MA rental law

SJC Hears Important Security Deposit Case

by Rich Vetstein on November 5, 2015

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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In a few weeks, the *quiet* streets of Allston, Brighton, Cambridge, Boston and other Massachusetts tenant friendly cities will turn into the zoo that is known as student moving week. So it’s time to review frequently asked questions for Massachusetts landlord tenant rental law.

Screening Prospective Tenants

Landlords can legally ask about a tenant’s income, current employment, prior landlord references, credit history, and criminal history. Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information).  Use CORI information with a great deal of caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry to ascertain whether a potential tenant could be a safety risk to others nearby. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Under Massachusetts discrimination laws, 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. It’s best to stay away from asking about these topics.

The Boston Undergraduate Rule

Update: Dec. 2011Renting To 4 or More College Students Considered Illegal Lodging House. Click Here to Read More.

Under a two year old Boston zoning ordinance, no more than four (4) full time undergraduate students may live together in a single apartment.  The rule does not apply to graduate students or fraternity/sorority houses. The fines for violating this ordinance are stiff; don’t do it.

While on this topic, landlords should ensure that all roommates are signatories to the lease and are “jointly and severally” liable for rent. That way, if one tenant skips out, the remaining tenants remain liable for the full rent.

Students often create problems for landlords. Meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here.

Pets

Subject to some restrictions, landlords may prohibit pets altogether or use reasonable rules to control them on rental property. Under federal law, a landlord cannot prohibit a qualified disabled tenant from using a service pet such as a seeing eye dog. There are also restrictions on prohibiting household pets for federally subsidized elderly and disabled housing project.

More topics, including last month/security deposits and illegal lease clauses, to follow next!

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