Leasing

cls-6State House Hearing Set For May 12, 1pm, Joint Committee for Judiciary Hearing Room A-2 

For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. The free rent trick works like this:  Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.

Even the liberal Boston Globe recently published a compelling piece on how the Massachusetts legal system unfairly penalizes small landlords in these situations.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

Bill Would Level Playing Field Between Small Landlords and Tenants

Hopefully, this will finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Two bills will be discussed, H.B. 1663 and H.B. 1664. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’  fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Superman's_classic_poseLike Superman, A Use and Occupancy Agreement Can Save the Day, But Be Aware of the Risks!

Tom and Mary Ryan, and their two little kids, Abigail and Jake, are relocating from California to the Boston area so Tom can take a job with a local tech company in Burlington. They have already sold their California home, and have been living in a cramped rented condominium in Santa Monica for two months already. Their loan has hit some snags because Tom was out of work for half of 2013, and had some IRS issues, although he is on solid footing now with his new job. The closing is scheduled for the end of this week and they have their cross country movers booked and scheduled and their life is now packed in boxes. Just when they finish packing their last box, their loan officer calls with somber news. “Tom, unfortunately, our underwriting department is dealing with delays getting your tax transcripts from the IRS. We are going to have to push back the closing for about a week. I’m so sorry.” Canceling the movers will cost several thousand dollars, and they will have to cancel furniture shipments as well. To make matters worse, new tenants are supposed to move into Tom’s rented condo unit right after they leave.

While all characters appearing in this work are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, Tom and Mary are in trouble. With the prevalence of back-to-back closings and unforeseen underwriting issues and title defects, these situations are not uncommon. And with new TRID closing disclosure rules coming online in August, which are bound to cause even more loan approval delays, we may be seeing more of these situations in the months to come.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this situation. The sellers are willing to let the Tom, Mary and family move into the home prior to the closing under a Use and Occupancy Agreement. This will enable the buyers to complete their move, move into the house, but before the actual closing. A use and occupancy agreement, however, is not without its risks and downside, which I will discuss below.

One of the most important aspects of a Use and Occupancy Agreement is what it is versus what it is not. The agreement should specify that it creates a mere license to occupy the premises, not a tenancy or a landlord-tenant relationship. This will make it easier to remove/evict the occupants if something goes wrong. In any event, if the sellers are forced to remove the occupants, they will still have to resort to judicial eviction proceedings, which in Massachusetts can potentially take several months. This alone is the biggest drawback of a Use and Occupancy Agreement. The seller should always put language in the agreement that the buyers will be responsible for all attorneys’ fees and costs in case of an eviction.

The parties have to agree on a rental rate, typically based on the fair market rent for the premises or the mortgage and carrying costs. Websites such as www.rentometer.com can give you an idea of what a fair rental rate should be. Your Realtor should give you guidance as well. The rent should be divided by 30 for a per diem basis. You can also charge penalty rent if the term is extended past the original deadline.

The sellers should also include general indemnification language providing that “during the period of occupancy, Buyers shall maintain the Premises in good, clean condition and shall not make nor suffer any strip or waste to the Premises, nor make nor suffer any unlawful or improper use of the Premises and Buyers agree to indemnify Sellers and save them harmless from all liability, loss or any damage arising from such additions, alterations, strip, waste or unlawful or improper use, any nuisance made or suffered on the Premises by Buyers, including their family, friends, relatives, invitees, visitors, agents, or servants, or from any carelessness, negligence or improper conduct of any person.”

Lastly, the buyers should do their pre-closing walk through before they move in under a Use and Occupancy, because once they move in, the home will be a mess for awhile. That way, everyone will be on the same page as far as the property condition goes on the date of move in.

Many attorneys advise clients never to agree to Use and Occupancy Agreements. I am not one of those attorneys. With any risk, it depends on the situation. The sellers need to be comfortable that any delays will be resolved favorably and quickly. Sellers also need to appreciate that despite any language in the agreement, it could take months to remove an occupant if things so south. As long as everyone understands the risks, a Use and Occupancy Agreement can be a life saver.

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917BdkbVovL._UX250_Elizabeth Gerhman, a writer for the Boston Globe Magazine and owner of two rental units, is fed up with how the Massachusetts legal system favors tenants over landlords.

In her article Think It’s Tough to Rent? Try Being a Landlord, she describes that

“In just five years as a rental, the other [unit] — which has hardwood floors, granite countertops, and a $1,200 dishwasher — has been a nightmare, with tenants who bounced checks, didn’t pay their rent, and threatened to call the building inspector over, among other things, a loose toilet seat, a missing outlet cover, and, I’m not kidding, a bedroom that is allegedly 0.389 of an inch too small. The tenant who detailed these horrific, slum-like conditions also threatened to take me to court over some food that had spoiled when the refrigerator broke — which is what prompted the intimidation tactics in the first place.”

As landlord groups have been arguing for years, one of the major problems with the current system is that Massachusetts has no rent escrow law. Under the present system, a tenant can withhold months of rent for any cosmetic or minor problem with the unit until the eviction case is resolved, leaving the landlord unable to pay their mortgage. We call that the “free rent trick.” As Ms. Gerhman correctly points out, “with an average judgment of about three months’ rent, this can be a real hardship for house-poor landlords. And once a landlord does evict a tenant who owes back rent, he or she must pay to move the tenant’s belongings out of the apartment in addition to three months’ storage costs.” As I was quoted in the article, many landlords opt for “cash for keys” deals to avoid huge losses during an eviction.

A rent escrow law would require any tenant who withholds rent to simply pay it into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired and the eviction case is resolved. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. The “free rent trick” would be gone and landlords less likely to get left holding the money bag.

Sounds fair? Tell that to your state legislators who have been sitting on rent escrow bills for over a decade.

New rent escrow bills return to the Legislature this session as House Bill 1654 sponsored by Rep. Chris Walsh and House Bill 1112 sponsored by Rep. Brad Jones. Both bills are expected to get hearings at the State House this spring. I will keep you posted.

Personally, I think a fair legislative compromise would be for landlord groups to support the Housing Court Expansion bill under the condition that a Rent Escrow Bill is passed along with it. That would be a win-win for both sides.

In the meantime, please email and call your local state rep and senator and tell him or her you are in favor of these bills. If you have any tenant horror stories, make sure you include those as well. Also, consider joining your local chapter of the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association or Masslandlords.net. Both organizations will be coordinating legislative efforts on the rent escrow bill and other landlord legislation. Lastly, please share this article and the Globe Magazine article on your Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and email blasts!

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NickCLRAttorney General’s Office Accused of Smearing Local Landlords In Press

A Craigslist rental ad posted online for merely 8 days turned into a complete nightmare for a Melrose father and son who claim that Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office ran roughshod over their rights and tried to smear their reputations in the local newspapers. After a five year legal saga, the landlords, Nicholas Keramaris (pictured right) and George Keramaris, fought back and won, convincing the Appeals Court to overturn a $38,000 civil penalty and attorneys’ fees assessed against them.

“Apartment Is Not De-Leaded”

The Keramaris family trust owns a 20 unit apartment building in Melrose. All of the units originally contained lead paint, and five of the apartments have been deleaded. One of the leaded units became available for rent, and Nicholas Keramaris, who is also an attorney, researched the lead paint laws prior to posting an advertisement on Craigslist stating “Note that this apartment is not de-leaded, and therefore it cannot be rented to families with children under six years old.”

A Melrose mother, who did not have a child under six and who did not attempt to rent the advertised apartment, filed a complaint with the MCAD about the ad. (This could have been a dummy renter employed to find fair housing violations). Once the landlords were notified of the complaint, they took the ad off Craigslist. It ran for a grand total of 8 days.

1379349493000-martha-coakleyAG’s Office Steps In

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office then stepped in and filed a civil action for discriminatory rental practices, seeking penalties and damages under the state Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. According to the Keramaris family, “from the day that the Assistant Attorney General assumed responsibility over the case, he insisted on collection of steep penalties as a condition for settlement. Also, the Attorney General’s office publicly smeared us through repeated press releases while the case was pending. Our request for the Attorney General’s office to stop issuing negative press releases was described as a “non-starter” for settlement negotiations. Therefore, this very simple case, which involved a relatively benign violation, dragged on for almost five years.”

Award Struck Down

Despite the fact that the ad ran for only 8 days and no one was actually harmed, the Attorney General was able to persuade a Superior Court judge to assess an aware of nearly $38,000 in penalties and attorneys’ fees. Unwilling to accept this unjust result, the Keramaris family appealed and got the justice they deserved.

Employing some well needed common sense, the three judge appellate panel concluded that although the ad technically violated the lead paint discrimination statute, any harm done was minimal and did not rise to the egregious level of a Consumer Protection Act violation. In a rare ruling, the judges ruled that the lower court abused its discretion, finding that this was nothing but a good faith mistake by landlords who were not intentionally setting out to violate the law. The Appeals Court ultimately stuck down the entire award, leaving the Keramaris family with justice, albeit after 5 long years and I’m sure thousands in legal fees.

Where’s the Discretion?

I have handled numerous rental discrimination cases involving the Attorney General’s Office. The one thing I can say is that they often have a very one sided view of cases and suffer from tunnel vision. They also hardly ever exercise their discretion to back down. It’s usually all or nothing. I would like to see them try to see both sides of the coin in future cases and be more open to negotiated settlements. Maybe this ruling will encourage that. I won’t hold my breath though.

And lastly, I’m curious if the Attorney General will issue a press release announcing that the Appeals Court overturned this award? I doubt it.

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Winter Storm Minnesota

Shovel Early and Often!

This winter has been one of the snowiest on record, and there is another major snow event on the way. Judging from the astronomical number of recent clicks on this blog, it’s clear that people want to know all about Massachusetts snow removal law. The law underwent a monumental change back in 2010 with a Supreme Judicial Court decision overruling the 125 year old “Massachusetts Rule” which allowed property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and avoid liability. Now, owners are under a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice. Moreover, cities and towns have been passing all types of new snow removal ordinances and by-laws regulating whether owners must shovel public/private sidewalks, and how long they have to clear snow.

It’s clear that it’s time to give you the most up-to-date information. So here is a fresh set of Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) with links at the end to various city and town webpages on their snow removal policies. Good luck and stay safe!

I own a two family rental property with a driveway and one common walkway and entrance. Am I responsible for shoveling snow on the driveway and/or walkway?

The answer is yes. Under a 2010 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, all property owners (rental or owner occupied) can be held liable for failing to remove snow and ice from their property. The old rule was that owners didn’t have to remove “natural accumulations” of snow and ice, but the court overruled that in favor of a general obligation to keep property safe for all visitors and guests. There are also many local town and city ordinances which likewise obligate property owners to keep snow and ice off their property and sidewalks. I will discuss some of those below.

Can I use a lease which provides that the tenant is responsible for snow removal. Is that legal and will that protect me from liability?

It depends on your particular property. Landlords have the primary responsibility for snow removal at a rental property. Under the State Sanitary Code, property owners/landlords must keep all means of egress free from obstruction — that cannot be negotiated away. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the landlord shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. Again, those obligations cannot be negotiated away.

A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove in a lease provision only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. On its face, this exception only applies to entrance-ways and not driveways or parking areas. I am not aware of a court ruling on this particular Code provision, but if I were a landlord I would not risk being on the wrong side of a “test case” where someone is injured badly.

So, in the example above with an owner occupied two family with one common entrance and driveway, that lease provision would be illegal.

Even if the tenant is responsible for snow removal under a legal lease provision, the landlord could still face personal injury liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under the SJC ruling.  A guest or visitor who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors.

How soon do I have to shovel the snow before I get in trouble?

The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 12 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

Am I required to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house/business after a storm?

In most Massachusetts towns and cities, the answer is yes. Check your local town ordinances for guidance. The cities of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester (among others) all require property owners and businesses to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. Fines are assessed against non-compliance. In Somerville, for example, if snow ceases to fall after sunrise (during daylight hours), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 p.m, and if snow ceases to fall after sunset (overnight), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 a.m. You can also be fined for shoveling snow onto the street, blocking a curb cut or putting snow on municipal owned property.

In some more residential towns, the local DPW will clear the sidewalks, but the default rule is that property owners are generally responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and driveways.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?

You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable.

Helpful Links

Arlington Snow Info

Belmont Snow Ordinance

City of Boston Snow Center

Brookline Snow Alerts

Cambridge Snow Guide

Lawrence Winter Parking Rules

Lynn DPW Winter

Marlborough DPW

Medford Police Dept. Snow 

Needham MA Snow & Ice

Newton Snow Page

Quincy Snow Removal

Salem Snow Emergency Rules

City of Springfield Snow Rules

Somerville Snow Guide

Waltham Snow Policy

Wayland Snow Policy

Worcester Snow DPW

Winter Storm Precautions

  • Keep roads clear to allow plowing operations to proceed smoothly.
  • Use care around downed power lines. Assume a down wire is a live wire.
  • Check in with your neighbors, especially those that may need assistance.
  • Help dig out fire hydrants and storm drains in your neighborhood.
  • If you live on a corner, clear a path from the sidewalk to the street. If not precisely on the corner, as close to the corner as you can get.
  • Avoid parking too close to corners, allowing Public Safety vehicles and plows to maneuver safely.
  • Be aware of children playing in the streets, particularly climbing on or running out from behind large snowdrifts
  • Parents should remind their children to be aware of plowing operations and traffic.
  • Clear exhaust vents from Direct Vent Gas Furnace Systems to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Never run an automobile until exhaust pipe has been cleared of snow.
  • Make sure backup generators are well ventilated.
  • Take your time shoveling. Avoid overexertion.
  • For homes heated by oil please be sure a safe route is available for delivery to your oil fill pipe.
  • Clear flat roofs and decks to prevent accumulation of snow/ice over the season.

 

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City Universities Providing ISD With Addresses of Student Apartments

In the coming weeks, some Boston college students living off-campus and their landlords may be greeted by city inspection officers at their doors. Shrugging off privacy concerns, pursuant to a new city ordinance, the city’s 31 local colleges and universities have sent the city’s Inspection Services Department the addresses of their students who live off-campus. Of the 25,000 addresses it received, ISD will pay visits to the 580 it deems to be suspect of violating zoning codes. Boston.com reporter Julie Xie in her article “City Will Inspect Off-Campus Student Apartments, And It’s Legal” reported this new development.

They’ll primarily be looking for issues related to overcrowding. There are over 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students living off-campus in Boston, according to The Boston Globe . A 2008 city ordinance prohibits more than four undergraduates living together in one apartment.

The city’s crackdown comes in the wake of BU senior Binland Lee’s tragic death in 2013 from a fire in her overcrowded Allston apartment. Flames blocked the staircase from the third floor — her only egress. Scofflaw landlords and poorly managed units unsafe for students were the subject of the Globe’s “Shadow Campus” investigation last year. Now, an ordinance requires colleges to provide a list of where students live off-campus every semester. Another requires private rental units to register their properties annually, and inspections are performed every five years.

There is no question that some Boston landlords catering to the huge undergraduate population have skirted the law, creating dangerous living spaces for far too long. Regardless of the issue of occupancy limits, landlords need to comply with the sanitary and building codes so they don’t create fire traps for housing.

However, I have always had issues with the legality of the 4 undergraduate rule. I’m quoted in the article as saying that the no-more-than-four rule has always been somewhat suspect, arbitrary, and tough to enforce. Though neighbors do complain about late-night parties and loud college students, not all undergrads are troublemakers.” “Undergrads are not a protected class under any discrimination laws, and they’re transient, so it’s not like they’re going to come up with a lobbyist or fight for their rights in that way,” I’m quoted. “Colleges don’t want to get in trouble and they know they won’t get much pushback from Boston’s student body.”

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computer-searchLandlords Get Useful Tenant Screening Tool for Massachusetts District Court Records

In a much anticipated announcement, expanded online court docket information is now available for all district courts in Massachusetts including records on evictions, small claims, civil, and supplementary process (collection actions) cases. The website is Masscourts.org. It is free to use.

Using this site, landlords can check to see if prospective tenants have been involved in any prior evictions or have been sued by creditors. Housing Court dockets have already been available for about a year.

The only downside to the site is that users must search each individual court separately. My advice for landlords is to match the court with the prospective tenant’s former address and check to see if they were previously involved in any summary process or debt collection lawsuits.

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80140012Legislation Set To Expand Housing Court Statewide

About 30% of people in Massachusetts do not have access to the state’s Housing Court — one of Massachusetts’ specialized courts handling landlord-tenant disputes, evictions and sanitary code enforcement. The unserved areas include the largest county in the state, Middlesex County and most of Norfolk County, with high density rental towns including Cambridge, Framingham, Brookline, Waltham, Dedham, Malden and Somerville. Also unserved by a Housing Court is all of Cape Cod and the Islands and Chelsea.

Under a plan touted by Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants, the Housing Court would be expanded to cover the entire state by July 1, 2015. “We believe that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of where they live, should have the opportunity to have their housing case heard by a Housing Court, and benefit from its specialized expertise in residential housing matters,” Gants said in a statement.

As an eviction and landlord-tenant attorney who practices quite a bit in both Middlesex County and in the Housing Court, I can say positively that this is a great idea. In Framingham District Court, for example, the Thursday eviction session can be standing room only with landlords and tenants often spilling outside into the hallway. The busy court is already swamped with criminal matters, and getting a trial date in an eviction case can take upwards of several months — certainly not “just, speedy and inexpensive” as mandated by the Uniform Summary Process Rules.

The Housing Court would be able to take the burden off the local, overworked district courts. With a few more full time judges and already with one of the lowest cost-per-case ratios of any court, they should be able to handle the increase in cases. The “X-factor” will be the overall cost, of course.

The Legislature is set to take up the proposal in early 2015. I’ll keep tabs on any developments.

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Tax-Information-about-Employees-and-ContractorsSJC To Hear Important Employment Classification Case

The critical question of whether real estate agents are governed by the state’s strict independent contractor law is now headed to the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest appellate court in Massachusetts. The SJC will hear arguments in December, and a decision is expected in the Spring of 2015.

Hanging in the balance is the fate of the historically independent, commission based real estate brokerage office model. An unfavorable result at the SJC would essentially turn this model upside-down, requiring brokerages to pay their agents minimum and overtime wages and provide all the statutory benefits afforded to employees. The real estate office as we know it today would likely cease to exist.

The case is Monell v. Boston Pads, LLC, a class action brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty, one of the largest real estate offices in Boston. As I wrote about in this post, Judge Robert Cosgrove ruled last year that the agents should be considered independent contractors and not employees. Given the importance of the case, the SJC granted direct appellate review.

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors has filed a friend of the court brief, in support of classifying agents as independent contractors. I agree with the MAR that real estate agents should be classified as independent contractors given its unique and historically independent business model.

However, this is a very difficult case to handicap. The problem arises when brokerages, such as Jacob Realty, ask its agents to do many of the things traditional employees must adhere to, such as required office hours, dress code, and performance benchmarks. This is especially so where courts have, in the last few years, strictly interpreted the independent contractor and wage laws in other industries. The more requirements imposed on agent, the more likely they should be treated as employees and not independent contractors, the argument goes.

Also likely to play a large role is that in 2008 the Legislature tried — and failed — to amend the law to make real estate agents exempt from the independent contractor law. Governor Patrick vetoed the legislation. This legislative history hurts the brokers.

There is a decent chance this case could go against the industry. In that event, I hope the MAR has legislation ready to preserve the existing office model so there will be no adverse effect on Realtors. And by then, Gov. Patrick — who’s been no friend of the real estate and title business — will be long gone from office.

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20b0e63Perry v. Equity Residential: Application Fee, Amenity-Community Fee, Move-In Fee and Upfront Pet Fee Held Illegal

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.

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RDV-profile-picture.jpgIf you have any questions about this ruling or your policy for upfront fees, please contact Attorney Richard Vetstein at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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eviction-notAvoid Being Dead On Arrival In Eviction Court

The first step in evicting any Massachusetts tenant is issuing a notice to quit which is a legal document formally notifying the tenant that his tenancy is being terminated for a particular reason and giving him the date upon which he must move out. There are very specific rules as to how the notice must be drafted, what it must say, and how it must be delivered. Any mistakes in providing a proper notice to quit can torpedo your eviction case before you even see a judge. Needless, to say I recommend hiring an experienced Massachusetts eviction attorney to handle drafting and serving the notice to quit. Here are all the various rules and considerations for sending out a notice to quit.

A.      Non-payment of Rent

One of the most common reasons for starting an eviction is for non-payment of rent. Whether the tenant has a written lease or is a tenant at will the landlord must send the tenant a 14 day “notice to quit” before starting the eviction process. The notice to quit will typically provide as follows:

Dear Mr. Tenant: This office represents your landlord, Mr. Landlord. You are hereby notified that your tenancy is terminated and to quit and deliver up and move out of the premises you now rent namely: 123 Main Street, Anytown, MA and all appurtenant uses thereto 14 days after your receipt of this notice. The reason for this notice is that you have failed to pay the rent due as follows: Total Owed: $7,200.00.

1. Service of the Notice

Many landlords believe that a notice to quit should be served by certified/registered mail. This is a very bad practice because the tenant can always avoid the mailman. In court, the landlord has the burden of proving that the tenant received the notice. The best practice is to have the notice to quit served by a constable or sheriff to ensure proof of delivery. Under the court rules, service by a constable or sheriff is “good service” whether the tenant is served in hand or the notice is left at the premises.

2.  Tenants At Will

If a landlord is sending a 14 day notice to quit for nonpayment to a tenant at will (as opposed to a tenant with a written lease for a set term), the notice must also include the following language:

 “If you have not received a notice to quit for nonpayment of rent within the last twelve months, you have a right to prevent termination of your tenancy by paying or tendering to your landlord, your landlord’s attorney or the person to whom you customarily pay your rent the full amount of rent due within ten days after your receipt of this notice.”

3. Calculating Notice Date

The next trap for the unwary is calculating the notice date. You cannot start the eviction until 14 days have elapsed since the tenant is served with the 14 day notice to quit. So you need to know exactly when the tenant was served so you can properly calculate the date upon which you can start summary process. If you start the eviction too early, the case will get dismissed.

4. Cure Rights

Landlords should also be aware that under tenant-friendly Massachusetts law, a tenant at will can cure and reinstate his tenancy by paying the outstanding rent (plus court costs if claimed) up to the Monday answer date in the eviction case — and most judges won’t evict any tenant who shows up to court fully paid up.

Sometimes, landlords make the mistake of accepting rent from a delinquent tenant without endorsing the check the proper way in order to avoid reinstating the tenants. If you receive a rental payment after a notice to quit is issued, you must endorse the check as follows:

“Accepted for use and occupancy only and not for rent”

Your notice to quit should also have the following non-waiver language:

If your tender of rent or payments does not comply with the requirements noted above or otherwise cure or excuse the breach as provided by law, any funds paid by you after the date of this notice shall be accepted for use and occupancy only and not for rent, shall not waive this notice or any subsequent eviction proceedings, nor shall it create or reinstate any tenancy.

B.      Termination of Tenancy At Will

Sometimes landlords just want to move on from a problematic tenant at will, raise their rent or change the lease terms. In these situations, landlords must serve a notice terminating tenancy at will. This is sometimes called a 30 day notice, but this is actually inaccurate because almost always more than 30 days notice is required to be given. It’s really a rental period notice.

Generally, at least a full rental period of notice must be given to a tenant at will, but the termination date must be at the end of the following rental period, or 30 days whichever is longer. For example, if you are terminating a tenancy at will on June 10, the notice must provide that the tenant must vacate by the following July 31. Terminating a tenancy at will in February will also be problematic.

In practice, judges will often give tenants in no-fault evictions a bit more leeway in terms of vacating the premises.

C.  Non-Renewal of Lease/Offer of New Tenancy

Most landlords get tripped up in the situation where a written lease self-extends but the landlords wants to raise the rent, change the lease terms or move on from the tenant. In this situation, a notice terminating tenancy must be issued to formally terminate the tenancy, coupled with an offer of a new lease/tenancy. If the tenant does not accept the offer of a new lease/tenancy, the tenancy will end on the date provided in the notice. If the landlord wants the tenant to move out, he doesn’t need an offer of a new tenancy obviously.

D.      For Cause Situations

“For cause” evictions encompass a wide range of bad behavior by tenants in violation of lease provisions or the law. It could be illegal activity, drug use, excessive noise, uncleanliness, harassment of other residents, non-approved “roommates” and the like. Like all other evictions, the landlord must issue a notice to quit to the tenant stating the specifics of the offenses. If the tenant has a standard form lease, the notice to quit will typically be a 7 day notice. For tenants without a written lease, it’s a gray area, but I would use a 30 day notice. For drugs and other illegal activity, Massachusetts also has a special expedited eviction process where you can go to court right away without any prior notice to quit, but the tenant is entitled to notice of the court proceeding and an opportunity to contest it and cross-examine witnesses.

Sending a proper notice to quit is merely the first step in the eviction process, but a very important one as it can get your case dismissed before a judge hears the merits of the case. There are so many other procedural traps for the unwary which follow during an eviction case. Again, if you are considering evicting a tenant, do not attempt to do it yourself.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngIf you need assistance drafting and serving a notice to quit and evicting a tenant, please contact Attorney Richard Vetstein via email at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or telephone at 508-620-5352.

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apartment-balconySheehan v. Weaver: Strict Liability For Building Code Violations Does Not Apply To Residential Structures

I love being right.

Two years ago, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman issued a controversial ruling that an owner of a mixed used building was “strictly liable” for a intoxicated tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail in the case of Sheehan v. Weaver. In my prior post on this troubling case, I said “given the concerning expansion of liability in this case, look for this ruling to get appealed. Judge Kerman is a well-respected judge, and this decision is a close call, but I think he went a bit too far outside the legislative intent behind the law.”

Well, that’s exactly what the Supreme Judicial Court said in its ruling today which should provide some relief for residential landlords and their liability insurers.

Faulty Porch Guardrail

The landlord, David Weaver, owned a building with three residential apartments located above a commercial establishment. None of the apartments were owner-occupied. After a night of drinking, one of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. The connection of the guardrail to its post gave way because it was defective and in violation of the Building Code.

After a four-day trial in the Housing Court, a jury found for the tenant on the negligence claim, awarding approximately $145,000 after a 40% reduction for the his own fault. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages. With the strict liability, the landlord was on the hook for the full $242,000 verdict without consideration of the tenant’s own fault. The case went up to the SJC on appeal.

Interpretation of Building Code Statute

The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict liability, that is, liability without any consideration of the comparative fault of the injured, for any personal injuries caused by a building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The SJC ultimately agreed with the landlord that the structure where the tenant was injured was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. The court held that “what commercial and public structures listed in § 51 have in common is that they are places in which a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment, or other purposes.”

What this means is that owners of residential rental property will no longer have to worry about getting hit with a substantial strict liability award for injuries caused by building code violations. However, this does not mean that property owners should not take care of their buildings. They must, and they can still get hit with lawsuits for injuries occurring on their property due to failure to repair or maintain the premises in good condition. Indeed, in this case, the final result is that the tenant’s award will be reduced by about $100,000 but the landlord’s insurance company will still be on the hook for a $145,000 judgment plus 12% interest.

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Decision Could Have Wide Impact Upon Marijuana Use By Tenants

The law on marijuana and rental housing remains clouded to say the least. And that’s no pun. This week on April 8th, the Supreme Judicial Court will consider the first of probably many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing. In this particular case, Boston Housing Authority v. Figgs (SJC 11532), the high court will assess whether a state housing authority may evict a subsidized tenant and terminate her federal housing benefits for the alleged possession of less than one ounce of marijuana — which is no longer a criminal offense in Massachusetts, but still a crime under federal law. With the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the rollout of the medical marijuana dispensaries and the conflict with federal drug laws, this case may have wide-ranging impacts upon the relationships of landlords, tenants, housing authorities and even condominium owners and trustees over the use of marijuana, both recreationally and medicinally.

Oral arguments are available via live stream here. Legal briefs and filings in the case can be found here. A final opinion and ruling is expected this summer.

This case should also put the new Medical Marijuana Law into re-focus. Landlords have been increasingly anxious about how to manage and regulate tenants’ use of medical and recreational marijuana, if at all. The law not only grants qualified patients the right to obtain medical marijuana but it also allows patients the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a marijuana dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. There is a bill in the Legislature granting landlords the right to prohibit medical marijuana on rental property without fear of being sued for disability discrimination.

I’ll be monitoring this new and dynamic area of the law. It will surely be a hot topic in the next couple of years.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience Massachusetts landlord tenant and real estate attorney. If you are concerned or have questions about the new Medical Marijuana Law, please contact him atinfo@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

 

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NIGHTCODE_CRR3The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code governs the minimal standards of fitness and conditions for human habitation of rental occupancy of property. Unfortunately, most landlords become familiar with the lengthy code only after tenants or the local Board of Health cites them for code violations. As a landlord-tenant attorney, I’ve created this comprehensive summary of the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code. Mind you, this does not cover every single provision,  just the important ones, in my opinion. Keep this handy guide on your nightstands in case you have insomnia! Seriously, this is important information for all rental property owners in Massachusetts.

Scope

The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code is found at 105 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 410, which can be downloaded by clicking here. The Sanitary Code applies to all rental properties in Massachusetts including owner-occupied multi-families, rooming houses and temporary housing. The only exceptions are dwellings located on a campground and civil defense shelters.

Kitchen and Bathroom Requirements

The Code provides that every rental unit where common cooking facilities are provided shall contain a kitchen sink, a stove and oven and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. Each unit must include at least one toilet, one washbasin (which cannot be the kitchen sink) and one bathtub or shower in a separate bathroom. Privies and chemical toilets are prohibited except with Board of Health permission.

Potable Water

Landlords must provide “a supply of potable water sufficient in quantity and pressure to meet the ordinary needs of the occupant” either connected to town/city water or private well with Board of Health approval. The landlord may charge tenants for actual water usage if separately assessed and metered. Hot water must also be provided of not less than 110°F and no more than 130°F.

Heating

Landlords must provide for adequate heating in every habitable room of a rental unit including bathrooms. Portable space heaters and similar equipment are prohibited. Heating must be provided to no less than 68°F between 7AM and 11PM and at least 64°F between 11PM and 7AM, except between June 15 and September 15.

Natural Light and Lighting Fixtures

The Code requires at least one window in all rooms except the kitchen if less than 70 s.f. Lighting fixtures must be provided in all bathrooms. Two outlets must be provided in every habitable room, and sufficient lighting provided in all hallways, foyers, laundry rooms and the like. Buildings over ten units must have auxiliary emergency lighting. Screens must be provided for all windows on the first floor.

Maintenance Obligations

An oft-litigated area, the Code provides for maintenance obligations for both landlord and tenant. Landlords must maintain and repair whatever appliances he has installed in the unit. If a tenant has paid for and installed an appliance himself, however, he is responsible for maintaining it. Tenants are also responsible for the general cleanliness of toilets, sinks, showers, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances. So when the tenant claims there is mold in the bathroom, the landlord can argue that the tenant’s lack of cleanliness is the cause. Landlords must also exterminate any pest, insect or rodent infestation.

Asbestos and Lead Paint Materials

If there is asbestos material in the unit, the landlord must keep it in good repair, free of all defects, cracks and tears which would allow for the release of asbestos dust. Due to the liability exposure, it’s a good idea for any landlord to remove all asbestos materials. Lead paint is absolutely prohibited where children under 6 are occupying. See my previous posts on the Lead Paint Law for more info on this complex area.

Utility Metering

Owners must provide electric and gas service to tenants unless they are separately metered and billed to the unit and the lease provides for same. Separate water metering is permissible so long as the landlord gets written approval from the local Board of Health and complies with the metering requirements of General Laws chapter 186, section 22. For homes heated with oil, the owner must provide the oil unless it is provided through a separate oil tank servicing only that dwelling unit.

Minimum Square Footage

* 150 s.f. for the first occupant, and no less than 100 s.f. for each additional occupant
* Bedrooms — 70 s.f. for first occupant, 50 s.f. for each additional occupant
All ceilings must be no less than 7 feet.

Egress/Snow and Ice Removal

Property owners must keep all means of egress free from obstruction. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. Otherwise, landlords are responsible for snow and ice removal. Even if the tenant is responsible, the landlord could still face liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under recent Massachusetts case law.

Locks

Owners must install locks for every door of a dwelling unit capable of being secured from unlawful entry. The main entry door of a three unit dwelling or more must be installed with a automatic locking mechanism.

Smoke/CO2 Detectors

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors must be installed in accordance with the Mass. Fire Code.

Railings

Owners must provide safe handrails for every stairway, and a wall or guardrail on every open side of a stairway no less than 30 inches in height. For porches and balconies, a wall or guardrail at least 36 inches high must be provided. Between all guardrails and handrails, balusters at intervals of no more than 6 inches for pre-1997 construction, and at 4.5 inches for post 1997 construction must be provided.

Inspections and Code Violations

The Code provides that the local Board of Health or Inspector can inspect any unit upon the  oral or written complaint of an occupant. Inspections are supposed to take place within 24 hours of the complaint, but that rarely happens. The inspector will prepare a code violation form. Serious violations such as failure to provide heat or water must be corrected within 12 hours. Less serious violations should be corrected within 5 – 30 days depending on the type of violation. Violators have a right to a hearing before the board of health to contest any code violations.

Code violations are criminal proceedings and should not be ignored. Penalties can result in $500/day fines and even condemnation of the premises.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. If you have been cited for violations of the State Sanitary Code or have questions about it, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

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eviction-notBill Would Curb Tenant Abuses of Eviction Process | State House Hearing Set For Feb. 25

For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. This may finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Two bills, H.B. 1131 and H.B. 1110, have made their way to public hearing at the State House for a February 25th hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

The bills are designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law, including the infamous “free rent trick.” The free rent trick works like this:  Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’  fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Where-are-you-from-512x273Innocent Small Talk Apparently Illegal, According to Boston Fair Housing Commission

The seemingly innocent question posed by a Boston rental agent to Gladys Linder when they were searching for an apartment was “Where are you from?”

“Venezuela,” she answered.

Gladys and her husband went on to find an apartment a month later without further incident. But she found the question about her national origin insulting and upsetting.

This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.

Stokel filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, claiming that rental agent’s question was discriminatory and caused her to suffer fear, anxiety and sleeplessness over a three-year period.

Seriously?

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations make it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”

Although this was the agent’s first discrimination complaint and there was no discriminatory impact on the tenants at all, the Commission found that the question itself was unlawful and issued one of the largest penalties I have seen in recent years — $10,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $44,000 in attorney’s fees and costs and a $7,500 civil penalty against the broker — a whopping $61,500 in total liability for this single question, not to mention the tens of thousands the agent had to pay for defense legal fees.

The ruling can be found here:  Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, Mass. Appeals Court (Dec. 17, 2013).

Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense

The case went up on appeal, and fortunately the Massachusetts Appeals Court exercised some common sense and slashed the award, likely by more than half pending further proceedings. But the court let stand the commission’s ruling that the one innocuous question did indeed violate the discrimination laws. So the broker will remain on the hook for a sizable liability.

Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble with this ruling. It appears that the broker was simply engaging in some harmless small talk by asking the applicant where she was from. There was no evidence that the broker refused to rent to her or took any other discriminatory action against them. What if the applicant had a Southern accent and said she was from Alabama? That’s not illegal discrimination, but since she is from another county, it makes the question unlawful discrimination? Unbelievable! This is one of those cases where the anti-discrimination laws result in a totally absurd result.

So thank you to the Boston Fair Housing Commission for making small talk illegal. Unfortunately, the lesson to be learned from this case for rental agents and Realtors: Don’t ask a client where they are from. I kid you not. Only in Massachusetts…

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often consults with Realtors and rental agents on their legal and ethical duties. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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dive-warningLandlords Could Be Held Responsible for Tenant Paralyzed Jumping from Trampoline into Kiddie Pool

I don’t write a lot about premises liability in this blog, but this tragic case out of my hometown of Framingham may be a classic example of the saying that “hard cases make bad law.” The Supreme Judicial Court has granted a new trial to a man paralyzed by jumping off a trampoline into a kiddie pool while playing with his small son. The case is Dos Santos v. Coleta (SJC – 11188). This is a case which will get all the tort-reformers screaming in protest, but it is evident that premises liability law in Massachusetts keeps on evolving and not in a good way for property owners.

The moral of this case for landlords and all homeowners is to not leave potentially dangerous contraptions in yards for tenants and kids to get injured on. Also, make sure you have liability insurance coverage for at least $1 Million, and look into getting an excess umbrella policy for up to $5 Million.

Summer Fun Goes Terribly Wrong

In the summer of 2005, Cleber Dos Santos lived with his wife and son in one unit of a two-family home in Framingham that he rented from the Coleta family. The landlords, who lived in the other unit, set up a trampoline immediately adjacent to an inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. The landlord disregarded warnings printed on the side of the pool cautioning against jumping or diving into the pool. He knew that setting up the trampoline next to the pool might be dangerous but thought it would be “fun.”

The landlords moved to South Carolina on July 31, but they maintained ownership of the home and continued to rent the other unit to Dos Santos and his family. The landlords left the pool and trampoline in the backyard and understood that both items would continue to be used by their friends and family.

On the evening of August 2, 2005, Dos Santos, who had never before used the trampoline, came home from work and decided to play with his son on the trampoline while his wife recorded a video of them to send to their extended family in Brazil. He decided to entertain his son by flipping into the pool. He severely underrotated the flip, entered the water headfirst, and struck his head on the bottom of the pool. As a result of the impact, Dos Santos sustained a burst fracture of his C-5 vertebrae, and is permanently paralyzed from the upper chest down. He has been hospitalized ever since with medical bills exceeding $700,000.

SJC Clarifies Open and Obvious Danger Rule

Perhaps not surprisingly, the jury rendered a defense verdict on the basis that Dos Santos’ backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool was an “open and obvious” danger. But the SJC found the trial judge’s jury instructions lacking, holding that even if the jury believed that the danger present was open and obvious, the jury should have considered whether the absentee landlord should have removed or remedied the dangerous trampoline/pool setup from the backyard.

Having established that the existence of an open and obvious danger will not necessarily relieve a landowner of all duties to lawful entrants with regard to that danger, we set out to answer the following principal question: where the duty to warn has been negated, in what circumstances will the duty to remedy nevertheless exist–or, in other words, in what circumstances “can and should a landowner anticipate that the dangerous condition will cause physical harm to the lawful entrant notwithstanding its known or obvious danger”?

In plain English, Judge Cordy is basically saying that performing a backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool may be stupid and dangerous, but it’s also just as stupid and dangerous for a landlord to leave the deadly contraption out in the backyard for anyone to get injured on.

The justices ordered a new trial in the case, so this tragic 8 year legal saga will continue on. (Also remember that it appears that the landlords are covered by a liability insurance policy, the amount of which is unknown).

In sum, the SJC has now shown that Massachusetts premises liability law continues to shift towards even greater responsibility and liability for rental property owners.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150Richard Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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539w-1.jpgRuling Calls Into Question Boston Ordinance Prohibiting 5 or More Students In One Unit

Those screams you are hearing now on Comm. Ave. aren’t the students. They are the landlords who are undoubtedly rejoicing upon news that the Supreme Judicial Court just issued a major ruling in how student rentals occupancy limits  — indeed all rentals — will be treated by housing inspectors and licensing authorities. This is an important decision which may have far-ranging implications across the state and not just to student housing.

The closely watched case is City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties (download link to case herewhere the SJC has held that renting to 4 or more students in one apartment unit of a two and three family home is not a “lodging house” requiring a special license under the Massachusetts lodging housing law, provided that the apartment meets all other sanitary and building code square footage occupancy thresholds. The state code requires 150 s.f. of living space for the first occupancy and 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space), and 70 s.f. of bedroom space for the 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom). This decision applies state-wide and to every type of rental housing, including multi-families, buildings and townhouses.

The timing of the ruling is interesting in light of the recent fatal fire involving an overcrowded student apartment house in Allston and Mayor Menino’s recent rental property registration and inspection rules.

Court’s Reasoning: Apartments ≠ Lodging Houses

For history buffs, the opinion is fun to read as it traces the Lodging House Law back to the days of brothels, houses of ill-repute and tenements. Using a common-sense analysis, Justice Lenk reasoned that lodging houses, which are essentially temporary rentals of rooms without such amenities as a separate kitchens and bathrooms, are quite different from the modern day apartment units with its more expensive amenities. The court ruled that if an apartment satisfies the state sanitary and building code provisions for the amount of living/sleeping space, utilities, egress, etc., then it would be not be deemed a lodging house despite the number of unrelated occupants.

City of Boston Undergrad Student Rule On the Chopping Block?

In the City of Boston, a new zoning ordinance went into effect in 2008 prohibiting 5 or more undergraduate students from living in one apartment unit. There is certainly a question as to whether the College Hill ruling effectively overrules this ordinance. We will have to see whether the ordinance is challenged in court.

The other impact of this ruling is we should see an push for even more increased density in apartment rental housing which is exactly what Mayor Menino and the City of Boston doesn’t want.

More Press Coverage:  Banker & Tradesman, Boston Globe, Worcester Telegram

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Greater Boston landlord tenant attorney who represents rental property owners throughout Boston and Massachusetts. You can contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Case Highlights Importance of Rent Acceleration Clause In Commercial Leases

In a decision underscoring the importance of careful commercial lease drafting, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a commercial landlord must wait out a 12 year lease term to recover unpaid rent from a tenant who abandoned the premises in year 2 of the lease. We lawyers call this a Pyrrhic victory: “a victory offset by staggering losses.” The case is 275 Washington Street Corp. vs. Hudson River Int’l, LLC (SJC-11217). 

Practice Pointer: This case is an important reminder for all residential and commercial landlords to have their leases reviewed to ensure that they can recover all available lost rental damages. Contact me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com for a lease review.

Facts: Dental Practice Goes South Quickly

The landlord and tenant, a dental practice, entered into a 12-year lease beginning in 2006 for medical office space located at 221-227 Washington Street in downtown Boston. Barely a year later, the dental practice went under and closed. In May 2008, the dentist told the landlord that he would not be making any further lease payments.

Fortunately, the landlord found a new tenant. A new 10 year lease was signed, covering the remainder of the dentist’s term, but at a lower rent. The landlord sued the dentist for the rent differential — some $1 Million Dollars.

Standard Indemnification Clause

The lease contained a standard default indemnification clause found in many older standard lease forms:

The LESSEE shall indemnify the LESSOR against all loss of rent and other payments which the LESSOR may incur by reason of such termination during the residue of the term.  If the LESSEE shall default, after reasonable notice thereof, in the observance or performance of any conditions or covenant on LESSEE’s part to be observed or performed under or by virtue of any of the provisions in any article of this lease, the LESSOR, without being under any obligation to do so and without thereby waiving such default, may remedy such default for the account and at the expense of the LESSEE.

Common Law Rule: Put It In The Lease

The SJC pointed out long standing Massachusetts common law “where the contract is a commercial lease, our common law does not provide ‘benefit of the bargain’ damages in the event of termination of the lease following a breach. Once a landlord terminates a lease, the tenant is no longer obligated to pay the rent, and, unless the lease otherwise so provides, the landlord is not entitled to posttermination damages.” This may be contrary to common understanding, but it’s the reason why lawyers have developed rent acceleration and liquidated damages provisions for commercial leases.

Despite the urging of the Real Estate Bar Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief, the SJC saw no need to alter the harsh common law simply because this particular landlord’s lease failed to provide a proper rent acceleration clause. Justice Gants didn’t mince his words in cautioning commercial landlords to use proper lease provisions:

 A landlord left without an adequate remedy following breach of the lease by a tenant has only itself to blame for entering into a lease that fails to provide such a remedy. We shall not disrupt the settled expectations of leasing parties in order to protect a landlord from the consequences of failing to insist on an adequate remedy in the negotiation of a commercial lease. Nor shall we invite uncertainty as to the availability and scope of a landlord’s remedy for “benefit of the bargain” damages where the contours of such a remedy are not delineated in the lease but left to be determined under the common law.

Solution: Rent Acceleration/Liquidated Damages Clause

The lease in this case appears to be of an older variety and did not contain a rent acceleration/liquidated damage clause. Such a clause provides that upon a rent default, all unpaid rent is due through the end of the lease term as liquidated damages. All commercial leases should contain this type of rent acceleration clause, and I would also recommend a provision enabling the landlord to recoup the cost of expensive tenant build outs where a tenant has defaulted early in the lease term. Contact me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com for a lease review.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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brownstone1

Update:  Registration Extended Until Aug. 31, 2013

The Boston City Council and Mayor Menino’s Office have passed a sweeping new rental property registration and inspection ordinance which is now effective for the year 2013. The new ordinance requires, among other things, that all rental property owners register with the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), and are subject to inspections every 5 years. Details of the new ordinance are summarized below.

Who is covered?

All rental property owners, regardless of state residence, must register their rental properties with ISD. This also includes condominium units which are rented out. Excluded from the inspection requirements (but not the registration requirements) are owner-occupied buildings containing no more than 6 units, licensed lodging houses, government owned or operated housing.

What are my registration obligations?

Landlords are required to register with ISD no later than July 1 of each year. A fee of $25/unit will be charged. All non-resident owners must designate a Boston-based resident agent to accept service of process on the owner’s behalf.  You can now register online at Cityofboston.gov or download an application from the same site. The City has also posted a Frequently Asked Questions Page here.

When will my rental property get inspected?

ISD will inspect rental properties at least once every 5 years. ISD intends to first inspect the “problem” properties which have a history of code violations. Landlords will receive a notice from ISD about the inspection. Landlords have the option of having an outside “authorized inspector” perform the inspection at the owner’s expense. Annual inspections conducted by the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and similar government programs will be accepted by ISD. For most buildings, the inspection fee is $75 for the first two units, and $50/unit thereafter.

Are there any new signage requirements?

Yes. A sign of not less than 20 square inches must be posted adjacent to the building’s mailboxes or other conspicuous location. The sign must contain the contact information of the landlord and property manager, if any.

My property has been cited for violations in the past. Will this be a problem?

It could be. The new ordinance has a new classification for “Problem Property” if:

  • the police have been called to the property at least 4 times in one year; or
  • 4 or more noise complaints; or
  • 4 or more ISD complaints for unsanitary conditions/code violations

Problem Properties must be inspected every year and the owner must submit a management plan to address the issues.

How do I coordinate the inspection with my tenants?

A tenant is entitled to “reasonable advance notice” before an inspection. If access is denied, the landlord must notify ISD within 7 days, and if ISD verifies same, the landlord will be exempted from inspection for 1 year. Tenants are entitled to a copy of all inspection reports.

I am buying a rental property. By when does the new owner need to register?

ISD must be notified of the sale of any rental property 30 days after the closing, and the new owner must register with ISD within this 30 day window. Within 90 days of closing, the new owner must complete any pending inspection or submit an application for approval of an alternative inspection plan.

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Greater Boston landlord tenant attorney who represents rental property owners throughout Boston and Massachusetts. You can contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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