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.