Massachusetts Housing Court

Judge-Timothy-SullivanGov. Baker Earmarks $1M for Expansion

The Housing Court expansion plan to have statewide coverage has been gaining political momentum, but whether the plan will receive the long-term funding it needs to make it a reality remains a question mark. The Governor’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal earmarks $1 million for the court’s expansion, which calls for its jurisdiction to be widened with the addition of a sixth division and its bench increased from 10 to 15 judges.

While supporters are pleased with the language in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget, which authorizes the Housing Court’s structural changes through a so-called outside section, Trial Court officials estimate that the annual cost of the proposal would be more than double the earmarked sum, reaching up to $2.4 million. “The $1 million will allow us to ramp up over a period of time,” Housing Court Chief Justice Timothy F. Sullivan (shown right) told Mass. Lawyers Weekly last week. “We don’t expect it will happen overnight. We’ll have to grow into our new roles.” Meanwhile, House and Senate bills are pending that seek a larger statewide court as well, providing access to those who currently do not fall within the court’s jurisdiction — about one-third of the state’s population.

The budget and legislative proposals call for adding a Metro South Division that would encompass all of Norfolk County (Dedham) — except Brookline — plus Abington, Bridgewater, Brockton, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater and Whitman. Four of the five existing divisions would absorb additional communities, which includes the highly populated MetroWest area including Framingham, Newton, Cambridge and the rest of Middlesex County.

Of the five new judges that would be added, two would be assigned to the Metro South Division; the circuit judge pool would grow from one to three; and the Northeastern Division would take on an additional judge.

Guarded Support

As I told Mass. Lawyers Weekly, I am a “guarded supporter” of the expansion. Most landlord groups do not consider the Housing Court a level playing field and prefer to have their cases heard in District Court. While the Housing Court’s housing specialists and mediators can help matters move quickly, the volume of cases at some courts can be a bottleneck. “You have to look at the number of cases versus the number of judges available to handle the cases. That’s going to be an important consideration,” I told MLW.

We also need to look at the pro bono legal support available to both sides of the dispute. In Boston Housing Court, for example, there is a small army of Harvard law students ready to assist tenants free of charge. There is no comparable service for small unrepresented landlords, and that’s not fair.

Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the MassLandlords.net trade group, agreed. Though the Housing Court has a process — not available in District Court — that allows landlords and tenants to mediate first and then move directly to trial if an agreement cannot be reached, his trade group would like to see some of the “lopsided, tenant-centric” laws corrected if the Housing Court is expanded, he said. “The laws build in procedural delays that tenants become more aware of in Housing Court. Let’s look at changing these laws,” Quattrochi suggested.

I would fully support the Housing Court expansion if the legislation were linked to the passing of the rent escrow bill and other reforms to make landlord-tenant laws fairer to landlords.

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DSC_0418Gov. Baker Selects Newton Lawyer For Housing Court |  Now First Trial Court With Female Majority

Maria Theophilis (pictured right in red), a 46 year old partner in the Newton law firm of Broderick Bancroft, has been selected by Gov. Baker to sit as a new judge of the Housing Court. Theophilis replaces Chief Justice Steven D. Pierce, who retired Sept. 30, 2015.

Theophilis was nominated by Governor Charlie Baker who stated to the Metrowest Daily News that “throughout her career, Maria has provided support to those seeking an outspoken advocate on their behalf. Combined with her lengthy record of proceedings before the Housing Court on behalf of both tenants and landlords, I know she carries all the requisite experience to provide sound decisions from the bench.”

Some landlords and small property owners, however, may be a bit concerned about Theophilis’ legal background. She was a staff attorney for several years with Greater Boston Legal Services, which represents tenants and advances a very liberal social agenda. She was also worked for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Committee for Public Counsel Services — also two very left leaning public interest groups. More recently, however, she represented property owners as a partner in private practice.

That said, Theophilis has deep experience on both sides of the landlord-tenant relationship which is very important. By all accounts, she has an excellent reputation and was voted in unanimously by the often fickle Governor’s Council which says a lot these days. Plus, she was picked by Republican Governor Baker, who is has been doing a good job with judicial appointments, in my opinion. As with any new justice, she deserves the benefit of the doubt as she steps on the bench for the first time. It’s a tough job.

Theophilis is the sixth woman selected for the Housing Court, which now has a majority of female justices. I believe that no other trial court department can claim that accomplishment.

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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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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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Another Expansion Of Massachusetts Landlord Liability

In yet another case demonstrating Massachusetts’ inhospitable legal environment towards residential landlords, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman has ruled that an owner of a mixed used residential – commercial building is “strictly liable” for a drunk tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail. The 17-page ruling is Sheehan v. Weaver, and is embedded below. The imposition of strict liability, sometimes called absolute or no-fault liability, makes landlords 100% liable for the injuries of tenants where there is a building code violation, regardless of whether the tenant was equally at fault for the accident. This is a troubling ruling and another reason supporting the notion that Massachusetts is landlord unfriendly!

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. One of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. There was evidence that Sheehan was intoxicated, however, 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 plaintiff’s own negligence. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages.

Building Code Violation At Issue

The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict (100%) liability for any personal injuries caused by any building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The landlord argued that the primarily residential structure was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. But Judge David D. Kerman disagreed:

“[T]he structure in this case may well be at the outer margin of the class of structures that fall within the ambit of the term ‘building’ in the strict liability law,” wrote Kerman. “However, it is my opinion that the mixed residential-commercial four-unit non-owner-occupied structure in this case is ‘commercial’ and ‘public’ enough to fit within the term ‘building’ in section 51.”

The imposition of strict liability resulted in the landlord being hit with the full amount of the $242,000 judgment with no reduction for the tenant’s comparative negligence due to his intoxication. Ouch.

Commentary: Bad Decision

As I stated to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, this is a troubling ruling. The Building Code provision, passed in the late 1800’s, was clearly intended to cover structures with a distinctively commercial nature, i.e., “public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishing or building.” The law was not intended to cover a predominantly residential apartment building with commercial/retail on the ground floor, in my opinion.

This ruling will now expand liability for residential developers who have built quite a number of mixed-use residential projects in the last few years. This decision can be read as providing strict liability for anyone injured due to any type of building code violation, however minor. Property managers and commercial insurers should be aware of this ruling, and ensure that there are no building code issues which could cause harm to tenants.

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.

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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.

Sheehan v. Weaver

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