In a stinging class action ruling on August 26, 2014, Boston federal district court judge Rya Zobel ruled that Equity Residential’s up front apartment fees are illegal under Massachusetts law. Even worse for the national apartment owner, the judge found the fees also violate the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act which imposes up to triple damages and attorneys’ fees. With potentially thousands of affected tenants, Equity Residential could be faced with a sizable legal tab for this policy.
The class action was brought by Brian and Kim Perry, former tenants at Longview Place in Waltham, and Cheryl Miller, who lived at Emerson Place in Boston. The Perrys paid Equity an upfront $100 application fee and a $99 amenity or move-in fee, while Miller paid $50 application and $500 amenity fees, according to the lawsuit. Equity also allegedly charged a $250 pet fee and $500 “community” fee.
Judge Zobel held that the application fee, amenity/move in fee, the community fee and the upfront pet fee was unlawful under the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law which prohibits landlords from charging any upfront fees except for first, last months rent, security deposit and a lost key fee. The judge also found that Equity attempted to do an unlawful end-around the law by charging some of the fees in the second month of the tenancy.
The judge also ruled that the case can be consolidated with another federal lawsuit pending against Equity and granted it class-action status. The potential number of Massachusetts tenants impacted is unclear. Chicago’s Equity leases some 31 apartment complexes in the Bay State with about 6,680 units.
This ruling comes in the wake of a similar federal court ruling against Archstone Properties in 2012.
This case is yet another big wake up call for Massachusetts landlords, both large and small, to be extremely careful about up-front move in charges imposed upon tenants. This is also one of the first publicized cases calling into question the practice of charging an upfront application fee. Application fees are very much widespread, and I would counsel landlords and property managers to think twice about charging them under any circumstance. This ruling may also call into question the legality of charging prospective and actual tenants credit report and background check fees.
If you have any questions about this ruling or your policy for upfront fees, please contact Attorney Richard Vetstein at email@example.com.