorium to October 17, 2020. His letter includes the folowing:
I am aware that the extension I am declaring today will impact many small landlords who rely on rental income to pay their own expenses. I strongly encourage tenants to continue to pay rent, and homeowners to make their mortgage payments, to the extent they are able while the moratoria remain in place. The Baker-Polito Administration already has made available $20 million in emergency rental and mortgage assistance to help lower-income tenants and homeowners make their housing payments. Between now and October 17, my administration will assess whether additional federal and state resources should be made available for this purpose. We also will be working closely with our colleagues in the judicial branch to ensure that when evictions proceedings resume there are programs in place to help tenants pay their rent and avoid eviction.
What began as an emergency stop-gap in the Spring will continue at least until the Fall.
July 9, 2020:- Housing providers have been asking whether the Massachusetts eviction moratorium is an uncompensated taking. The short answer: For some housing providers, yes, the moratorium operates as a taking. Here’s what I mean.
Right to exclude
Some years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States held that when the government takes away a property owner’s right to exclude other people from their property, the government has, in a sense, physically invaded the property. Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825 (1987).
When tenants do not pay rent and the Commonwealth is prohibiting the housing provider from asking a judge to evict them, the Commonwealth is preventing the housing provider from excluding others (i.e. the tenants) from the property.
To that extent, where owners are barred from obtaining vacant possession (so that they can rent to somebody else or sell the property), the moratorium resembles a taking.
Hence the choice of image, by the way. What the Commonwealth is doing through the eviction moratorium is this: It is stopping owners from even trying to get possession of their own property. It is as if the Commonwealth had put a padlock on the door to the rental unit and given the one and only key to the tenant.
Compelled to admit
Nollan was decided when I was an undergraduate at Oxford University, and that (according to the calendar) was a while ago. More recently, the Supreme Court considered a case in which a property owner (Rose Mary Knick) had a family cemetery on her land, which the town government required her to make open to the public during the hours of daylight. Because the town was forcing Ms. Knick had to admit strangers to her property, even if she did not want them there. Knick v. Township of Scott, 139 S.Ct. 2162 (2019).
The specific issue that the Supreme Court decided was whether Ms. Knick should have tried state court first before federal court (no was the answer) but the case also illustrates the kind of government action that can amount to a taking, i.e. where the government compels owners to let other people use their property.
Today in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth is requiring housing providers to allow other people to use their property without paying for it. It’s the nonpayment part that makes life difficult for an increasing number of housing providers. As for that threshold issue of whether the situation can amount to a regulatory taking that warrants compensation from the Commonwealth, I believe that the answer is yes.
Do you own a rental unit where the tenant has stopped paying rent, and do you want to try to obtain compensation from the Commonwealth?
June 30, 2020:- Housing providers in Massachusetts may want to prepare for a referendum campaign. A new legislative proposal, HD 5166, would cancel the rent, make Housing Court cases secret, and extend the eviction moratorium for 12 months after the end of he state of emergency.
What do I mean by “cancel the rent”? After the end of the eviction moratorium–when rental-property owners would finally be allowed access to the courts again for nonpayment cases–the onus would be on the housing provider seeking unpaid rent to prove that the reason for nonpayment was not connected in some way to the emergency. That is an almost insuperable burden. Bear in mind, more than a year’s worth of rent could have accrued by that stage.
That aside, the bill is largely a grab-bag of previously filed proposals (e.g. eviction sealing and “just cause eviction”) repackaged as a response to the pandemic. If enacted it would so destabilize the market as to render the rental-housing business non-viable for all but the biggest (and most politically wired) landlords. So the bill title, “An Act to guarantee housing stability during the COVID 19 emergency and recovery,” is beyond parody.
Because of its emergency preamble, the bill, filed by State Representatives Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan (House Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing) with more than 20 co-sponsors, would go into effect immediately and the first 10 signatures necessary to start the referendum process would be due within 30 days.
Unfortunately, this proposal seems deliberately designed to destroy most private rental housing in Massachusetts thereby reducing the options for tenants to a choice between (a) big corporate landlords and (2) government housing. On the other hand (and trying hard to be optimistic and giving the politicians the benefit of the doubt) perhaps it’s just a milker bill (also known as a fetcher or juice bill).
Whatever the proponents’ aims, if this bill becomes law the only realistic way to rescue private rental housing (and preserve meaningful choice) is the referendum. Click here for referendum basics. In the meantime, please call your State Representative and Senator and ask them to take a stand against this bill.
June 30, 2020:- The eviction moratorium will expire in mid-August, unless Governor Baker prolongs it. Unfortunately according to this story in MassLive and this Tweet (below), Representative Kevin Honan is urging the Governor to extend the moratorium. I would not worry about a state representative weighing in but for the fact that this one is House chair of the Joint Committee on Housing and, therefore, somebody to whom the Governor might be inclined to listen.
For my argument as to why the Governor should let the moratorium expire (principally its negative impact on affordable housing) click here.
June 17, 2020:- An eviction moratorium that applies to some properties (those with FHA-insured mortgages) just got extended, as this mortgagee letter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and this FHFA news release explain.
The decision does not mean that the broader federal eviction moratorium is being extended (only Congress can do that) or that the Massachusetts moratorium is being extended (only the Massachusetts Governor can do do that, or — if it decides to amend the eviction-moratorium statute — the Legislature). The moratorium in question is one of three that may apply to your property if you are a housing provider in Massachusetts.
Before the Chapter 65 eviction moratorium there was the CARES Act eviction moratorium and before the CARES Act eviction moratorium there was the HUD eviction moratorium. Under Chapter 65, the eviction moratorium and ban on issuing notices to quit will expire on August 18, unless the Governor extends the moratorium by 90 days.
There is some overlap between the federal and State moratoria, so that even if the Massachusetts moratorium expires on August 18, a housing provider may still not be able to go to court for unpaid rent, or even terminate the lease by way of a notice to quit, if the tenant lives in a property financed by an FHA-insured mortgage. It’s all a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.
Takeaway: Housing providers in Massachusetts should not assume that after August 18 they will be able to issue non-paying tenants with notices to quit.
June 15, 2020:- Before the Massachusetts Legislature imposed an eviction moratorium, Congress enacted a limited moratorium of its own. It lasts 120 days and is confined to properties participating in federal programs including, at the very outer edge, properties with federally-backed mortgage loans. CARES Act, section 4024 (page 574 of the PDF). The 120-day period started running on March 27 so expires on July 25. Democrats in Congress want to not only extend the duration of the moratorium but also expand it to cover all rental properties.
The bill that passed the House (where the Democrats have a majority) and is currently before the Senate (where the Republicans have a majority) is titled the HEROES Act.
The name is apt. Just reading the bill requires a degree of fortitude bordering on heroism. It consists of 1,815 pages that explain how the federal government should go about spending $3 trillion (trillion with a T), a sum that even nowadays seems quite a large amount of money. According to the Endowment for Human Development, a stack of one trillion dollar bills would reach almost 68,000 miles. So a stack of three trillion dollar bills would reach 204,000 miles. Driving that distance at 60 mph would take 3,400 hours, i.e. 142 days, and that’s with no rest stops (bad idea). No wonder it took Congress 1,815 pages.
Where would the proposed $3 trillion go? The potential recipients are legion, so I will name but a few that may prove of particular interest to Bay Staters.
For example, $50 million would go to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) which every year helps fund entities in Massachusetts such as Community Legal Aid (CLA) and Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) to the tune of about $1.5 million and $1 million respectively. If you are a housing provider who has ever had to take tenants to Housing Court for, say, nonpayment of rent (back when housing providers were allowed to do that sort of thing), you may be familiar with CLA and NLA. They are the attorneys who represent the tenants. Similarly, the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association also receives LSC funding of approximately $2 million per year, which is exactly the kind of voluntarism I could volunteer for.
Under the HEROES Act another $4 million would go to the Fair Housing Organization Initiative. Earlier this year, HUD (which administers the program) awarded $300,000 to Community Legal Aid (yes, the same Community Legal Aid that got $1.5 million from the federal Legal Services Corporation). HUD also doled out $300,000 to Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, Inc. That’s the corporation that is suing Massachusetts in federal court over the Lead Paint Law, which it alleges discriminates against families with children. For a list of reasons why that lawsuit represents a less-than-judicious use of taxpayers’ money and everyone’s time, click here.
In addition to spreading the wealth around, the HEROES Act would prohibit evictions.
A year-long, nationwide eviction moratorium
In the PDF version of the HEROES Act, the provisions about the eviction moratorium start at page 961 in section 110203 of Division K, Title II (titled “Protecting Renters and Homeowners from Evictions and Foreclosures).
What would this part of the bill do if the Senate approves? For a period of 12 months after enactment, it would prohibit “legal action to recover possession of the covered dwelling from the tenant for nonpayment of rent or other fees or charges.” The term “covered dwelling” means dwellings covered by section 802 of the federal Fair Housing Act, i.e. all rental units. Yes, all rental units in the country, even in those States that have addressed the issue — and continue to do so — in their own way.
Whether judicially, legislatively, or by executive order, many of the States have enacted eviction moratoria of some kind and duration. In a country of approximately 330-million people across 50 States, there has been some variety. Utah imposed a ban whereas Oklahoma did not. New York extended its ban whereas Colorado did not. California? We’ll see. May Congress supplant these various State-level approaches, replacing them with a one-size-fits-all rule?
Congress does not have the authority to make laws governing absolutely each and every form of human activity that may occur in the United States. Its powers are limited, believe it or not (and for many in Congress it seems to be “not”).
As James Madison explained: “[T]he proposed government cannot be deemed a national one since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residual and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” Federalist No. 39. Sovereignty is shared, the Constitution circumscribes the powers of Congress, and the Constitution does not give a articular power to Congress it remains with the States. The lines of demarcation may be blurry but they are not invisible.
Among the enumerated powers of Congress is the power to regulate interstate commerce. This is what allows Congress to legislate in the area of housing so as to reduce invidious discrimination. Activities within a singe State that may have a a substantial and harmful effect on interstate commerce can come within the clause’s scope, e.g. racial discrimination in housing.
Flexible it may be, but the Commerce Clause has its bounds. For example, it does not extend beyond economic activity to economic inactivity, as the Supreme Court held in NFIB v. Sebelius. In an area where the States are already acting separately, and where there is no invidious racial discrimination or other activity that has a substantial and harmful effect on interstate commerce, the answer should be no.
That seems to be the opinion of Senate Republicans at this point, who consider the bill a liberal wish list. When the GOP-majority Senate takes up the HEROES Act in July (or perhaps August according to this article) it seems unlikely to vote to extend and expand the eviction moratorium. But, as we have all learned in the past few months if we didn’t know it already, sometimes changes come thick and fast.
The CARES Act’s eviction moratorium applies to housing with some kind of federal connection, albeit tenuous in some cases. Each State has supplemented that federal law with a response of its own, tailored to local needs. Those State-level laws may be unpalatable and arguably unconstitutional, e.g. Chapter 65 in Massachusetts. But they are examples of federalism in action, and typify the way our system is supposed to work. Expanding the federal moratorium is both unnecessary and unconstitutional.
If you believe that the Senate should reject the effort to impose a nationwide, year-long moratorium on evictions, please call your U.S. Senators and let them know.
June 11, 2020:- Here’s a grip-and-grin photo of Governor Charlie Baker and yours truly back in 2018 (I’m the one with the beard). If I met the Governor again today and could ask him one thing, it would be to let the eviction moratorium expire.
Why? Because, as I point out in my latest article for MassLandlords, the eviction moratorium is making affordable housing even scarcer. It encourages housing providers to keep vacant units off the market. For the full text of the article, click here.
May 26, 2020:- The eviction moratorium (Chapter 65) is still in effect. The earliest date on which is will expire is August 18 (120 days after Chapter 65 became law). However, the Governor could extend it by 90 days, and keep doing so until 45 after the end of the state of emergency.
When will the state of emergency end? The Governor has not said. There has to be a state of emergency in effect for the Governor to issue emergency orders, so the chronology of his four-phase re-opening plan gives some clues.
Until the moratorium expires (August 18 at the earliest, and possibly later), housing providers must not send notices to quit, except for “essential evictions,” i.e. where the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person lawfully on the premises or the general public.
May 28, 2020:- In addition to the State-level eviction moratorium established by Chapter 65, there is also a federal moratorium that Congress imposed on some properties by way of the CARES Act. As this reminder from HUD points out, housing providers are not allowed to charge late fees that accrue for unpaid rent during the 120-day federal moratorium (which ends July 25). To determine whether your property is subject to the federal moratorium, you may want to ask your lawyer.
May 22, 2020:- Missed rental payments are on the rise in Massachusetts, but a market solution may be available.
Even though the eviction moratorium law (Chapter 65) says that tenants are required to pay rent, the lack of an enforcement mechanism is leading some to skip paying the rent with a sense of impunity. Housing providers still have to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code even when they are not receiving rent. One way for providers to stay afloat might be rent-guarantee insurance, also known as rent default insurance, which promises coverage in the event that a tenant stops paying rent.
Unless and until the Massachusetts Legislature takes up the Fair and Equal Housing Guarantee surety-bond policy that MassLandlords is promoting, some housing providers may find this kind of product helpful. And I see that one company, Avail, has a short video on the subject.
If affordable, insurance might be a viable market solution to government failure. By “government failure” I mean the Commonwealth requiring one party to provide housing without being able to go to court to make the other party pay for said housing. This forces rental-property owners to either (a) provide free housing (not a great business model) or (b) exit the market, thereby reducing the amount of rental housing available.
Ideally, Governor Charlie Baker would let Chapter 65 expire on August 18 rather than exercising his option to extend it. But if he chooses to prolong the moratorium, insurance might do the trick.
Please note that I have no contractual, fiduciary, relationship with Avail or Steady Marketplace, either oral or written, and receive no remuneration of any kind from the companies, make no representations regarding them, and suspect that there are other entities out there that offer similar insurance products. In the vernacular, I am not shilling for Avail or Steady Marketplace, or any other insurance company for that matter. I just think that for some housing providers, rent-guarantee insurance might be worth exploring.
May 19, 2020:- Volume 3 of the unofficial Western Division Housing Court reporter is now available online at masshousingcourtreports.org.
Please note that the reporter does not include all decisions and orders. The Court does not provide decisions from impounded cases and cases involving highly sensitive issues relating to minors, and the editors will generally exclude certain types of decisions, such as simple scheduling orders; terse orders lacking sufficient context to be of value to those unfamiliar with the case; and, decisions that relate certain types of particularly sensitive, personal information. A full description of the process and editorial standards can be found at the beginning of each volume.
May 12, 2020:- On May 8, 2020, Attorney General Maura Healey issued an “advisory” on residential evictions. An advisory is not a law or regulation, but it indicates how the Attorney General will interpret the law and try to persuade the courts to apply it. This particular advisory includes a novel interpretation of Chapter 65, the statute that limits the right of access to the courts for one class of people, namely housing providers (landlords).
The statute also abridges freedom of speech by banning landlords from sending notices to quit. In addition, by preventing property owners from obtaining possession even when tenants stop paying rent (whether for reasons related to COVID 19 or not) it operates as a taking. I have addressed those violations before and will do so again in future posts. This post is about access to justice, and how Attorney General Healey’s advisory (mis)interprets what the statute has to say about it.
Chapter 65 allows housing providers to file for summary process only where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person lawfully on the property or of the general public. But it bars housing providers from taking tenants to court for non-payment of rent. Under Chapter 65 (as opposed to the Declaration of Rights) no access to the courts is the rule, and the health/safety provision is the exception.
Statute in Derogation of Liberty
Chapter 65 takes away a fundamental liberty, namely access to the courts, which (as I have mentioned elsewhere) is one of the liberties guaranteed by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Here in Massachusetts it is well established that statutes in derogation of liberty should be strictly construed and interpreted narrowly. They should be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling and legitimate government interest and strictly construed to comply with requirements of substantive due process, as the Supreme Judicial Court held in the Mattter of E.C., 479 Mass. 113 (2018).
In other words, if a statute takes away a basic right, the courts should interpret it narrowly so as to confine the damage to the individual’s liberty interest.
But Attorney General Healey says the opposite, that it is the fundamental right that should be narrowly construed, not the exception to it.
Editing out, and editing in
“Evictions can be brought only where a tenant (1) violates lease terms or engages in criminal activity, and (2) the violation may impact the health or safety of others who are lawfully on the premises. This exception is narrow and should only be used where there is a serious health or safety concern that can’t otherwise be addressed.”
That is what the advisory says about the statute. But that is not what the statute itself says. Not at all. First, the statutory language about impacts on health/safety applies not only to people lawfully on the premises but also to the general public. It says so right there in Section 1 of the statute:
“… may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public.”
So in advising the general public, the Attorney General Healey left out that bit about the general public.
Second, if the Legislature had intended to say that housing providers may ask the courts to evict tenants only where the criminal activity or lease violations “are likely to seriously affect the health or safety of another person and cannot be addressed short of eviction” it would have said so. But it did not. Chapter 65 does not say “serious health or safety concerns” nor does it state that eviction must be the very last resort.
In addition to leaving out some words and adding others, the Attorney General’s interpretation is the opposite of the way to interpret a statute that derogates from liberty. The advisory says that the right of access to the courts that is the “narrow exception,” which is not what the appellate decisions say about statutes in derogation of liberty. On the contrary, according to precedent it is the liberty that should be construed broadly, and the exception to that liberty (in this case the barring of the courtroom doors for all but health/safety cases) that should be construed narrowly.
As if it were not bad enough that we have a statute that abridges freedom speech, bars access to the courts for one class of people, operates as an unconstitutional taking without reasonable compensation, and grants the Governor the option of extending its duration, now the Commonwealth’s chief law-enforcement official says that she will read into that statute words that are not there and apply it n a way that flies in the face of precedent.
So now you know the opinion of Attorney General Healey about your right of access to the courts. Should you wish to share your opinion with Attorney General Maura Healey, here is a link to the Contact page.
May 7, 2020:- A federal judge provided a welcome victory for the rights of free speech and access to the courts yesterday. Judge Stearns of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued an injunction prohibiting Maura Healey (the Massachusetts Attorney General ) from enforcing “emergency” regulations that would have prevented debt collectors from making phone calls to debtors and from going to court.
Claiming authority under the Consumer Protection Act (M.G.L. c. 93A) Healey had issued “emergency” regulations that were exempt from the notice-and-comment requirement that usually allows the public to weigh in. These were in addition to, not instead of, the comprehensive debt-collection regulations that already govern this area of economic activity. The new regulations purported to ban debt collection agencies from calling debtors and taking them to court for the duration of the open-ended state of emergency that Governor Charlie Baker proclaimed on March 10.
Because the regulations interfered with constitutionally-guaranteed rights of speech, petitioning, and access to the courts, ACA International asked the federal court for an injunction. The judge noted that one of the supposed justifications for the regulation (“vouchsafing the financial wellbeing of Massachusetts residents”) had little apparent connection to the AG’s attempt to prohibit one particular form of communication with debtors, namely the telephone. In fact, none of the reasons that the AG offered could justify burdening the commercial speech of professional debt collectors (as opposed to other people trying to collect debts, which the regulation exempted).
With regard to the AG’s rationale for barring the courthouse doors to one class of litigants (i.e. that there is a state of emergency), the judge quoted from a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States: “Emergency does not create power… Constitutions cannot be changed by events alone.”
There are similarities between the debt-collection regulations and Chapter 65, the Legislature’s eviction moratorium. Chapter 65 bars one class of litigants from going to court to seek possession of their real estate for nonpayment of rent (but allows them to seek repossession where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person). Similarly it bans them from sending tenants notices to quit for nonpayment of rent (but not where criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person).
Might a court use the same line of reasoning to strike down the part of Chapter 65 that bans landlords from issuing notices to quit and going to court for summary process?
Certainly, there is a difference between a regulation and a statute. But the principle that an officer of state government may not use the state of emergency as an excuse to strip away basic constitutionally-guaranteed rights should apply with equal force to the Legislature. Landlords should take hope from the ruling.
Q. Is the eviction moratorium a federal law or a state law?
There are two moratoria. One is contained in the federal CARES Act. The other is a Massachusetts law, Chapter 65.
Q. Is the Massachusetts eviction moratorium a statute or an executive order?
The eviction moratorium is a statute, not an executive order. The Massachusetts Legislature passed it (and Governor Charlie Baker signed it) as an emergency law, Chapter 65 of the Acts of 2020, on April 20.
How long will the eviction moratorium last?
At present, Chapter 65 says that the eviction moratorium will last as long as the state of emergency plus 45 days. Governor Baker proclaimed the state of emergency on March 10, 2020, and his proclamation does not have an end date.
Even when Governor Baker does announce an end to the state of emergency, the Legislature could still amend the statute to extend the length of the moratorium.
Does the moratorium ban all evictions?
No, it allows housing providers to file summary process complaints where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violation “may impact the health or safety” of another person. It prohibits no-cause evictions and evictions for nonpayment of rent.
In order for the court to accept a summary process summons and complaint, Standing Order 5-20 requires that the housing provider or attorney also file an affidavit swearing that the case qualifies as an “essential eviction” under Chapter 65, i.e. that it is based on a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violation “may impact the health or safety” of another person.
Q. Does the moratorium allow landlords to send notices to quit?
Yes, so long as the notice is for a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violation that “may impact the health or safety” of another person. Chapter 65 prohibits all other notices to quit, e.g. for nonpayment of rent. It also bans any notices that demand or request that a tenant vacate the premises. Landlords should take care not to write anything that could be construed as a request to vacate. For what to write in missed-rent notices, read on.
Q. Does the moratorium allow landlords to charge a late fee?
No, not if within 30 days after the missed rent payment the tenant gives the landlord a notice stating that the non-payment of rent was due to a financial impact from COVID-19. State government has published a notice for tenants to use.
Q. Does the moratorium allow a landlord to send notices of missed payments?
Yes, and landlords should do so, but the executive office of housing and economic development has issued regulations that specify what the notice must say including the following statement, which must appear on the first page.
“THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT. YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME. An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency. The purpose of this notice is to make sure you understand the amount of rent you owe to your landlord. For information about resources that may help you pay your rent, you can contact your regional Housing Consumer Education Center.
You will not be subject to late fees or a negative report to a credit bureau if you certify to your landlord in writing within 30 days from the missed payment that your non-payment of rent is due to a financial impact from COVID-19. If possible, you should use the approved form at: https://www.mass.gov/lists/moratorium-on-evictions-and-foreclosures-forms-and-other-resources. If you cannot access the form on this website, you can ask your landlord to provide the form to you. You may also send a letter or email so long as it contains a detailed explanation of your household loss in income or increase in expenses due to COVID-19.”
Landlords should also include the following, “This is important notice. Please have it translated.” The State government notice for tenants (see above) contains translations of that statement in 10 languages:
THIS IS AN IMPORTANT NOTICE. PLEASE HAVE IT TRANSLATED.
Questa é una notizia molto importante. Per piacere falla tradurre.
Este es un aviso importante. Sírvase mandarlo traducir.
C’est important. Veuillez faire traduire.
ĐÂY LÀ MỘT BẢN THÔNG CÁO QUAN TRỌNG.
XIN VUI LÒNG CHO DỊCH LẠI THÔNG CÁO NÀY.
Este é um aviso importante. Por favor mande traduzi-lo.
Es ê un avizu importanti. Di favor, manda traduzil.
Se yon anons ki enpòtan anpil. Sou Ple, fè tradwi li pou w.
Σπουδαιε Πληροφορεια − Παρακαλω να το µεταφρασετε.
MassLandlords has a sample notice available for members. Landlords should not send missed-payment notices that fail to comply with the regulations.
Q. Is Chapter 65 constitutional?
Some people believe that by prohibiting owners from going to court to try to regain possession of their property Chapter 65 violates the constitutional guarantee of access to justice, and that by requiring owners to provide housing with no guarantee of payment it may operate as a taking without compensation. Neither the Legislature nor the Governor asked the Supreme Judicial Court for an advisory opinion prior to enactment, and so far there are no judicial decisions one way or the other.
Q. If landlords wish to seek compensation for the alleged taking, what law could they rely on?
For owners whose real estate the Commonwealth has taken for public use during a state of emergency, the Civil Defense Act of 1950 sets forth the steps to follow. In a nutshell, the Act allows aggrieved property owners to file claims in Superior Court. Potential claimants should note the one-year statute of limitations.
May 1, 2020:- Today the Housing Court issued Standing Order 5-20, which sets out the steps for property-owners and attorneys to take in summary process cases that the Legislature deems “essential.”
Along with the summary process summons and complaint, the owner/attorney must file an Affidavit of Cause affirming under oath that the eviction is “for cause,” as defined in the moratorium law, Chapter 65, i.e. that the tenant’s criminal activity/lease violation “may impact the health or safety” of another person.
This new standing order provides some much-needed clarity for court staff, litigants, and practitioners. It also serves as a reminder that the moratorium does not prohibit all evictions, only some.
Of course, how prohibiting evictions for non-payment of rent but not evictions for health/safety reasons could in any way help “flatten the curve” or otherwise reduce the spread of COVID19 is not at all clear.
April 27, 2020:- Since March 23, 2020, when Governor Baker issued COVID 19 Order No. 13, closing businesses across Massachusetts, about half-a-million Bay Staters have been thrown out of work. Some are renters who will find it difficult–or impossible–to pay rent. In ordinary times, landlords would have had the option of sending them a notice to quit and then going to court for summary process.
On April 20 the Governor signed the eviction moratorium that the Legislature had passed, which will last as long as the state of emergency plus 45 days, namely Acts of 2020 Chapter 65. The new law prohibits property-owners from going to court for summary process (except where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety of other residents, health care workers, emergency personnel, persons lawfully on the subject property or the general public”). So landlords with tenants who can’t or won’t pay rent have no legal recourse. They are, however, allowed to remind tenants of the duty to pay rent.
If you are a property owner, what should you tell the tenant who misses rent?
Do not worry: the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development of has decided for you. It has issued regulations that state not only what you may write but what you must write. These are emergency regulations, so did not have to go through the process of notice and comment that allows the public to have a say. Here are the precise words that your State government requires you to utter:
THIS IS NOT A NOTICE TO QUIT. YOU ARE NOT BEING EVICTED, AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HOME. An emergency law temporarily protects tenants from eviction during the COVID-19 emergency. The purpose of this notice is to make sure you understand the amount of rent you owe to your landlord.
If you cannot access the form on this website, you can ask your landlord to provide the form to you. You may also send a letter or email so long as it contains a detailed explanation of your household loss in income or increase in expenses due to COVID-19.
The regulation adds:
The notice may also include other information that will promote the prompt and non-judicial resolution of such matters, such as the total balance due, the months remaining and the total of lease payments expected to be made on a lease for a term of years, information on how to contact the landlord to work out a revised payment arrangement, and a reminder that after the state of emergency ends the tenant may face eviction if rent remains unpaid.
The term “non-judicial resolution” is a bit pointless in the absence of any possibility of judicial resolution (Chapter 65 effectively barred the courthouse doors). But anyway, at least they are letting you say how much the tenants owe you and what may happen after the emergency.
The regulation goes on to add something that you should do, and also mentions something it “encourages” you to do.
If a landlord knows that the tenant is not proficient in English, the landlord should use reasonable efforts to deliver the notice in a language that the tenant understands.
Not a mandate, of course, just a suggestion. Then some more hortatory language.
Landlords are encouraged to include with the notice a statement that the notice is important and should be translated, a form of which is available on the EOHED website.
“Should” is not “shall” and “encouraged” is not exactly the same as “directly ordered to,” but you do not need a particularly vivid imagination to foresee what will happen to the landlord who chooses not to translate the notice and not to include the translated statement about the notice’s importance.
State government now permits you to inform non-paying tenants how much they owe and that after the state of emergency they may face eviction for non-payment. If you do choose to communicate with tenants on this subject, State government requires you to write the words set forth in the regulation. For some additional legal text that I consider relevant, click here.