MA landlord tenant attorney

Landlord Attorneys Active In Court and In Legislature On Rent Escrow Issue

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Reporter Patrick Murphy just did a great write up of the current state of Rent Escrow in the Legislature and at the Housing Court. As reported by Mr. Murphy, attorneys representing residential landlords (like myself) are hopeful that this is the year the Legislature closes what is perceived to be a loophole that allows tenants to remain in possession of the premises rent-free during eviction proceedings. Bills moving through both the House and Senate would require judges to order tenants to pay rent into escrow during the pendency of a case upon motion by property owners. In the meantime, Housing Court judges including Marylou Muirhead (pictured below) are becoming more receptive to approving motions for rent escrow filed by landlord attorneys.

Free rent trickery?

As I’ve written on this Blog, the Massachusetts eviction system contains a loophole that allows tenants to avoid paying rent while a dispute is pending. Specifically, they point to G.L.c. 239, §8A, which authorizes tenants to raise defenses or counterclaims — such as those alleging the landlord’s breach of the terms of the lease or housing code violations — justifying the withholding of rent. In terms of the escrow of rent, the statute provides that the court, after hearing the case, “may” require the tenant to pay to the clerk of the court “the fair value of the use and occupation of the premises,” less any amount awarded on the tenant’s claims.

We call this the “Free Rent Trick” — where the tenant will stop paying rent and file a complaint with the local board of health over minor code violations, such as a broken window screen. Rent accrues as the landlord gets around to hiring a lawyer to file a 14-day notice to quit the premises and commence summary process. Three to five months of rent may have accrued before a case is typically heard, and tenants can extend the process another three to six months, depending on the court, by requesting a jury trial.

Rare win for landlords?

As Mr. Murphy highlighted in his article, I recently succeeded in obtaining a rare rent escrow order in Worcester Housing Court in a case in which months of back rent had accrued before I ever became involved in the matter. In Eda Ema, LLC v. Kirby, Judge MaryLou Muirhead (pictured right) ordered the tenant to begin making escrow payments of $975 a month, reflecting the terms of her lease. The tenant owed $12,675 in past due rent at the time the case was filed in January.

The case points to the plight of many landlords even if they are ultimately successful in obtaining a judgment against the tenant for back rent. Such judgments are often uncollectible. However, the escrow order I obtained in Eda Ema is a rarity in my experience, with several Housing Court judges and most District Court judges still resistant to ordering such relief.

Pending Rent Escrow Bills

Putting an end to the so-called “free rent trick” in Massachusetts is long overdue, according to my colleague Brighton landlord attorney Emil Ward who has drafted Senate Bill 778, calling for mandatory rent escrow.

Another bill, House rent escrow bill, H. 980, was filed in January 2017 by Middlesex Democrat Rep. Chris Walsh. The bill would amend G.L.c. 239, §8A, to provide that “the court after hearing shall require” the tenant to pay into escrow “the amounts due for use and occupancy, calculated according to the fair market value of the premises.”

 

Walsh said his bill is intended to help small landlords, many who have complained to him in the past about being victimized by the free rent ploy. He said he has heard complaints of tenants who knew how to “work the system,” invoking housing regulations to “essentially stop paying rent.”

While we haven’t been successful in getting a rent escrow bill passed, I’m hopeful that Legislators are finally listening to landlords’ legitimate concerns that the eviction playing deck is stacked against them.

As always, I will keep tabs on these developments.

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Updated (4/27/16): SJC Rules That Security Deposit Violation Is Full Defense to Eviction

Landlord Stopped From Evicting Tenant Over $3.26 In Interest

Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as being a hostile jurisdiction for landlords. With a myriad of tenant favorable laws on the books, the proverbial playing field is often stacked against landlords. Exhibit A is the Security Deposit Law which provides a three month penalty, including payment of the tenant’s legal fees, against landlords who don’t follow its strict requirements.

One of the requirements of the Security Deposit Law is that annually the landlord must pay the tenant any accrued interest on the deposit. That’s what got landlord Garth Meikle in trouble with his tenant who was three months behind in rent.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse, SJC-11859

Meikle brought an eviction case in the Housing Court, and essentially won with the judge ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the three dollars and change in interest. However, to the tenant’s rescue came the crusading Harvard law students from Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Representing her for free, the students have taken her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court. (Why is it that landlords are not offered the same free legal aid?). The tenant posted an appeal bond so she’s allowed to stay in the apartment while paying the rent during the pendency of the case.

The SJC heard arguments this morning with third year Harvard Law student Louis Fisher arguing the case. (Damn lucky kid!).

The Harvard tenant lawyers are advancing the dangerous argument that a landlord who violates the security deposit law — even in the most minor of circumstances — cannot evict a non-paying tenant.

Scary right? If the Court accepts this argument then tenants will have yet another powerful tool to avoid eviction. The Security Deposit Law is so strict that most landlords make minor errors in holding the deposit. That’s why I have advised that landlords don’t even bother taking security deposits in the first place.

You can guess where I stand on the merits of the case. The security deposit is a separate financial matter between the landlord and tenant which has nothing to do about whether the tenant owes rent or the condition of the property. Those are the two primary issues in a non-payment eviction case. You don’t pay the rent without legal defense, you’re out. Period. Compliance with the security deposit law should have no bearing on a non-payment eviction. The Legislature did not intend otherwise, and regardless, that should not be our policy. Enough is enough already.

You know what else bothers me? These legal aid organizations take on these “test cases” to train law students and get them experience. After all when does a law student ever get to argue a SJC case? Is that really fair and just to small unrepresented landlords like Mr. Meikle who told the justices that his son and fiancee were hoping to live in the apartment?

The SJC should come out with a final ruling in the next few months. Check back here for future developments. In the meantime, I will keep on fighting the good fight for landlords.

Case Link:  Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse SJC-11859

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