New edition of unofficial Housing Court reporter

May 31, 2022:- The latest volume (number 14) of the Western Division Housing Court Reports is available online. It is the unofficial compilation of decisions and orders issued by the Western Division Housing Court, published for the benefit of lawyers, landlords, tenants, and the public at large.

To peruse the reports, click here.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Vaccines contaminated, says congressional report

May 20, 2022:- In a development that will be of interest to people discharged because of the No Jab, No Job policy (e.g. 1,000 or so State employees in Massachusetts) a congressional report has revealed that approximately 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had to be destroyed for “quality control reasons.”

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis just issued a report titled The Coronavirus Vaccine Manufacturing Failures of Emergent Biolsolutions. It describes cross-contamination in Emergent’s production of Johnson& Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. For the report click here; for the subcommittee, click here.

If you were one of those State employees who thought you had the right to consider this sort of information (contamination at the vaxx plant) before deciding to receive or decline a COVID-19 shot, you quickly learned that your boss had other ideas.

In Executive Order 595, which mandated vaccines for executive-branch employees, Governor Baker wrote:

WHEREAS, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, as evidenced by the fact that COVID-19 vaccines have satisfied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to permit widespread use and distribution, and to date, more than 357 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been safely administered in the United States, with more than 9 million safely administered in the Commonwealth, and negative side effects have proven exceedingly rare…

You didn’t get to decide whether to receive the jab. Governor Baker made that decision for you when he issued Executive Order 595 on August 19, 2021. Meanwhile, according to the congressional report:

Due to poor quality control approximately 240 million vaccine doses had to be destroyed in late 2020 and early 2021— significantly more than revealed previously. Following the discovery that Emergent had cross-contaminated vaccine doses in March 2021, the Biden Administration halted Emergent’s manufacturing from April to July 2021.

The discovery about the contamination was in March 2021. So that was before August 19, 2021. The report continues:

After Emergent was permitted to resume manufacturing in July 2021, an additional 90 million newly manufactured coronavirus vaccine doses had to be destroyed for quality control reasons, and 135 million remain sequestered pending further testing.

Was the trouble with the vaccines top secret? Not at all. Here’s a quote from an article published in April 2021 (four months before Governor Baker issued E.O. 595):

An FDA report cites multiple failures in an Emergent BioSolutions plant tapped to produce vaccines for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. The vaccine plant had been forced to discard up to 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in a single manufacturing batch.

Here’s a quote from another article published in April 2021:

An FDA report has illuminated problems at Emergent BioSolution’s Baltimore manufacturing site, where the CDMO recently had to scrap up to 15 million Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses over a production error.

Thing is, the FDA flagged Emergent for very similar issues almost a year ago to the day. During an April 2020 inspection of the CDMO’s contract testing laboratory, the FDA said Emergent failed to adequately prevent data tampering or deletion, neglected to follow its quality control procedures or put them in writing and, notably, didn’t do enough to stop contamination or mix-ups. 

I mention all this because the State, whether acting as government or as employer, should allow people to make their own decisions about medical interventions. Is this my quirky personal predilection? No, it’s a principle that the United States endorsed as part of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics & Human Rights, article 6 of which provides:

Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.

Consent is not “free” when your lack of consent leads to lack of your job. And I think loss of one’s job counts as a “disadvantage or prejudice.” Is the consent “informed” when your Governor issues an official order proclaiming the product’s safety? Answers on a postcard, please.

If you or someone you know lost a State job because of Executive Order 595, please feel free to contact my office for a free consult.

By the way, for the latest figures on COVID-19 hospitalizations in Massachusetts, click here. Spoiler alert: the percentage of COVID-19 patients who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is 65%.

Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Alternatives to eviction

Would you like to know about alternatives to eviction and ways to settle disputes before they end up in Housing Court?

Photo by Jozsef Hocza on Unsplash

At 6:00pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, I will be giving a Zoom presentation to MassLandlords members — and potential members — on the subject of relocation assistance agreements (cash-for-keys in the vernacular).

If the prospect of Housing Court litigation has you reaching for the TUMS®, a cash-for-keys agreement offers a healthy alternative, but it is not to everybody’s taste. I will discuss some of the essential ingredients, and why this item on the menu proves appetizing to some but unpalatable to others.

The event is free and open to the public.

For the event link click here.

5 things every landlord needs to know

Every rental agreement in Massachusetts — whether written or unwritten — contains an important clause. It will remain as part of the agreement even if both parties, landlord and tenant alike, want to waive it. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase it.

What is this ineradicable clause? It is the warranty of habitability. It is the landlord’s guarantee that the landlord will, at a minimum, keep the premises in compliance with the State Sanitary Code, more particularly Chapter II of the Code titled Minimum* Standards of Fitness for Human Habitation.

So one easy way for landlords to breach the warranty of habitability, and land themselves in expensive trouble, is to ignore the State Sanitary Code. Ignoring the Code could result in the landlord having to pay the tenant damages (possibly multiple damages) plus the tenant’s legal fees.

On the other hand, by paying attention to the State Sanitary Code, and making sure that each and every rental unit complies with it, landlords are more likely to live up to the warranty of habitability, stay out of trouble, and maintain a healthy business relationship with their tenants.

State government has posted a synopsis of the responsibilities of landlords in Massachusetts. It is well worth a look. In the meantime, here are some — just some — of the requirements of the State Sanitary Code. The following five items are just a starting point, not an exhaustive list. Landlords and aspiring landlords should familiarize themselves with the Code in its entirety.

1. The Code applies to every dwelling

The State Sanitary Code states:

No person shall occupy as owner-occupant or let to another for occupancy any dwelling, dwelling unit, mobile dwelling unit, or rooming unit for the purpose of living, sleeping, cooking or eating therein, which does not comply with the requirements of 105 CMR 410.000

That is a clear rule. If you provide rental accommodation, you must comply with the State Sanitary Code. There are three exceptions to the rule for landlords to know about: (1) dwellings on campgrounds that comply with the applicable State regulations for campgrounds, and (2) dwellings used exclusively as civil defense shelters. Those two exceptions are very narrow. The other exception? If the dwelling is covered by another part of the Code.

What if the would-be tenant says, “Don’t worry about the warranty of habitability. I’m happy to sign a contract waiving it. Or we can say that I’m using the apartment exclusively as a civil defense shelter. Just knock $50 off the rent.”

No. The warranty of habitability is not something a tenant can waive. And if the apartment is an ordinary rental unit, it not exclusively a civil defense shelter. A lease provision cannot transform an ordinary apartment into a civil defense shelter, even if both parties apply the George Costanza Doctrine of Truth. Housing Court judges do not take kindly to such ruses.

2. Minimum living space

The State Sanitary Code establishes the minimum amount of living space that each dwelling unit must consist of:

Every dwelling unit shall contain at least 150 square feet of floor space for its first occupant, and at least 100 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant, the floor space to be calculated on the basis of total habitable room area.

This does not include: rooms containing toilets, bathtubs or showers; laundries; pantries; foyers; communicating corridors; closets; and storage spaces. These parts of the unit do not count toward the square footage of floor space.

There is a separate square-footage requirement for rooms used for sleeping. For one occupant, the sleeping room has to contain at least 70 square feet. For more than one occupant, the sleeping room must have at least 50 square feet for each person, e.g. for two occupants, 100 square feet; for three occupants, 150 square feet.

A unit that is less than 150 square feet, excluding closets and storage spaces, is not a Code-compliant unit. An owner who rents such a unit to a tenant is breaching the warranty of habitability.

What if the unit is 145 square feet, just 5 feet under the minimum, and the would-be tenant says, “I don’t mind. Just knock $50 off the rent?”

No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.

3. Kitchen facilities

The unit must contain a kitchen sink and space to store, prepare, and serve food in a sanitary manner, and there must be a stove in good repair. Unless the written agreement puts the obligation on the tenant to provide a stove, the landlord must provide one. In addition, there must be space and connections for a refrigerator.

The kitchen must have at least one lighting fixture and at least two electrical outlets (for the kettle, coffee-maker, toaster, etc.) in “convenient locations.” In practice, this means that the tenants should not have to plug in the toaster down at the skirting board or up by the picture rail!

The Code also requires a kitchen window:

For each kitchen over 70 square feet, transparent or translucent glass which admits light from the outdoors and which is equal in area to no less than 8% of the entire floor area of that kitchen.

What if the would-be tenant says, “I don’t mind not having a kitchen. Just knock $50 off the rent.”

No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.

What if the landlord says to the would-be tenant, “There is no light fixture in the kitchen. I could install one if you pay for it.”

“Sure, I’ll pay for it,” says the would-be tenant.

No, the Code says that the owner must provide the fixture and outlets and it defines the word “provide” as “supply and pay for.”

4. Maintaining facilities

Everything that the owner installs, the owner must maintain. For example, the owner has the duty to maintain the toilets, sinks, wash basins, water pipes, sewer lines, and gas lines free from leaks, obstructions, and defects. If the owner installed the stove and refrigerator, the owner must keep them in good repair. When the tenant tells the owner that the faucet is leaking, the owner has to repair it.

Does the Code say what standard the owner must live up to? Yes, the owner must install and maintain facilities “in accordance with accepted plumbing, gasfitting and electrical wiring standards.”

So who should do the plumbing? A licensed plumber. The wiring? A licensed electrician.

But let’s say the kitchen sink has always leaked. It leaked when the landlord bought the place, and it has leaked ever since. During the showing, the landlord says to the would-be tenant,

“The kitchen sink leaks. It’s leaked from the get-go. Somehow I never get around to fixing it.”

“That’s OK,” says the would-be tenant, “I don’t mind a leaky sink. Just knock $10 off the rent.”

No, the landlord is not able to contract out of the warranty of habitability.

5. Windows must be secure

The Code states that in every habitable room other than the kitchen there must be:

transparent or translucent glass which admits light from the outdoors and which is equal in area to no less than 8% of the entire floor area of that room

It also says:

The owner shall provide, install and maintain locks so that… Every openable exterior window shall be capable of being secured.

A habitable room needs a window of sufficient size. If the window is capable of being opened it needs to have a mechanism to keep it from simply sliding or falling open or from being opened from the outside (by an intruder, for example). It needs a lock.

What if the latch on the living-room window fell off?

“I see that the living room window doesn’t have a lock or even a latch that works. Could you knock $50 off the rent?”

“Sorry,” says the owner, “I can’t buy my way out of the warranty of habitability. I’ll install a lock tomorrow. And I’ll send you the bill.”

No, the owner is not allowed to charge the tenant for the cost of making the exterior window secure. The owner’s duty is to provide the lock, and the word “provide” means “supply and pay for.”

Conclusion

Anyone who intends to become a landlord in Massachusetts should become familiar with the State Sanitary Code, and consistently comply with it. Failing to comply with the Code and breaching the warranty of habitability could be a very expensive mistake.

*This is the word to focus on. The State Sanitary Code establishes the minimum standards of fitness for human habitation. Think of it as a floor, not a ceiling.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Sunshine Week

March 15, 2022:- It’s Sunshine Week, a time to promote open government. Who says so? The News Leaders Association.

People who refer to themselves as “News Leaders” make me suspicious, for reasons that I will not sidetrack myself by going into. So staying focused (my suspicions of the News Leadership notwithstanding) and because the concept of Sunshine Week appeals to me, I will mark the event by recounting what I learned from the response to one of my recent public records requests, more specifically the discovery that a particular record does not seem to exist.

Hate Crime Hotline

After the election of Donald Trump (R), Maura Healey (D), who is the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, issued a press release:

“Following reports of harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants since Election Day, Attorney General Maura Healey today announced that her office has launched a new hotline for Massachusetts residents to report such incidents.”

At the time, I was reading about both (1) actual hate crimes, and (2) hate crime hoaxes, so the hotline caught my attention. I wondered what, if anything, would happen in response to calls that people made to the hotline and how, if at all, the Attorney General would measure the efficacy of the hotline. Whether public officials will bother to evaluate the effectiveness of a publicly-funded initiative (or even bother to think about how they would evaluate its effectiveness) is, indeed, one of the things that I wonder about.

Measuring Success

Hate crimes are heinous. So if you receive a report of one, I think you should look into it, especially if you are the Commonwealth’s top law-enforcement official and you have set up a hotline for people to call. You might also want to keep track of the complaints. This, I thought, is what Attorney General Healey will do because according to the press release:

The hotline will be managed by attorneys and staff in the AG’s Office. While not every incident will be appropriate for legal action, the AG’s Office will be tracking reports and appropriate matters may be referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.

Based on that statement, it seemed reasonable to believe that the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) would be tracking reports and, perhaps, referring appropriate matters to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau.

One very good reason to keep track of reports and of how many you refer to law enforcement and what happens to the referral thereafter is this: Without that knowledge, you do not know whether the hotline works. Collating that information is essential to determining whether this particular policy — a hate crime hotline — has any effect on hate crimes.

If the hotline works, hallelujah. If it does not work, stop wasting those resources on a failed initiative and devote them instead to an initiative that is more likely to reduce hate crimes.

That, of course, assumes that the purpose of the hotline is to help reduce hate crimes as opposed to, say, conveying the message that the election of Donald Trump led to an increase in hate crimes.

Public Records Request

In January 2022, I submitted a public records request (the Massachusetts equivalent of a federal FOIA request) to the AGO asking for, among other things, the total number of calls received since the hotline’s inception. This, according to the AGO’s response is 5,929. I was surprised not so much by the total number as by how many were from other States (quite a few from California, in particular Los Angeles).

Another fact that I deem worthy of note is that 13 of the calls were from Amherst, where I live, so I have followed up with a public records request to the local police department to find out what, if anything, happened with these 13 hotline complaints.

In addition to the total number of calls, I asked for:

  • The number of complaints received via the hotline referred to local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau, and
  • Investigations commenced as a result of calls to the hotline, and prosecutions and convictions arising therefrom.

Regarding these two items, the AGO answered:

[W]e do not track our cases in a manner in which we could identify responsive records without spending an undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time. It would require that we search, both electronically and manually, through every electronic and paper record made or received by AGO staff in multiple Bureaus and Divisions and review all of the records so found for applicable exemptions and privileges.

What I learned from this statement is that the AGO does not have a clear idea of how many hotline complaints were referred to local law enforcement or how many hotline calls resulted in investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. To find out, the folks at the AGO would have to really, really look into it, which would take an “undetermined, yet voluminous, amount of time.”

This matters. The AGO urged “any Massachusetts resident who has witnessed or experienced bias-motivated threats, harassment or violence” to call the hotline. And many Massachusetts residents did, along with residents of many other places (including more than one might have expected from LA for some reason). There have been almost 6,000 hotline calls logged over the last 5 years or so.

So what happened to those complaints? How many did the AGO refer to local law enforcement, how many were investigated, and how many led to convictions? The AGO has not collated all that information.

This is why public records requests are useful. With them, we can learn not only what records our public officials make, but also what sort of records our public officials do not consider it worth making.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Captain Albert Brox and religious liberty

March 1, 2022:- Today Attorney Patrick Daubert talked with me about the case of Captain Albert Brox v. Wood’s Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority, which concerns religious liberty and medical-product mandates. Attorney Daubert represents employees of a State agency who are seeking religious exemptions from the mandate that their employer imposed at the beginning of the year. After the State court judge enjoined the authority from enforcing its mandate, the authority removed the case to federal court.

To watch and listen to the conversation, click here.

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

New report on civil asset forfeiture in Massachusetts

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

August 31, 2021:- If you are a regular reader of my posts, you already know that Massachusetts is one of the worst States in the nation for civil asset forfeiture (worst, that is, from the point of view of the people whose property the police seize). And you also know that police departments can keep whatever they take from someone even if that person is never charged, let alone convicted, of any crime. But you might still be wondering how Massachusetts officials spend the proceeds. A new report by WBUR and ProPublica has some answers.

The WBUR and ProPublica journalists looked at Worcester County, where the District Attorney, Joseph D. Early, Jr., obtained $4 million in forfeitures in the period 2017-20:

“Early has been criticized by the state auditor for spending forfeiture funds on a Zamboni ice-clearing machine and tree-trimming equipment. Over the years, his office has posted photos on its website of Early handing out checks for “Drug Forfeiture Community Reinvestment,” to pay for baseball and softball fields or to support a cheerleading team.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with baseball, softball, and cheerleaders, in my opinion. If the DA wants to spend his own money on that sort of thing, OK. But other people’s money? And who are these other people?

“WBUR’s analysis of Worcester County forfeitures from 2017 through 2019 found that more than half of the seizures in these cases were for less than $500. In one incident, Fitchburg police seized $10 from a man listed as homeless. In another, Sturbridge police took $10 from a 14-year-old boy.”

This helps explain why so few people bother challenging seizures in court: The cost of hiring an attorney is far higher than the value of the seized property.

If you have ever wondered how Massachusetts politicians can be so cavalier about other people’s property rights (e.g. enacting laws to stop landlords from going to court to enforce leases) read the WBUR/ProPublica article. It’s an eye-opener.

Home owner not liable for shooting death, SJC rules

June 7, 2021:-  The owner of a short-term rental property was not liable for the shooting death of a man who attended a party at the property, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced today in the case of Heath-Latson v. Styller.

The shooting occurred in May 2016 at the Lynnfield home of Alexander Styller, who let the house to a group of people as a short-term rental. Here is a link to the NECN coverage.

Ostensibly the booking was for a college reunion but via social media one of the group advertised the gathering as a “Splash Mansion Pool Party.” Approximately 100 people attended and in the early hours of the morning the local police received a call that somebody had been shot.

The estate of the decedent, Keivan Heath, sued the organizers and Mr. Styller (the homeowner) in Superior Court. The judge allowed Mr. Styller’s motion to dismiss, and the case went to the SJC. In upholding the dismissal, the SJC stated:

“A duty to protect against harm caused by the conduct of a third person arises where there is a special relationship between a defendant and a plaintiff such that the defendant reasonably could foresee that he would be expected to take affirmative action to protect the plaintiff and could anticipate harm to the plaintiff from the failure to do so…

Here, the complaint alleges no facts suggesting that the defendant had a duty to protect the decedent from wrongdoing of a third party. Although the complaint cites a finding made by a Land Court judge in a related case that that short-term rentals have significant external effects on the neighboring community and community at large, it does not allege that short-term rentals are correlated with an increase in violent crime.”

Heath-Latson v. Styller (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)

The decision reiterates the duties of a landlord and the limits on those duties.

The SJC issued another decision involving Mr. Styller today, namely Styller v Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield, in which the court upheld the ZBA’s determination that the zoning bylaw prohibited short-terms rentals even before it did so expressly in 2016.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexel

Abolish civil asset forfeiture, commission told

June 3, 2021:- Today the Asset Forfeiture Commission held its sixth meeting, which consisted of a presentation by Attorney Dan Alban, co-director of the National Initiative to End Civil Forfeiture at the Institute for Justice (IJ). You can watch the hearing by clicking here.

Among Attorney Alban’s recommendations:

  • Not simply increasing the evidentiary standard from probable cause to preponderance of the evidence/beyond reasonable doubt. Instead, remove the financial incentive for the practice.
  • Using criminal asset forfeiture only and abolishing civil asset forfeiture, as New Mexico has done. IJ’s goal is not to defund the police but to restore due process. “Crime should not pay,” he said, “and it is legitimate for the State to confiscate the proceeds of crime.”
  • Enacting anti-circumvention laws to prevent State law enforcement simply outsourcing forfeiture to their federal counterparts. Massachusetts engages in “equitable sharing” with the federal government far more than most other States (the Commonwealth is 48th in IJ’s ranking)
  • Requiring greater detail in law enforcement’s reporting requirements in Massachusetts in connection with proceeds of civil asset forfeiture. Attorney Alban pointing to the 2018 report which states that 6% of the proceeds went to travel and training, 7% to equipment, with 53% listed as “other.”

After the presentation, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said that he agreed with the need for more information, which should be a prerequisite to any overhaul of the system in his opinion. He stated that forfeiture is necessary to deal with those who are “undercutting” the “pretty successful consumer oriented sale of drugs,” i.e. marijuana, in Massachusetts. He held up a photograph of one of the houses he had seized, stating that it had been used as a “grow house.”

Norfolk DA Michael W. Morrissey

DA Morrissey also stated that prosecutors stay (i.e. pause) civil forfeiture cases until the criminal case is resolved. My review of some of the 70 or so civil forfeiture cases filed under MGL c 94C, section 47, in Hampden County Superior Court over the last year did not support that assertion but that may be a result of my sample size or of my misreading the docket. I used masscourts.org and searched under Administrative Civil Actions. Readers with the time and inclination can double-check my search in Hampden Superior Court and look for cases in the Superior Court in other counties.

In response to DA Morrissey’s request for one example of an innocent owner whose property had been forfeited in Massachusetts, Attorney Alban cited the Motel Caswell case in Tewksbury, in which the owner had not only reported criminal activity but had cooperated in a sting operation. Law enforcement seized his motel anyway.

DA Morrissey pointed out that the Motel Caswell case was an instance of “equitable sharing,” i.e. local police working with the federal law enforcement and using federal law. The Malinda Harris case did not come up during the discussion.

Co-chair Senator Jamie Eldridge announced that the commission will issue its report, with recommendations, by July 31, 2021. Between now and then the commission will have one more meeting (date to be announced).

What happens when the Massachusetts eviction moratorium expires?

October 9, 2020: – In this short video, I describe the two key things housing providers need to know about when the Massachusetts eviction moratorium expires:

  1. The Federal eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and
  2. Housing Court Standing Order 6-20.
Peter Vickery, Esq.

She can’t even quit

Sometimes quitting would be great

September 2, 2020:- Imagine they passed a law saying that you’ve got to go to work every day of the year, and if the company doesn’t pay your wages, that’s just too bad. You can’t sue them. You can’t go on strike. You can’t even quit.

I have a client who is in a position something like that.

She works as a housing provider, in addition to her day job as a nurse. She owns her own home and one other house that she bought in order to rent it out. Her goal was to use the rental income to pay the bank, and then (when she’d paid off the mortgage) start making a profit.

“It was supposed to be my 401(k),” she told me.

Not a 401(k)

That’s not how it turned out. In November 2019, the tenant (then, as now, unemployed) stopped paying rent, so my client started summary process (eviction) proceedings in Housing Court. But then the Legislature and the Governor passed Chapter 65, the partial eviction moratorium, which prohibits the courts from moving forward with non-payment cases even if the reason for non-payment has nothing to do with COVID 19 or the state government’s job-destroying, livelihood-wrecking response to it.

So the summary process case is suspended until the moratorium expires, which could be in October or might be in January if the Governor chooses to extend it. Or it could be even later; who knows.

When the case emerges from limbo, it will be one among thousands waiting for a judge to hear it. In the meantime, is there anything my client can do to try to get paid? At this point, the rent arrears are somewhat north of $8,000, by the way.

Another route?

Two attorneys brought a constitutional challenge to the partial eviction moratorium, namely Jordana Rubicek Greenman and Richard Vetstein. For details of the lawsuit, check out Attorney Vetstein’s blog.

I wrote an amicus brief for MassLandlords, and watched the oral argument before Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson online. In the course of the argument, Attorney Vetstein made the point that the moratorium is barring the courts to one class of litigants, i.e. landlords. Not so, responded counsel for one of the tenants’ organizations who said that the courts aren’t barred because landlords can still sue tenants for breach of contract.

In his order denying the request for a preliminary injunction, Judge Wilson said the same thing: “[T]he economic effect on landlords is mitigated not only by their ability to sue non-paying tenants for breach of contract, but by the temporary nature of the moratorium.”

Could that really be a viable route, I wondered? Could landlords, who can’t use summary process for the foreseeable future, sue for breach of contract? The client I’m writing about here agreed to try.

Breach of contract case

On her behalf, I filed a simple breach of contract case in Housing Court. The tenant’s (taxpayer-funded) lawyer filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(9) of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure on the basis that my client can’t have two cases about the same issue going at once.

Fair enough, you might say, why not just dismiss the summary process claim? Dismissing a case where the other side has filed counterclaims (which happened here) requires a motion that a judge has to rule on, and the partial eviction moratorium prohibits the courts from scheduling a court event.

More importantly, if my client did dismiss her summary process case, in order to regain possession of her house when the moratorium expires she would have to start all over again. She would be at the back of a line. A very long line.

Regarding those counterclaims that the tenant filed: Are there two sides to this story? Obviously.

But what if (after the moratorium expires) a judge, after hearing all the evidence, decided that even if some of the counterclaims were valid, the tenant owed my client, say, 75% — or even 50% — of the rent that had built up since November 2019? Does anyone really believe that the unemployed tenant will be able to pay several thousand dollars?

Anyway, we had a hearing, and the judge took it under advisement. When the court issues the decision, I will post an update.

No names, no pack drill

This story is far from being the most extraordinary that I have heard in the last few months. This one seems worth telling today, now that the federal government has established a nationwide eviction moratorium and there is some wider public discussion of the administration’s proffered justification and the likely impact.

My client gave me permission to tell her story online, but I decided not to use her name or other identifying information because you know how things are these days.

Like the tenant, she is a real person. She deserves some consideration from policymakers, and from the people who are supposed to hold them to account, i.e. the electorate.

She has to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code. The tenant won’t pay rent, and has not applied for the subsidies that are available to cover the rent. But without the tenant applying, my client can’t get access to those subsidies.

So my client doesn’t want to be a landlord any more, obviously. But she doesn’t have a choice. She can’t get paid, and she can’t even quit.

Juneteenth: Remembering James H. Wolff, Esq.

June 19, 2020:- This Juneteenth please take some time to remember James H. Wolff, Esq., a naval veteran of the Civil War and co-founder of the first Black law firm in Massachusetts.

Wolff was just 14 when he enlisted in the US Navy at the outbreak of the Civil War. Born to free parents in New Hampshire, he must have known that by volunteering to fight the Slave Power he was at risk of losing both his liberty and his life. Live free or die were the conditions of his daily life, not simply a motto.

He was aboard Minnesota when she bombarded the Confederates into surrender at Fort Hatteras, and when she became a stationary target for enemy fire after running aground early in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Three of her crew died in that engagement.

Wolff survived the battle and the rest of the war, and went on to practice law in Massachusetts.  Twenty years after the war’s end and the passage of the Massachusetts anti-discrimination act, Wolff represented the plaintiff in a case that tested the statute’s limits and led to its expansion.  His client in that 1885 case, Edward E. Brown, also happened to be his law partner. Together with attorney Edwin Garrison Walker, Wolff and Brown established the state’s first Black law firm. It was a firm with a mission.

After the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883) that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to prohibit private discrimination (effectively neutralizing the federal Civil Rights Act) Wolff and his partners helped lead the campaign for stronger state-level legislation in Massachusetts. One element of that campaign took the form of a lawsuit against a Boston skating rink that refused to sell tickets to people of color. Brown was a plaintiff, and Wolff his attorney. They won.

Coordinating the case and legislative effort to enforce and amend the 1865 law was the Wendell Phillips Club, which functioned as a sort of precursor to the NAACP, bringing together business owners, ministers, and lawyers in the cause of civil rights.  Walker, Wolff, and Brown were at the forefront, litigating and lobbying for liberty pro bono publico while somehow bringing in enough billable work to pay the bills and raise their families (both of Wolff’s sons followed him into the law, by the way).

For a fuller account of the case, see my article “The Genesis of the Black Law Firm in Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Legal History 5 (1999).  Not quite everything ever published is available online, it seems, so if you would like a copy, email your request to peter@petervickery.com.

In the meantime, please devote a few moments of thought to James H. Wolff.  An exemplar of physical and moral courage, he is worthy of remembrance.

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James H. Wolff, Esq.

Hot news: lawsuit over eviction moratorium in NY

May 28, 2020:- Alleging that the eviction moratorium operates as a taking of their property without just compensation, a group of housing providers in New York have filed suit in federal court, according to the New York Law Journal.

Stay tuned.

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NY lawmakers extend eviction moratorium

May 28, 2020:- According to this report in News Brig, the New York legislature voted to extend the moratorium on residential evictions to last as long as the state of emergency. Originally, the moratorium was scheduled to expire in August.

Unlike Massachusetts (whose eviction moratorium will end on August 18 unless the Governor extends it)* New York’s moratorium is confined to cases where the reason for non-payment is related to COVID 19.  In contrast, the Massachusetts law, Chapter 65, prohibits housing providers starting evictions for any and all reasons, except where a tenant’s criminal activity or lease violations “may impact the health or safety” of another person on the premises or the general public.

*Under Chapter 65, if Governor Baker so chooses, he could extend the moratorium for the length of the state of emergency plus 45 days. How long will state of emergency last? How long is a piece of string?

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Rent guarantee insurance

May 22, 2020:- Missed rental payments are on the rise in Massachusetts, but a market solution may be available.

Even though the eviction moratorium law (Chapter 65) says that tenants are required to pay rent, the lack of an enforcement mechanism is leading some to skip paying the rent with a sense of impunity. Housing providers still have to pay to maintain the property and keep it up to code even when they are not receiving rent. One way for providers to stay afloat might be rent-guarantee insurance, also known as rent default insurance, which promises coverage in the event that a tenant stops paying rent.

Unless and until the Massachusetts Legislature takes up the Fair and Equal Housing Guarantee surety-bond policy that MassLandlords is promoting, some housing providers may find this kind of product helpful. And I see that one company, Avail, has a short video on the subject.

If affordable, insurance might be a viable market solution to government failure. By “government failure” I mean the Commonwealth requiring one party to provide housing without being able to go to court to make the other party pay for said housing. This forces rental-property owners to either (a) provide free housing (not a great business model) or (b) exit the market, thereby reducing the amount of rental housing available.

Ideally, Governor Charlie Baker would let Chapter 65 expire on August 18 rather than exercising his option to extend it. But if he chooses to prolong the moratorium, insurance might do the trick.

Please note that I have no contractual, fiduciary, relationship with Avail or Steady Marketplace, either oral or written, and receive no remuneration of any kind from the companies, make no representations regarding them, and suspect that there are other entities out there that offer similar insurance products. In the vernacular, I am not shilling for Avail or Steady Marketplace, or any other insurance company for that matter.  I just think that for some housing providers, rent-guarantee insurance might be worth exploring.

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Dear Governor: One housing provider’s message to Charlie Baker

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.

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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.

Sincerely,

Frederik C. Winsser

New MCAD bill filed

February 23, 2017:- If you are charged with discrimination and you file a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, must the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) rule on your motion before launching an investigation? No, not at present. But that will change if H. 775 becomes law.

Titled “An Act Streamlining the Investigation Process of Discrimination Complaints,” the bill would require the MCAD to adjudicate a respondent’s motion first and start its investigation only if it determines that jurisdiction is proper.

Why does this matter? The main reason is the constitutional principle of the separation of powers: an executive agency should not hale people in if the Legislature has said it should not. For example, when it enacted Chapter 151B the Legislature said that the MCAD would have no jurisdiction to investigate businesses with fewer than six employees (the small-business exemption). So when the MCAD does investigate businesses with fewer than six employees it is, in effect, exercising the legislative function by re-writing the statute.

But there are pocket-book reasons too. Defending against a charge of discrimination can prove costly, which rather stacks the deck in favor of the complainant who is represented either by a lawyer working on a contingent-fee basis or by the MCAD itself. Add to that the MCAD’s institutional bias toward early resolution (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and you have an incentive for respondents to fold faster than Superman on laundry day, as Jerry Seinfeld put it.

As things stand a respondent will be tempted to settle at a commission-mandated conciliation conference early on, even if the case should never have been on the agency’s docket in the first place. Real money is at stake here, and business owners should not have to fork over for claims that should be thrown out on jurisdictional grounds. That is not an efficient use of resources. Screening out cases like these would allow businesses to devote those resources to other purposes, e.g. improving products and services to benefit their customers and creating new jobs.

The bill has been assigned to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Stay tuned for updates, and click here for a previous post on this subject.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.

Free speech for public employees?

October 28, 2016:- If you are one of the 139,000+ people employed by state or local government in Massachusetts, today’s decision about speech-rights at work might be of interest.

The case involves an erstwhile employee of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, Jude Cristo, who complained about a colleague’s use of official time and facilities while campaigning for Scott Bove, a candidate running for Sheriff (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). After the election the new Sheriff, Lew Evangelidis, fired Cristo, who brought an action under federal law for violation of his civil rights, namely his right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Cristo lost. The Appeals Court applied the federal test, which protects the speech of public employees only if they are speaking as citizens and not “pursuant to their official duties.” Cristo’s complaints were pursuant to his duties, said the Appeal Court.

But in a footnote, the court left open the possibility that public employees’ speech rights under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights might be greater than under the First Amendment. If the speech that triggered the firing was whistle-blowing, the court hinted, then the fact that it was job-related whistle-blowing would not necessarily prove fatal. In other words, the  employee might have a viable free-speech claim. Click here to read the case, Cristo v. Evangelidis.  The footnote in question is number 6 on page 15.

Tick, tock: Justice delayed

Invidious discrimination does occur, and we are fortunate to have an agency tailor-made to address it, namely the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). But the current four-year backlog of cases at the MCAD is hurting litigants on both sides, employers and employees alike. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the saying goes. And most reasonable people would agree that the MCAD should not handle cases outside its jurisdiction.

So what should we do about the problem? Check out my article in the current edition of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Lawyers Journal by clicking here.

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Attorney Peter Vickery

New MCAD guidance on transgender discrimination

September 1, 2016:- Employers take note: In compliance with the Act Relative to Transgender Discrimination that Governor Baker signed into law in July, earlier today the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives its Gender Identity Guidance. Much of the document is old, a restatement of the MCAD’s 2015 Advisory, including the “best practices” e.g. “update personnel records, email systems, and other documents to reflect [an] employee’s stated name and gender identity, and ensure confidentiality of any prior documentation of an employee’s pre-transition name or gender marker.”

But the section of the Guidance regarding proof of gender identity and restrooms (Part III. D) is new. Readers will recall that the statute requires that employers allow employees and members of the public to use the restroom “consistent with their gender identity.” The Guidance states that “[r]equiring an employee to provide identification or proof of any particular medical procedure (including gender affirming surgery) in order to access gender designated facilities, may be evidence of discriminatory bias” (emphasis added).

This is important to note because an earlier part of the Guidance (III. A: Definition of Gender Identity) states that when it investigates claims of discrimination the MCAD may look at “medical records from medical or other professionals involved in the treatment or transition of the individual seeking, in the process of, or who has completed gender transition.”

In a nutshell: When an employee files a discrimination claim against the employer the MCAD can consider evidence of a medical procedure, but ahead of time — unless it wishes to invite an MCAD investigation — an employer must not ask an employee for proof of any particular medical procedure.

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Peter Vickery, Esq.