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.
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.
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 29, 2020:- Massachusetts law now bans property owners from seeking summary process except where a tenant’s criminal activity/lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of others. It forces some landlords to extend credit that they cannot afford to give. This near-barring of the courthouse doors to one particular class of people (plus its forced-loan feature) prompted Frederik Winsser to write a letter to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, which Mr. Winsser kindly gave me permission to publish here.
Dear Governor Baker:
I am writing about the effect that the COVID-19 epidemic is having on housing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
I am Housing Provider – a ‘Mom and Pop’ small property owner/landlord in Massachusetts. I am a retired senior and receive a small pension, a limited social security benefit, and a small VA service connected disability payment. I depend upon my rental income to pay for my medical expenses, my mortgages, property taxes, insurance, and other bills.
Thirty years ago, I purchased my first house, a two family in Waltham. Over the years, I was working as an Electrical Engineer and invested work income as well as a tremendous amount of sweat equity into the house. My hard work allowed me to purchase additional rental properties, the most recent being a four family house fifteen years ago needing a lot of work.
Over the years I have invested a significant amount of time and money to improve the apartments with new kitchens, bathrooms, refinished interiors, high efficiency heating systems, and much more. For my four family house, after fifteen years of sweat equity and money invested, I still have a net $94,223.00 negative cash flow balance on my original investment. Only in 2019 did I finally have a small positive cash flow of $10,800.00.
I very well understand that there currently is a housing crisis in the country. A large number of people have lost their jobs and are unsure of their future financial security. I do understand that their ability to pay for the necessities of shelter, food, and health care are being seriously impacted.
There are programs such as Section 8, SNAP, etc., but placing the burden on the housing providers is unfair. Speaking for myself and other housing providers, we still have to pay mortgages, taxes, insurance, utilities, and expenses. If we don’t pay the property taxes, the city will place a lien on the property. With the current eviction moratorium, there is no practical remedy for us if the renters cannot or will not pay their rent. Yes, we can take them to court in three to six months for the back rent and hope to be able to collect the rent. By way of an example, last year I went to court to evict a tenant for repeated non payment of rent. In July she moved out with no forwarding address, still owing me over $3,500.00 in rent and legal expenses. Neither the police nor I can locate her.
In closing, would someone go to the supermarket, fill up a shopping cart full of groceries, and at the checkout counter say ‘I’ll pay for the groceries after the COVID crisis is over’. I don’t think so. Please do consider the plight of the housing providers as well.
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.
April 23, 2020:- The new law is a moratorium on some (not all) evictions, not on rent. The law expressly states:
Nothing in this section shall relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent.
Are landlords allowed to remind tenants of this fact? Yes.
Certainly, landlords who choose to provide a written reminder need to take care not to say anything that could construed as a request to vacate or as a threat to initiate a debt-collection lawsuit, nor should they visit the tenant. Sending the reminder to some tenants but not to others would invite a charge of discrimination, so an all-or-none approach would be wiser.
The eviction moratorium statute prohibits landlords from sending, for the purposes of a “non-essential eviction,” any notice, including a notice to quit, requesting or demanding that a tenant of a residential dwelling unit vacate the premises.”
The Attorney General’s emergency debt-collection regulations prohibit “creditors” from threatening to initiate a collection lawsuit. Is a landlord who is trying to collect rent owed (overdue by 30+ days) under a lease a “creditor” within the meaning of the debt-collection regulations?
The emergency regulation states, at s. 35.03(2), that the prohibitions do not apply to “an attempt to collect a debt owed by a tenant to an owner.” The applicable regulation defines “tenant” as a person who occupies a dwelling unit “under a rental agreement,” which term the regulation defines as “an express or implied agreement for use and occupancy of a dwelling unit.” Is a tenant-at-sufferance someone who is occupying a dwelling unit “under an express or implied agreement”? No; on the contrary, the tenant-at-sufferance is occupying the unit without the owner’s agreement, after any express or implied agreement has expired or been terminated.
This is somewhat convoluted, but bear with me: It is all too easy to imagine someone whose lease/rental agreement has expired or been terminated claiming to be a tenant-at-sufferance and, therefore, not a “tenant” within the meaning of the regulation and, therefore, outside the scope of the landlord-tenant exception to the ban on creditor-debtor communication. So tread carefully.
Sending a simple reminder to all tenants that the new law states that “nothing in this section shall relieve a tenant from the obligation to pay rent or restrict a landlord’s ability to recover rent” would not, in my opinion, violate the statute or the regulations.
April 3, 2020:- In order to slow the spread of COVID 19, on March 10 Governor Baker declared a state of emergency. On March 23, he ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close. Yesterday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted to prohibit landlords (commercial and residential) from issuing notices to quit and commencing eviction actions for the duration of the state of emergency plus 30 days. For the eviction-moratorium bill itself click here.
If tenants cannot pay rent (e.g. because state government destroyed their jobs) the landlord will not receive the money needed to pay for the upkeep of the premises, to pay employees, and pay taxes. Perhaps, to cover at least one part of this government-made crisis, the Legislature will appropriate money to expand the RAFT program. If so, it will need to dramatically expand not just the amount of money but also the eligibility rules.
The eviction moratorium marks the crossing of an important threshold. If and when the Governor signs it into law, the people of Massachusetts will experience yet another extraordinary erosion of their rights.
If government takes your property for public use, it should compensate you. If you have a grievance, you should be able to seek redress in a court of law. These are not ideas that just popped into my head; they are principles embodied in our founding charter.
Article 10 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees reasonable compensation when the government takes property for public uses. Article 11 guarantees everyone the right to a remedy by recourse to the law and the right to obtain justice freely and promptly. Neither of those articles contains a carve-out for when the Governor declares an emergency.
The eviction moratorium robs property-owners of the right to a legal remedy and it amounts to a taking without just compensation. It makes a mockery of Article 1, which describes the right of enjoying and protecting property as “natural, essential, and unalienable.” And it will have a devastating impact on rental-property owners, their families, and their employees. What possible rationale could there be for such an attack on our rights?
According to the COVID Tracking Project, at this point the cumulative number of hospitalizations for COVID 19 is approximately 36,000, and the number of deaths is 6,962. Unfortunately it seems reasonable to expect that the numbers will rise over the next couple of months, perhaps even as high as 100,000.
The overall burden of influenza for the 2017-2018 season was an estimated 45 million influenza illnesses, 21 million influenza-associated medical visits, 810,000 influenza-related hospitalizations, and 61,000 influenza-associated deaths.
That’s certainly a large number of deaths. There’s no getting around the fact that 61,000 represents a lot of lost lives and bereaved families. That same year, by the way, there were 36,550 deaths attributable to road traffic accidents.
The overall burden of influenza for the 2016-2017 season was an estimated 29 million influenza illnesses, 14 million influenza-associated medical visits, 500,000 influenza-related hospitalizations, and 38,000 influenza-associated deaths.
So in the two-year period 2016-18, the approximate number of hospitalizations in the United States for influenza was 1.3 million and the approximate number of deaths was 99,000. And we did not close down the economy and throw millions of people out of work.
From 12 April 2009 to 10 April 2010, we estimate that approximately 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (8868-18,306) occurred in the United States due to pH1N1. Eighty-seven percent of deaths occurred in those under 65 years of age[.]
Approximately 12,000 people in the United States died from H1N1 in 2009-10. The following flu season (2010-11), approximately 37,000 died from a different kind of influenza, according to the CDC. We did not close down the economy and throw millions of people out of work.
We are not at war, no matter what the politicians say (well, we are at war–at least our all-volunteer military is–but not against a virus). Rather, we are in a horrible but manageable pandemic. The circumstances do not justify this attack on our rights.
The Legislature and Governor are poised to strip property owners of the right to go to court to seek repossession of their own property. They are forcing an economic minority (rental-property owners) to pay the price for the state government shuttering businesses and destroying jobs, in other words to provide a public good without reasonable compensation. The rights that we lose today will not automatically bounce back tomorrow, or the day after, or when the Governor chooses to declare the emergency over.
March 31, 2017:- Today the Appeals Court issued its decision in CMJ Management Co. v. Wilkerson, a landlord-tenant case from the Boston Housing Court. After the tenant failed to comply with the pre-trial orders, the judge struck the demand for trial by jury.
The Appeals Court held that the judge should not have struck the demand without first considering “lesser sanctions.” But it also made clear that Housing Court judges do have the discretion to impose the sanction of striking a jury-trial demand, so long as the judge takes into account the tenant’s culpability, any prejudice to the landlord, and the deterrent effect. The right to jury trial is fundamental but it is not absolute.
May 24, 2015:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) sent back to the Housing Court a summary process case that started almost four years ago in August 2012. In its decision (in favor of the tenants) the SJC points out the need to promote “the legislative goal of just, speedy, and inexpensive resolution of summary process cases.” But it is not only connoisseurs of irony who will find the decision noteworthy. Although the case concerns an attempted post-foreclosure eviction, it refers to yet another defense against claims for possession (a defense, as opposed to a mere counterclaim) that may have an impact on the more run-of-the-mill landlord-tenant cases as well.
In May 2012, a mortgage company recorded the foreclosure deed for home of Edward and Emanuela Rego. At the foreclosure sale, the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) took title. In August it started a summary process action in Housing Court to evict the Regos. In October 2012, the Regos filed their Answer, replete with 25 affirmative defenses and one counterclaim alleging that the mortgage company had violated the Consumer Protection Act, G.L. c. 93A. According to the Regos’ counterclaim, the company had violated 93A by charging excessive late fees and sending deceptive notices about their eligibility for loan modifications.
Fannie Mae filed a motion for summary judgment in February 2014, almost two years after it had purchased the house. The Housing Court awarded it possession and dismissed the Regos’ counterclaim. In July 2014, the Housing Court entered final judgment in favor of Fannie Mae. But the judge did not expressly state whether he agreed with Fannie Mae’s argument that because he had awarded possession he now lacked jurisdiction to decide the 93A counterclaim. The judge scheduled a separate hearing this particular question, and dismissed the 93A counterclaim, but did not state why. This bit is important, by the way.
When Fannie Mae prevailed on its motion for summary judgment and the Housing Court awarded it possession, its lawyers may well have thought they could discern the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. When the judge entered final judgment, the light may have shone a little more brightly. But today the SJC — which had reached down to transfer the matter to itself from the Appeals Court — vacated the summary judgment and reinstated the tenants’ counterclaims, thereby snuffing out the light and turning Fannie Mae back into the tunnel of Housing Court.
On appeal, the Regos argued that the mortgage company had failed to comply with the writing-under-seal requirement of the foreclosure statute, focusing on a statutory amendment enacted in 1906. The SJC’s decision goes into laudable detail explaining why this argument must fail. But the 93A counterclaim is another matter, the SJC held. Please note: The Regos raised 93A as a counterclaim, not a defense.
Fannie Mae argued that even if the 93A counterclaim was successful, it would not entitle the Regos to possession, only to monetary damages. Not so, contended the Regos: The court could deploy the equitable remedy of rescinding the foreclosure sale.
One of the organizations that responded to the SJC’s request for amicus briefs was Community Legal Aid, which stated that:
In certain cases, the equitable rescission of a foreclosure sale might not be the trial court’s remedy for violations of G.L.c. 93A. Nevertheless, the adjudication of different claims arising from the same facts supports both judicial economy and access to justice for low-income and elderly litigants who may be unable to advance claims independently.
Even if rescission is not on the cards and no right to possession is at issue any more, the Housing Court should retain jurisdiction, in other words. Of like mind, the SJC held:
“[U]nable to determine whether, in the context of the summary process action, the judge determined that the Regos’ G.L.c. 93A counterclaims and defenses did not entitle them to equitable relief affecting the right to possession, or whether he intended to consider that form of equitable relief, along with all other potential forms of equitable and monetary relief in the separate proceeding but erroneously concluded that he lacked the jurisdiction to do it.” (Emphasis added).
Of course, the Housing Court judge did, in fact, rule on the counterclaim, which tends to suggest that he had concluded that he had the jurisdiction to do so. Had he “erroneously concluded that he lacked the jurisdiction” he could have chosen a different course. But this absence of an express ruling on Fannie Mae’s jurisdictional argument led the SJC to sent the case back.
“All very interesting, I’m sure,” I hear you think, “but how does this affect me?” Here’s how:
Landlords seeking possession should bear in mind that a tenant’s 93A counterclaim is an equitable defense.
April 29, 2016:- Security deposits are supposed to help cover the cost of damage to the landlord’s property. Yesterday, security deposits themselves sustained damage on an Alderaan scale.
In its decision in Meikle v. Nurse (see my earlier post) the Supreme Judicial Court held that a landlord’s violation of the security deposit statute provides the tenant not only with a counterclaim but provides a defense to possession. In plain English, a defense to possession means the tenant gets to stay.
For many years, Massachusetts landlords wise to the ways of the law have known that any mistake handling the security deposit (e.g. failing to give the tenant a piece of paper stating the name of the bank holding the deposit and the account number) could result in them paying the tenant multiple damages plus the tenant’s attorney’s fees. But yesterday’s decision means that a mistake gives the tenant the right not just to money but to remain in the landlord’s property. Not forever, of course: The tenant “does not enjoy that right in perpetuity,” the SJC states reassuringly. To avoid a tenancy in perpetuity the landlord need only bring “a second summary process action for possession after he or she has remedied the violation of the security deposit statute.”
So what does bringing a summary process action for possession ordinarily involve? Serving a new notice to quit; waiting either two weeks or a full rental period depending on the nature of the notice; completing the new summons and complaint and making sure it aligns perfectly with the notice to quit (on pain of dismissal if it does not); serving a new summons and complaint (with the attendant sheriff’s fees) at the right time, not too early and not too late (on pain of dismissal for premature or tardy filing); filing the summons and complaint (again, not too early and not too late on pain of dismissal); paying the court’s filing fee; appearing in court; being presented with the tenant’s list of interrogatories, which automatically postpones the trial for 10 days; prevailing at trial (if the stars are aligned); seeking a writ of execution; watching the judge grant the tenant a stay of execution; and then, when the first stay has expired, watching the judge grant another stay of execution, and so on. Not quite perpetuity, perhaps, but close. The line between ad nauseam and ad infinitum starts to get a bit blurry after a year or so.
Will this new decision discourage landlords from taking security deposits? One would think so, those who fall into the rational-economic-actor category at any rate. Without security deposits, how will these rational economic actors insure themselves against the risk of tenants damaging their property (bearing in mind that an increase in the risk involved in renting increases the cost of renting)? Applying some basic economics, perhaps landlords will respond to an increase in the cost by raising the [fill in the blank].
Lopsided laws are annoying. But here in Massachusetts we have the right to require that our legislators observe the principles of justice and moderation in formulating our laws. It says so in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (article 18, to be precise). So immoderate, unjust laws do more than annoy; they flout some fundamental constitutional principles.
Which prompts me to ask, Why do we put up with the dramatically different burdens that the law places on landlords who hold security deposits vis-à-vis tenants who withhold rent?
If you are a Massachusetts landlord you are free to ask for a security deposit to insure against the tenants damaging your property. But if you do, you had better comply with every jot and tittle of the security-deposit law, M.G.L. c. 186, §15B. The amount of the security deposit must not exceed one month’s rent (not by so much as a dollar), you have to place the deposit it in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank — not a New Hampshire bank or a Connecticut bank — and give the tenant (1) a detailed receipt within 30 days, and (2) annual statements showing the interest that the deposit has earned. The law goes into great detail about what you must and must not do with the security deposit at the end of the tenancy. Innocent mistakes can prove as costly as deliberate violations. Landlords who are curious about the kind of oversights that could trigger multiple damages and attorney’s fees should watch this short slide-show video by tenants’ lawyer Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, Esq. If pushed for time start watching at the 3:45-minute mark.
In contrast, if you are a Massachusetts tenant and you wish to withhold rent from the landlord (i.e. go on rent strike) the list of legal formalities you have to comply with is considerably shorter. Here is a short video on the subject.
Rent withholding has a reasonable purpose. Tenants are allowed to withhold rent if the conditions in the dwelling are unsanitary, which encourages landlords to make repairs promptly upon request. Fair enough. Mind you, just try that rationale in the realm of workplace relations.
Employer: “Your performance is inadequate.”
Employee: “Are you going to fire me?”
Employer: “No, and you can’t quit either. You have to keep working for us. But we’re going to stop paying you.”
Any employers desiring an insightful predictive analysis of the likely outcome of such an interaction should click here.
If tenants withhold rent, do they have to set the money aside? After all, if — many months, or even years, after the rent strike started — the Housing Court judge decides that the landlord is entitled to some or all of the bank-rent, it could be difficult for the tenants to come up with money. It takes above-average self discipline to save the money rather than spend it on all the other pressing day-to-day demands, especially in a culture that actively discourages thrift (have you looked at interest rates lately?).
But no, the law does not require that tenants place the withheld rent in escrow, so nor do tenants have to provide the landlord with documentary evidence stating the name of the bank and the number of the account.
To recap, landlords holding security deposits have to comply with a long list of legal requirements whereas tenants withholding rent have to comply with none. Landlords who fail to give tenants a detailed statement within 30 days face the prospect of paying treble damages and the tenants’ legal fees. Tenants who withhold rent even if a judge concludes that the withholding was not justified do not have to pay a penalty of any kind.
If you think of tenants as wards of the state and your image of landlords conforms to popular Dickensian stereotypes, or this, or this, this imbalance in the law may not bother you much. If so, I urge to watch a real landlord, Garth Meikle, argue a real case in front of the Supreme Judicial Court. To see and hear Mr. Meikle click here, and start at minute 18:38. Mr. Meikle simply wanted his apartment back so that one of his children could move in, but the tenant alleged that Mr. Meikle had made a mistake with the security deposit. By the way, the tenant received pro bono representation from a Harvard Law School clinic; the landlord had to represent himself.
On the other hand, if you think that the provision of affordable homes is a social good that we should encourage or at least not discourage, and that it might be time to restore some balance to landlord-tenant law, there is hope. Recently I went to the State House to listen to testimony about a proposal to amend the rent-withholding law by requiring tenants to deposit the withheld rent into escrow. Will it pass? I shall keep you posted.
Now for the quiz that I promised in the headline.
If I had to choose one word to describe the current security-deposit law it would be persnickety, an adjective (possibly related to the Scottish pernickety or pernicky) that boasts the highest jurisprudential imprimatur available on this side of the Atlantic, namely a 2011 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Question: Which justice penned the opinion?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word persnickety in the subject line. There will be a prize for the first correct answer.* But, please, no pre-quiz use of Google, LexisNexis, etc. We use the honor system around here.
* A warm glow.**
** Subject to availability, satisfaction not guaranteed, and no warranties as to fitness for general or particular purpose. Some glow-feelers may experience side effects so before winning this quiz talk to your primary care physician, pharmacist, and faith-community leader.
February 23, 2016:- A case that started in the Western Division Housing Court in 2009, Clark v. Leisure Woods Estates, Inc., has provided some clarity as to how much money a tenant can get from a landlord under M.G.L. c. 186, S. 14. Judge Robert G. Fields found that the landlord violated the quiet-enjoyment provision in two different ways and awarded triple damages for each violation, i.e. two separate triple-damage awards. The Appeals Court vacated one of the two triple-damages awards as duplicative, holding that
only one triple rent award is available in a single proceeding under S. 14, no matter how many ways the landlord interferes with the tenant’s quiet enjoyment.
In a footnote, the Court noted that the statute “prohibits five separate categories of landlord misconduct” of which the Leisure Woods case involved just one (interference with quiet enjoyment). The decision “does not address a situation in which the landlord violated two or more categories.” So if landlords violate the right of quiet enjoyment and violate S. 14 in other ways as well (e.g. cross-metering, failing to provide adequate heat) they still face the threat of having to pay multiple damages for those other violations in addition to the quiet-enjoyment violation. But at least they are only liable for one triple-damage award per category.
In a nutshell, the decision limits the exposure of landlords somewhat, and reduces the leverage of tenants’ counsel concomitantly. Tenants who show 57 varieties of violation of their right to quiet enjoyment should not expect 57 separate awards of triple damages.