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.