March 23, 2020:- What a difference a day makes. Today’s decision from the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Youghal, LLC v. Entwistle reminds landlords that they need to prove receipt (not merely the sending) of a notice to quit and that they can only commence summary process for non-payment of rent after 14 days have elapsed.
In the Youghal case, the landlord’s agent taped the notice to quit for non-payment of rent to the tenants’ door on June 6, 2017. But at trial one tenant testified that she did not see the notice until the following day, June 7. The landlord served the tenants with a summary process summons and complaint on June 21, 2017, which within the 14-day period that commenced on June 7 (the day the tenant said she saw it). Therefore, said the SJC today, “judgment must enter for the tenants.”
March 6, 2020:- Civil asset forfeiture is a way for law-enforcement agencies to acquire property (money, vehicles, real estate, etc.) from people who have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime. If somebody — anybody — used the property, or even just intended to use it, in the commission of a drug crime, the government can take the property, sell it, and keep the proceeds, and all without the rigmarole of a trial.
Under Massachusetts law, G.L. c. 94C, sec. 47(d), if the Commonwealth establishes probable cause (not a very high bar) the burden is on the owner to prove that the property is not forfeitable.
For example, one case in Tewksbury involved local and federal agencies trying to take a motel that had been in the same family for two generations. The reason? Over the course of 14 years during which the owners had rented out rooms approximately 200,000 times there had been 14 drug-related arrests on the premises. There was no suggestion that the owners themselves had done anything wrong.
As an editorialMassachusetts Lawyers Weekly in 2019 stated:
All of this makes it too easy for property to be confiscated, and creates incentives for police and prosecutors to use forfeiture as a way to target those without the ability to fight a seizure. The law can also lead to unintended consequences, such as putting elderly parents or minor children living in a target’s house at risk for homelessness.
I am committed to helping reform the these laws, and am working with other concerned citizens to raise awareness and organize for change.
In the meantime, if law enforcement is trying to obtain your property through forfeiture, email/call me for a free 30-minute consult.
March 3, 2020:- What a headline, eh. Anti-discrimination laws protect not only employees with disabilities but also employees whose family members have disabilities (“associational discrimination”). This story from the North Andover Eagle-Tribune describes a case where the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) found probable cause.
February 28, 2020:- New rules of procedure have taken effect at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). One welcome addition: Rule 1.13(9)(b)(3), which allows for a stay of the investigation pending the adjudication of a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction (my personal hobbyhorse). I’ll drink to that.
January 28, 2020:- The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued a new guidance document on the subject of assistance animals, a term that covers (1) service animals, and (2) support animals. Its purpose is to clarify the rights and responsibilities of housing providers and people with disabilities in the area of reasonable accommodations under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).
As HUD clearly states, the guidance document is just that: a guidance document, not something that expands or otherwise alters obligations under the federal Fair Housing Act.
November 19, 2019:- When the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) stopped producing documents in response to Attorney J. Whitfield Larrabee’s public records requests, Attorney Larrabee sued. The MCAD said that it had changed its policy, and that from now on it would only produce information about closed cases, not open ones. Today the Appeals Court held that it is duly promulgated regulations that govern, not a unilateral policy adopted without notice and comment.
Justice Sullivan’s opinion states that the agency’s new policy conflicts with its regulations and that it must, in accordance with the regulations, produce the documents. My favorite excerpt is the following:”A regulation controls over policy statements or guidelines that conflict with the regulation… If the MCAD wishes to consider recalibrating its policy regarding public disclosure, it must follow the amendment process.”
In case any of my students are reading this, I point out that this case provides an example of why you should read the footnotes, which are there for reading not decoration. In footnote 7 the court deals with the MCAD’s argument that public disclosure of open cases will lead to respondents retaliating against complainants: The argument does not hold water because Respondents know about the complaint from the outset when the MCAD serves them with it.
Today’s decision makes this a good day for open government and the rule of law.
P.S. November 19, 2019: I just filed my own public records request with the MCAD for pending charges filed so far this year in the commission’s Springfield office. I will keep you posted.
September 19, 2019:- At 12 noon on October 9 in its Springfield office, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) will hold a public hearing on proposed changes to its procedural regulations. For a link to the notice click here.
One proposal in particular caught my eye, as I mentioned in a previous post, and here is the text of the comment I submitted to the MCAD in support of it:
804 CMR 1.13(9)(b)(3)
The proposed rule provides that “where the Commission’s jurisdiction or authority to proceed is challenged by a motion filed with the Commission, the Investigating Commissioner may stay investigation of the merits of the charge pending a ruling on the motion.”
As an attorney who has previously complained about the Commission investigating charges without having adjudicated a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, I welcome this proposal. A clear and unambiguous grant of discretion to issue a stay would be a significant improvement on the current situation.
However, where a respondent’s motion raises the limitation period I believe that a stay should be mandatory not discretionary. The purpose of a statute of limitation is to provide a degree of certainty and predictability, which purpose is undermined when investigations commence after the statutory deadline has passed. Accordingly, where a motion seeks dismissal based on the expiry of the limitation period, the Commission should only continue to investigate after determining that the period has not expired and the Commission does, in fact, have jurisdiction.
In order to maintain the principle of separation of powers (one of the bulwarks of liberty), agencies should operate within, not beyond, their statutory remit. Conducting an investigation without jurisdiction violates that principle. It should not happen. This proposed regulation goes some way toward preventing the MCAD exceeding its authority, so I hope that it makes the final cut.
I intend to be at the public hearing in Springfield and to post a brief report of what, if anything, occurs. Probably it will not be necessary to arrive hours ahead of time and queue for a seat. After all, on October 9 many Bay Staters will be busy observing the anniversary of the banishment of Roger Williams in 1635 or celebrating Leif Erikson Day. Quite possibly, therefore, there may not be much of a crowd at the mid-week, noontime meeting to discuss amendments to the MCAD’s procedural regulations. But you never know. In the meantime, if readers would like to know more about the issue, please post a comment or email me.
September 16, 2019:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced a decision that gives landlords cause to rejoice.
Following motion by a landlord, a court has statutory and equitable authority… to order a tenant at sufferance to make interim use and occupancy payments during the pendency of an eviction action.
On behalf of MassLandlords, I submitted an amicus brief in the case, Davis v. Comerford, and my main worry was that the court would set an unrealistic threshold for landlords to meet before a rent-escrow order could issue. That worry was misplaced, I am relieved to say. Instead of following the advice of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and requiring landlords to show the threat of “irreparable harm,” (i.e. harm that money cannot fix) the SJC tells judges which factors to take int account and to then engage in an “overall balancing of the equities.”
The first factor?
[T]ime lost in regaining [real property] from a party in illegal possession can represent an irreplaceable loss to the owner.
The other factors in the non-exhaustive list of factors that the judge should weigh are;
Amount of rent owed;
Number of months with no payments/partial payments;
Landlord’s monthly obligations;
Whether landlord faces the threat of foreclosure;
Tenant’s likelihood of success on the merits of defenses/counterclaims;
Whether tenant has been withholding rent because of conditions, or has repaired and deducted cost from rent;
Whether code violations are de minimis or substantial;
Whether tenant is indigent.
In addition to making clear that judges can order rent escrow and not setting an impossibly high bar for landlords, the SJC said this:
We further conclude that payment into an escrow account maintained by the court or counsel for one of the parties typically will provide sufficient protection to a landlord, but we clarify that a judge may order payments directly to a landlord if certain additional factors are present, such as where the landlord demonstrates that use and occupancy payments are necessary for the landlord to pay a mortgage on the premises or meet other pressing financial obligations.
For the slip opinion of the Davis v. Comerford decision click here.
August 29, 2019:- If you like government secrecy and think the legal system would function much better out of the public eye, you are going to love a proposal called “eviction sealing.”
Some Massachusetts lawmakers would like eviction cases sealed so that the public (in particular, landlords) will not be able to know who has been taken to Housing Court. The bills are H. 3566 and S. 824, and if enacted they would move Massachusetts further away from an important constitutional principle, one that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., described more than 100 years ago:
It is desirable that [judicial proceedings] should take place under the public eye… because it is of the highest moment that those who administer justice should always act under the sense of public responsibility, and that every citizen should be able to satisfy himself with his own eyes as to the mode in which a public duty is performed.
Cowley v. Pulsifer, 137 Mass. 392, 394 (1884) (Holmes, J.). Based on the idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant, as another jurist put it (quoting James Bryce), Massachusetts court records are available for public inspection unless a specific statute, court rule, or order says otherwise. Public access is the default setting. But here is a video of Professor Esme Caramello, clinic director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, explaining to the Poverty Law Clearingouse why summary-process records should be an exception.
In the video Professor Caramello says that “we saw a dramatic increase in barriers to finding new housing once all the Housing Court records went online” and that allowing public access to Housing Court cases “allows landlords to say ‘if ever a person tries to assert their rights, I don’t want to have anything to do with them,’ so it really creates a major access-to-justice problem.”
This is consistent with what Professor Caramello and Annette Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute wrote in an article titled “The Misuse of MassCourts as a Free Tenant Screening Device,” published in the Fall 2015 edition of the Boston Bar Journal making the case that landlords should not be allowed to know whether a prospective tenant has been party to a case in Housing Court.
Blacklisting tenants like these merely because their names are online in MassCourts erects unfair barriers to finding an apartment for anyone who has ever been to court in a housing case – tens of thousands of people every year – and could place especially vulnerable people with limited housing options into a spiral towards homelessness.
Another scholar, Paula A. Franzese, makes a similar point in a law review article titled “A Place to Call Home: Tenant Blacklisting and the Denial of Opportunity,” 45 Fordham Urban Law Journal 661 (April 2018):
Blacklists stigmatize, precluding future renting opportunities and rendering affordable housing options even less accessible. What is more, the lists skew market efficiencies, creating “false negatives” of prospective renters who would in fact be fine tenants. The very specter of being blacklisted can impose a considerable chilling effect, dissuading tenants from exercising otherwise assured rights and remedies.
These are strong arguments against landlords making decisions based solely on Housing Court records. A rental-property owner who declines to rent to applicants because their names appear in the Housing Court records could be missing out on great tenants. Rental property owners do not want to miss out on great tenants because (as tenants’ advocates seem to forget occasionally) owners are in the business of renting homes to people, not rejecting and evicting them.
But, appealing as their equity-based arguments may be, Professors Caramello and Franzese do not explain why a tenant’s interest in secrecy should outweigh the public’s interest in access to information, which is a right protected by the First Amendment, according to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The professors’ solution is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, which is the test courts use in deciding whether the government is justified in restricting rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. A blanket ban is quite the opposite of narrow tailoring, really.
Nor do they address the likely consequences of hiding this information from landlords. If landlords are not allowed to manage risk by deciding how much weight to give Housing Court records (because the Legislature has clawed the records back from the public domain) they will insure against the unknown risk in the obvious way: by raising rents.
The State with the highest homeless population in the nation, California, enacted eviction sealing in 2016. According to this article in the Mercury News the bill’s sponsor called it “a commonsense law… that will prevent working families from becoming homeless.” This article from the Wall Street Journal and this one in the Sacramento Bee tell us just how accurate that prediction turned out to be. True, homelessness in California as a whole did drop by 1% in 2017-18 — after years of going upward — as CNN reported. But as NPR, Curbed, and the Guardian pointed out 2019 is another story, with homelessness in Los Angeles (the county with the largest population) rising dramatically this year.
Is there really no way to tackle the eviction-records issue in Massachusetts short of stripping the public of a First Amendment right, becoming more like California, and raising rents?
Last month in the State House I testified against eviction-sealing on behalf of MassLandlords. The proposal is just one among a cluster of landlord-tenant bills pending before the Legislature, e.g. the return of rent control, providing tenants with publicly-funded lawyers, prohibiting evictions without “just cause,” and creating a tenants’ right of first refusal.
For details of my testimony, please stay tuned for the September edition of the MassLandlords newsletter.
March 5, 2019:- Amherst attorneys Paul Bobrowski and Peter Vickery are pleased to announce the formation of Bobrowski & Vickery, LLC, which will focus on civil litigation, employment law, land-use law, landlord-tenant, general business law, and estate planning.
Bobrowski is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he obtained his BS (Astronomy) and MA (Sociology), and of the University of San Francisco where he obtained his JD. In addition to practicing law, he served for 11 years as Senior Consultant at the Information Technology Division of the Judicial Branch for the State of Connecticut.
Vickery is a graduate of Oxford University (BA); the University of the West of England (Postgraduate Diploma in Law); Boston University School of Law (JD); and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (Master of Public Policy & Administration). Vickery is a former Governor’s Councilor for Western Massachusetts and former member of the State Ballot Law Commission, and is Legislative Affairs Counsel for MassLandlords, the statewide membership organization representing rental-property owners in Massachusetts.
January 15, 2019:- The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) has published its draft procedural regulations, and I am happy to report that the draft includes a proposal of mine, or at least a version of it.
Readers may recall that back in 2017 I wrote a bill to cover situations where there is doubt that the MCAD has jurisdiction to investigate a complaint. (New MCAD Bill Filed). If a person accused of discrimination files a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, the MCAD should rule on that motion first, before launching an investigation. In the meantime, the Investigating Commissioner should stay (i.e. suspend) the investigation.
The new proposed rules give the Investigating Commissioner clear authority to issue a stay.
Generally, investigation of a complaint shall not be not stayed pending the ruling on a motion. However, where the Commission’s jurisdiction or authority to proceed is challenged by a motion filed with the Commission, the Investigating Commissioner may stay investigation of the merits of the charge pending a ruling on the motion.
December 4, 2018:- Leyla Pirnie’s landlord would like her to move out. Why? Because Ms. Pirnie (a graduate student at Harvard University) keeps a firearm in her apartment.
The story has been gaining national attention after it broke in the Washington Free Beacon , and it raises important questions for landlords across Massachusetts. How far can landlords go in limiting their tenants’ exercise of constitutionally-guaranteed rights? For example, does a landlord have the right to prohibit a tenant from exercising her right to free speech in the leased premises? What about the free exercise of religion?
If a tenant has a disability, the landlord may have to make an exception to the property’s no-pets policy so as to accommodate the tenant’s emotional support animal (for my MassLandords article on that subject click here). But is there such a thing as an emotional support gun?
I will be exploring these and other questions in next month’s MassLandlords newsletter. In the meantime, to watch Ms. Pirnie’s interview on Fox News click here.
The Washington Post reports that Lynne Patton, the New York regional administrator at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is moving from her apartment in Trump Plaza into public housing in Harlem for the month of January.
Patton will become a tenant of the New York City Housing Authority, which has been the subject of much criticism for, among other things, failing to address lead paint problems. See e.g. this New York Times article and various stories in The Real Deal. The conditions in the authority’s units triggered a federal investigation and lawsuit, which in turn prompted Patton’s planned stint as a public-housing tenant.
“As Regional Administrator, I cannot continue to purport to understand, nor resolve, the daily plight of a NYCHA resident without experiencing it firsthand,” Patton said. “It is my intent to spend the entire month of January doing exactly that.”
From the MassLandlords newsletter: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued a press release relating to the sum of $40,000 that her office acquired from three sets of rental-property owners, property managers, and real-estate agents to settle enforcement actions. The press release outlines cases involving three properties: the first in Taunton, the second in Revere, and the third in Roslindale. To read the rest of the article, click here.
August 1, 2017:- In 2010, Alberto Rodriguez sued his employer, a freight transportation company, for employment discrimination. Although the employer denied any wrongdoing, the case settled for $10,000.00.
In 2010, Alberto Rodriguez sued his employer, a freight transportation company, for employment discrimination. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
In fact, second time around the outcome was different. By the time of the pay-out from employer 1 (Roadway Express) Alberto Rodriguez was already working for employer 2 (UPS) in Springfield, Western Massachusetts. After 11 months, UPS fired him, and a few days later Mr. Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) alleging employment discrimination. Earlier this year the MCAD dismissed the case. Among the various reasons the MCAD hearing officer gave for ruling against Mr. Rodriguez was this one:
In her deposition in the Roadway Express lawsuit (which, during his deposition in the UPS case, Mr. Rodriguez denied ever having filed), Mrs. Rodriguez stated that she had overheard a cellphone conversation via Bluetooth in which the employer used ethnic slurs against her husband. In her deposition in the UPS case, Mrs. Rodriguez testified that she had overheard a cellphone conversation via Bluetooth in which the employer used ethnic slurs against her husband. The hearing officer found this similarity not only “striking and suspicious” but “so far-fetched as to be wholly implausible.”
Fool me once, shame on me, as the saying goes. Fool me twice? For the second part of that aphorism (the less traditional version) delivered by internationally-acclaimed business guru Michael Scott, click here.
The lessons for employers facing charges of discrimination? First, consider taking depositions, so that you can compare and contrast the deposition testimony with the deponent’s testimony at the hearing. It is not only discrepancies that can be helpful; so can consistencies, especially those that strike a reasonable objective listener as implausible. Second, even if the MCAD issues a probable-cause finding that paves the way for a public hearing, as happened in the Rodriguez v. UPS case, if the facts are on your side and you can prove them, consider resisting the understandable impulse to settle and, instead, stand firm.
July 17, 2017:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that where an employer fired an employee for her off-site use of marijuana, the employee may sue for handicap discrimination. The name of the case is Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, and you can read it by clicking here. The decision does not sit easily with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, to put it mildly.
The case involves the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, chapter 151B. Under 151B an employee who is a “qualified handicapped person” may seek “reasonable accommodations.” In this case, the employee asked for one particular accommodation, namely marijuana use. Faced with this request the employer demurred, arguing that marijuana use is a crime and, therefore, inherently unreasonable.
Certainly, in 2012 Massachusetts enacted the medical marijuana act. But the use of marijuana is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which Congress enacted and has not repealed. The SJC referred to this contradiction between state and federal law as an “unusual backdrop.” That is one way of putting it, I suppose.
Now, admittedly I am no judge and nobody asked me, but my starting point in resolving the contradiction would have been clause 2 of article VI of the Constitution of the United States, which provides:
This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.
The clause means that a law passed by Congress becomes part of “the supreme law of the land.” That is why we call it the Supremacy Clause. Lest there be any doubt, the clause includes the proviso “any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” If a State does not like a Federal law, the judges of that State may not repeal it. Nullification is not an option. I believe we fought a war about this.
However, the SJC held that respect for the supreme law of the land must take second seat to something else, something not referred to in the Constitution of the United States:
“To declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for the Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures or voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has an accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”
That is a very difficult sentence for me to understand. Don’t get me wrong: I can read English, so I understand the words. I just do not understand how (with all due respect to the SJC) one can square that sentence with the plain language of the Supremacy Clause or with the body of precedent on the subject of field preemption.
After all, the Supremacy Clause is a straightforward answer to this simple question: Where there is a clear conflict between a federal law and a subsequent state law, which prevails? Federal law, says he Supremacy Clause. State law, says the SJC. Why? Because it is better to ignore the federal law than fail to be “respectful” of the voters.
Perhaps this is one of those instances where the framers and ratifiers tacked on an exception using invisible ink, so that to the cognoscenti the Supremacy Clause actually concludes with the words “and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding, except when they decide not to be.” Hold your copy of the Constitution up close, then at arms’ length. If that doesn’t work, try holding it up to the light.
June 15, 2017:- Massachusetts state government is in debt to the tune of approximately $130 billion. Paying that down will require, I think, a fairly large number of people gainfully employed — providing goods and services that other people want — and paying taxes. So (and please forgive the sarcasm here) what could be better for Massachusetts than a new state government program that allows private-sector employees to take half the year off while getting paid up to $1,000.00 per week? Only one thing could be better than that: a new state government agency to administer the program. The new agency will need staff, of course. So at least somebody will be working.
Last session, this proposed item of legislation (titled An Act Establishing the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program) passed the Senate. The re-filed bill had a hearing in the State House recently. For the bill text click here. To read the testimony of John Regan, Executive VP for Government Affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, click here.
For the sake of balance I also direct you to the website of the bill’s proponents, the Coalition for Social Justice, Inc. (CSJ). Just click here. Needless to say, CSJ (2015 revenue $164,456.00) and CSJ Education Fund, Inc., (2015 revenue $394,811.00) are 501(c) non-profits, which means that they do not pay taxes.
May 24, 2017:- If someone tells a Boston Globe reporter something about you that you consider defamatory, and the Globe publishes it, you could sue for defamation. But what if that certain someone expresses the same message through the same medium as a way to reach to those Globe readers who happen to be state government officials? Should a judge throw the case out right away because of the speaker’s intended audience?
Because of the broad language of the Massachusetts law barring “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (the anti-SLAPP statute) this is a question that comes before the courts from time to time. The statute bars claims and counterclaims “based on” a party’s constitutional right of petition. This casts too wide a net, one that catches (and thereby prohibits) claims that people bring in good faith, not out of any desire to chill the other side’s petitioning rights.
Fortunately, yesterday the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) narrowed the statute’s reach via the case of Blanchard v. Steward Carney Hospital. For my post on the Appeals Court’s decision on the same case last year click here.
In a nutshell: The action will survive if the person suing can show that they did not sue primarily to chill the other side’s legitimate exercise of their right to petition.
This is the right decision, but what a shame that the Legislature left it to the judicial branch to remedy its own poor drafting.