Landlord Tenant Law

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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eviction-not

Distressed Homeowners Lose Key Defense, While Foreclosure Purchasers Gain More Title Security

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court decided yet another important foreclosure case, U.S. Bank v. Schumacher (embedded below). The issue considered in Schumacher was whether a foreclosing lender’s defective 90 day notice to cure was a defense in a subsequent post-foreclosure eviction (summary process action) by the borrower. The SJC said no it was not a valid defense, as it should have been raised much earlier in the legal process in a separate action in the Superior Court.

Schumacher considered a 2007 law requiring that foreclosing lenders provide a borrower with a 90 day right to cure prior to starting a foreclosure proceeding. Before Schumacher, some trial courts had ruled that a bank’s failure to strictly comply with those requirements was fatal to a foreclosure sale. In such cases, even a post-foreclosure buyer of the property would have potentially defective title. From a title perspective this result was especially problematic since a bank’s compliance or non-compliance with §35A would not appear in the property’s title at the registry of deeds.

By holding that a defective cure notice is no defense to a post-foreclosure eviction, the SJC has made it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge the legality of foreclosures in eviction cases. On the flip side, the ruling will help buyers of foreclosed property as it makes their titles less susceptible to challenge by the previous owners.

U.S. Bank v. Schumacher (Mass. SJC 2014) by Richard Vetstein

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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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1240410_10152181877527492_1822384462_nJoint Committee on Housing Considering Tenant Abuse Reform

Yesterday I was honored to testify before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Housing Committee in favor of House Bill 1131, the Rent Escrow Bill. The bill will level the playing field between landlords and tenants and make Massachusetts more hospitable to rental property owners.

The bill prevents tenants from being allowed to withhold rent for minor or cosmetic property condition issues through the entire pendency of an eviction case. Instead, tenants would have to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account administered by the court or the attorneys until such time as the judge rules on the property conditions. Both landlord and tenant would have “skin in the game,” and it would cut way down on the expense and length of evictions.

For more detailed information about the bill please read my prior post:  Massachusetts Tenant Rent Escrow Bill Set To Pass This Term?

As a landlord tenant attorney who has handled over 5,000 evictions, I told legislators some horror stories about how “professional tenants” have victimized my landlord clients by creating minor code issues, withholding rent, then attempting to extort my clients out of thousands of dollars. It certainly appeared to resonate with the lawmakers and I even got a nice round of applause from the gallery after my testimony!

If you are a landlord, please contact your state rep and senator to support House Bill 1131. After many years trying to get this bill through, we may finally have the best environment to pass this much-needed reform to the eviction system.

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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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Foreclosure2-300x225.jpgHousing Courts Will Likely Face Increased Caseload

Giving an early Christmas present to distressed homeowners, the Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a foreclosed upon homeowner may challenge a bank’s title and foreclosure sale irregularities through counterclaims in a post-foreclosure eviction in the Housing Court — rather than being forced to file a separate equity lawsuit in the Superior Court. The case is Bank of America v. Rosa, SJC-11330 (Dec. 18, 2013).

The high court also held that the Housing Court has jurisdiction to hear other counterclaims against foreclosing lenders, including fair housing, consumer protection (Chapter 93A), and HAMP related claims.

The likely impact of this ruling will be that the already busy Housing Court will now be “Ground Zero” for foreclosure related litigation. Foreclosed property owners will have more weapons to delay and prevent being evicted after foreclosures.

Overall, while the ruling seeks to protect the rights of foreclosed property owners, it has the potential to delay the housing recovery in Massachusetts. The longer folks who don’t pay their mortgages are allowed to live rent free in their foreclosed houses, the more the housing market suffers. There are plenty of creditworthy buyers and investors willing and able to buy up and rehab these foreclosed properties. Letting them sit and blight neighborhoods doesn’t help anyone in the long run. Just my opinion…

The ruling is embedded below. (Click for link).

Bank of America v. Rosa

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With an abysmal 20% compliance rate, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department is giving Boston area landlords until August 31, 2013 to register their rental units under a new registration and inspection ordinance.  Under the recently-approved ordinance, every private rental unit in Boston was supposed to have been registered by Aug. 1.

According to Boston.com, since the registration period began on May 1, only about 26,150 units have been registered with the city, said department spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake. That represents less than 20 percent of the estimated 140,000 total units that are required to register.

Under the new ordinance, rental units will be inspected by ISD every five years. Owner-occupied dwellings with 6 or less units are exempt from the inspection requirements (but still must register). Rented out condominium units must register as well.

For more information about the City of Boston Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, read our prior post here.

Landlords who fail to register will be subject to fines and other action from the city, officials said. But, the city will likely use discretion in deciding whether to discipline landlords, according to Brian Swett, Boston’s Chief of Environment and Energy. “We’ll have to make an assessment as we get closer to Aug. 31,” he said. “If there are folks who are willfully not registering their properties that’s different from someone who hasn’t been informed about this yet by our outreach.”

More Information:  Register your rental unit online at Cityofboston.gov or download an application from the same site. The City has also posted a Frequently Asked Questions Page here.

 

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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. I think it’s a fair statement to say that the College Hill ruling effectively overrules this ordinance.

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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19 Students Crammed Into Two Family Death Trap

allston-2This story makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, this practice is endemic in the Allston-Brighton area as local landlords frequently exploit the countless students in the area. You can expect the City of Boston ISD to start cracking down on these slumlords big-time.

As reported today on Boston.com, the owner of the Allston two family residence on Linden Street where a Boston University student died in a fire this weekend was cited today for operating an illegal rooming house because she allegedly allowed 19 people to live in a two-family home. Landlord Anna Belokurova was also cited for failing to obtain proper permits before creating bedrooms in the basement of the building at 87 Linden St., where a three-alarm fire Sunday killed Binland Lee, a 22-year-old BU marine sciences student from Brooklyn, N.Y.

A City of Boston ordinance also says that no more than four un­related undergraduate students are permitted to live in a dwelling, while authorities say that at least six of the 19 residents were BU students.

The city last inspected the building in 1992 when it approved a prior owner’s plan to convert a single-family home into a two-family. Those modifications included a firewall that closed the internal stairway between the first and second floors, creating a maze-like path from one story to another, ­interrupted by a steel door that served as a divider between the units,the Globe reported today.

A quick search on the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds indicates that Ms. Belokurova was under financial distress, as several foreclosure and condo lien proceedings were filed against her in recent years. Perhaps this is why she attempted to pack tenants in her rental property like sardines.

The code violations are going to be the least of Ms. Belokurova’s concerns as the family of the deceased student is likely readying a wrongful death lawsuit. Again, there is just no excuse for flaunting the law like this, especially given the tragic end-result.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein is a well-known Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. You can reach him via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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New Online System Enables Landlords To Screen Tenants for Prior Evictions/Problems

After years of lobbying from rental housing groups, the Massachusetts Housing Court has finally announced a powerful new and free tool for tenant screening:  public internet access to all Summary Process, Small Claims, Civil and Supplementary Process case types. Case information can be accessed via the Trial Court’s eAccess internet site at www.masscourts.org.

The site allows users to conduct searches by case type, case number or case name. Users can find detailed instructions on the Housing Court page of the Trial Court’s website. Electronic access to all publicly available case types also continues to be available at public access computers at the five Housing Court divisions and at courthouses throughout the state.

This new system will enable landlords to research whether a potential or current tenant has been a party to a previous eviction, small claims or related housing case. Obviously, a rental applicant with a lengthy eviction history would not be a good candidate for rental housing.

I would caution landlords that despite whatever information may be gleaned from the new system, the fair housing and discrimination laws still remain in place. Under Massachusetts law, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children (except for an owner occupied two family dwelling).

Denial of rental applications must be based on non-discriminatory reasons, and a lengthy eviction history where the tenant was found liable for nonpayment or other serious violations of a lease would arguably qualify as such.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Largest Lead Paint Penalty On Record for Attorney General Coakley

Landlords with lead paint beware…enforcement of the state’s strict Lead Paint Law remains a priority for Attorney General Coakley’s office. The AG just hit a Boston area property owner with the largest fine on record — $75,000 — and ordered him to de-lead his rental units, resolving allegations that he engaged in a pattern of unlawful and retaliatory practices against tenants with young children in order to avoid his obligation to comply with state lead paint laws. The AG’s press release can be read here.

The offending landlord is Keith L. Miller, of Newton, who at the time owned and managed at least 24 residential rental units in Chelsea, Newton, Arlington, and Brighton. This is the largest fair housing settlement with a landlord that has been reached under AG Coakley.

The Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, one of the strictest in the U.S., imposes a mandatory obligation to de-lead if there is a child under 6 residing in the rental premises. A property owner or real estate agent cannot get around the law simply by refusing to rent to families with young children. They also cannot refuse to renew the lease of a pregnant woman or a family with young children just because a property may contain lead hazards. And property owners cannot refuse to rent simply because they do not want to spend the money to de-lead the property. Any of these acts is a violation of the Lead Law, the Consumer Protection Act, and various Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes that can have serious penalties for a property owner or real estate agent.

The state has several lead paint financial assistance programs to help landlords pay for de-leading costs which can be quite expensive.

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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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alg-domestic-violence-illustration-jpgUnder the new Massachusetts Domestic Violence Act recently signed into law, victims of sexual assault and stalking have the right to break their leases without significant financial penalty, have the landlord change their locks, and other important protections. The important provisions of the new law are as follows:

  • In order to break a lease, victims are required to provide notice to landlords that they were subject to a sexual assault or rape or under imminent threat of same within three (3) months of the incident
  • Landlords may request supporting documentation such as a police report or restraining order (which they must keep confidential).
  • Provided the tenant victim provides the proper notice, she will be relieve of financial liability for 30 days or one full rental period of rent, plus a return of any last month’s rent and security deposit.
  • The new law applies to anyone in the renter’s household.
  • Victims of sexual assault or stalking may require that the landlord change the unit’s locks within 48 hours at the tenant’s expense. If the landlord fails to act, the tenant may change the locks herself.
  • If the perpetrator of the sex crime or threat is a household member (i.e., spouse/boyfriend), the landlord may authorize the lock-out the perpetrator by changing the locks and withholding the new key.
  • Landlord’s who comply with the new law are generally absolved from liability to the perpetrator.
  • Noncompliance with the new law can result in damages equal to 3x the rental amount, plus payment of the tenant’s legal fees, which may be set off against any unpaid rent.

The bill, as finally passed, was signed off by both tenant and landlord industry groups, after several years of debate. A link to the new Massachusetts domestic violence law can be found here. 

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who frequently advises landlords on their legal obligations under Massachusetts landlord and tenant law.

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Ice slip drink

Blizzard Warning Issued For 2/7/13

This post will provide you with frequently asked questions concerning Massachusetts snow and ice removal law.

I am a homeowner and rental property owner. Am I legally required to clear snow and ice after a storm?

The law now in Massachusetts is that all Massachusetts property owners and landlords are legally responsible for the removal of snow and ice from their property. In 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overruled 125 years of legal precedent which protected property owners from “natural accumulations of ice and snow,” and announced this new rule. My prior post on the case can be read here. The rule applies across the board, to homeowners, landlords, commercial business owners, restaurants, everyone.

I am a landlord. How long do I have to shovel snow and ice on my rental property?

There is no clear cut answer to this question, and juries and courts will ultimately decide what is reasonable. The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. 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.

My lease states that the tenant is responsible for snow shoveling. Will that protect me from liability?

Probably not. A person 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. The landlord may bring a claim for contribution/indemnification against the tenant.

L_ice_meltI live in Boston, and I heard I have to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house after a storm. Is that true?

Yes. On top of their added responsibilities, property owners in several Massachusetts communities, including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester, are required by local ordinances to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. The City of Boston mandates clean sidewalks within 6 hours of a storm; Worcester is 12 hours.

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.

If you have additional questions, please ask them in the comment forms below!

Resources: City of Cambridge Snow Removal Policy, City of Boston Know Snow Fact Page

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who advises property owners and landlords as to liability issues. Please contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Breaking (5/15/13): SJC Rules In Landlords’ Favor, Lodging House Law Does Not Apply to Apartment Rentals

Does Lodging House Law Apply to Student Apartments?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear the City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties case which may significantly impact renting apartments to students and in other multi-family situations. The justices will decide whether renting to 4 or more unrelated persons in one apartment unit requires a special license under the Massachusetts lodging housing law, which would require fire sprinklers and other expensive upgrades. The SJC will hear oral arguments in the case on January 7, 2013.

The case arose at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester where several landlords rented out apartments to groups of unrelated students. The Housing Court and Appeals Court had previously ruled that the landlords ran afoul of the lodging house law by renting to more than 3 unrelated persons in one rental unit without the special lodging house license.

Impact Outside College Towns?

Prior to the Appeal Court’s decision, housing authorities typically allowed 4 or more unrelated adults to occupy single apartments as roommates without a lodging license provided that minimum space requirements were met: 150 s.f. of living space for the first person, 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space); 70 s.f. of bedroom space for 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom).

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. We will see how the Boston Inspectional Services Dept. interprets the College Hill ruling.

The SJC’s decision will hopefully clarify this grey area of Massachusetts rental property law.

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