massachusetts landlord tenant attorney

criminal-background-checkWidespread Racial Disparities In Criminal Justice System Justifies New Policy

Last week the Obama administration released new controversial Fair Housing guidelines telling the nation’s landlords that it may be discriminatory for them to refuse to rent to those with criminal records. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says refusing to rent based on a criminal record is a form of racial discrimination, due to racial imbalances in the U.S. justice system, despite the fact that criminal history is not a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits both intentional housing discrimination and housing practices that have an unjustified discriminatory effect because of race, national origin, or other protected characteristics,” say HUD’s newly-released guidelines. “Because of widespread racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, criminal history-based restrictions on access to housing are likely disproportionately to burden African-Americans and Hispanics. While the Act does not prohibit housing providers from appropriately considering criminal history information when making housing decisions, arbitrary and overbroad criminal history-related bans are likely to lack a legally sufficient justification.” About 25 percent of Americans have some kind of criminal record, which can range from felony convictions to arrests that never led to charges.

HUD says that landlords may be allowed to bar those with criminal records, but they will have to prove that such a policy is necessary for protecting the safety of other tenants, and designed to avoid illegal discrimination. The new guidance recommends that landlords consider factors such as the severity of the criminal history and how long ago it occurred.

Practice Pointer: Blanket prohibitions denying applicants with criminal histories will get landlords into major trouble under the new HUD policy.

 HUD’s revised guidance discusses the three steps used to analyze claims that a housing provider’s use of criminal history to deny housing opportunities results in a discriminatory effect in violation of the Act.
  • Evaluating whether the criminal history policy or practice has a discriminatory effect
  • Evaluating whether the challenged policy or practice is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest
  • Evaluating whether there is a less discriminatory alternative

Policy Places Burden On Small Landlords

I’m all for giving people a second chance at life, but the major problem with this policy is that it puts the onus and burden on the small landlord to do the criminal history check and then figure out how severe the offense is and what the underlying circumstances are. Also the policy does not advise a landlord exactly how old a crime is to be considered “too old.”

In Massachusetts, a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) report contains only the basic of information of the offense such as the date of arrest/conviction, disposition, court and sentence, if any. There is nothing in the CORI report showing the underlying facts of the crime and it does not include police reports. Thus, for a charge of open and lewd conduct, a landlord does not know whether this is a serious offense or just a college kid urinating in an alley. Under the new HUD policy, landlords now have the burden of playing criminal investigator and assessing whether a crime is not truly serious.

Also, please remember that under the so-called Mrs. Murphy exemption, the federal Fair Housing Act does not apply to owner-occupied rental properties of up to 4 units.

What Now?

So how are landlords going to navigate this new policy? Well, first I would expect that risk-adverse landlords will cut down or stop requesting criminal history information all together. Of course, this puts landlords in a dilemma because they retain a legal duty to keep residents safe, and if they rent out to a known sexual offender, for example, who attacks another resident, they can be sued for millions.

For those who still ask for criminal record information, they will have to offer an applicant the opportunity to explain the circumstances of their arrest/conviction before making a final decision. As with all rental application decisions, it’s best to make the decision rest on financial considerations such as credit, income, and employment.

If you need guidance navigating this new policy, feel free to contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Landlords Cry Foul Over Ruling

In a ruling which reaffirms Massachusetts’ place as one of the most landlord-unfriendly jurisdictions in the country, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that a landlord’s minor security deposit law violation over failing to pay $3.26 in interest can be a complete defense to an eviction case even where the tenant owed thousands in rent. After this ruling, tenants will have another powerful tool to avoid eviction in both no-fault and non-payment cases. A change in this ruling would only come about through legislative action — which is usually a non-starter on Beacon Hill.

Rich’s Legal Advice: I have long advocated to my landlord clients that they NOT take security deposits. This ruling should be the nail in the coffin on that issue.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse

The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law 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. Meikle brought a no-fault eviction case in the Housing Court, but the tenant raised the counterclaim and defense that she did not receive interest on the security deposit. Ruling that the landlord’s minor violation of the security deposit was not a complete defense to the eviction, the Housing Court Judge Marylou Muirhead allowed the eviction to proceed, ordering the tenant to pay the past due rent, but deducting the security deposit plus the $3.26 in unpaid interest. However, the tenant, represented by Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, appealed her case all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Statutory Interpretation

The issue on appeal was the distinction between a counterclaim and a defense for a security deposit violation. Everyone agrees that the tenant can raise a security deposit violation as a counterclaim (entitling the tenant to up to triple damages), but the question was whether such a violation could be a complete defense to an eviction, preventing the landlord from regaining possession of the rental unit. Landlords and yours truly argued that a 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.

Justice Geraldine Hines, writing for SJC, disagreed and found that a security deposit violation was within the list of defenses to an eviction. Despite quite unclear and murky statutory language, the justice was persuaded that the Legislature’s historical tightening of penalties and sanctions against landlords was indicative of the legislative intent to include a deposit violation among the list of available defenses to eviction.

So we’ll have to thank the SJC and the Legislature for sticking it to Massachusetts landlords once again. With tenant activist groups pushing “Just Cause Eviction” i.e, rent control and the Legislature’s continual failure to enact any sensible landlord-tenant reform, no wonder Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most tenant-friendly states in the union.

I’ve embedded the opinion below.

Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse by Richard Vetstein

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ls.jpgI will be speaking about Rental Legal Trends and Security Deposits at the monthly Boston Real Estate Investors Association meeting on November 3, 2015 at the Hilton Hotel – Dedham, 25 Allied Drive, Dedham, MA. Time:  5:30PM-9PM.

Agenda below. It is FREE for anyone who mentions my name!

5:30 PM –  “Meeting Before The Meeting” – Multifamily Investing with Charles Dobens

6:30 PM – Registration & Vendor Area Open

7:00 – 7:30 pm – Announcements, Deal Making, Speed Networking

7:30 – 8:00 pm –  What You Need To Know BEFORE Placing An Offer. Lee Abdella of Walsh Home Inspections will address what you should look for before putting an offer in on a house or before waiting your home inspection!

8:00 – 9:00 pm  – Mass Security Deposit and Rental Law with Richard D. Vetstein Esq.

Boston Real Estate Investors Association on Facebook

I look forward to seeing you next week!

-Rich

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Copyright Josh Reynolds 2010

Landlord Sued for Wrongful Death After Assailant Shoots Four Guests At House Party, Killing One

A landlord’s worst nightmare is someone getting hurt, or worse, shot and killed on their rental property, and then getting sued for wrongful death. This was the situation facing a property owner in Dorchester in the recent case of Belizaire v. Furr, (Appeals Court 13-P-1908 Sept. 11, 2015). Fortunately for the landlord, the Court ultimately concluded that she was not legally responsible for the shooting because there was no reason to predict it would happen. Had the facts been different in this case, the landlord would not have been so luck to escape liability. After discussing this important case, I’ll talk about some ways that landlords can manage their risk.

Shooting at House Party, 5-7 Edson Street, Dorchester

The landlord owned a two-family in Dorchester which she rented out to several individuals. The landlord was fairly lax with written lease agreements, with some of the tenants having leases, but others not. On the night in question, the landlord’s son and one of the occupants (who were friends) hosted a party with a DJ, alcohol and dancing. Carl Belizaire attended the party as a guest. Late at night, an unknown assailant shot up the room, killing Belizaire and injuring three other guest. The assailant was never found or charged. There was no prior history of violence at the property.

Landlord Sued For Wrongful Death

Belizaire’s estate sued the landlord for wrongful death, alleging that she failed to keep the property safe. The Court first analyzed whether there was a tenancy or lease in place, because that would minimize the landlord’s liability and control over injuries occurring on rental property. The landlord’s failure to secure leases with the tenants at the property, particularly the tenant who threw the party, resulted in the court concluding that there was insufficient evidence to rule that there was a valid tenancy in place to shield the landlord from liability.

The Court, however, ultimately ruled that the landlord was not liable for the shooting because there was no evidence of prior shootings or similar violent incidents on the property. Although there was evidence of prior drug activity at the property, the court found this insufficient to support a finding of liability. There was no evidence of other large parties with uninvited guests similar to the one in question taking place on the property. Nor was there any evidence that the landlord was affiliated in any way with, or knowledgeable about, the assailant or any dispute that the assailant may have had with the victim. The evidence submitted suggests that the victim’s death was tied to events beyond the party at the rental property. As a general rule, a landowner does not owe a duty to take affirmative steps to protect against dangerous or unlawful acts of third persons. In certain exceptional circumstances, landlords may be liable for ignoring criminal activities that occur on their premises and were known or should have been known to them. That was not the case here.

Managing The Risks Of Property Ownership: Use Strong Leases and Set Up LLC’s to Hold Title

Many of my landlord clients often worry about liability issues at their rental property. They often ask me whether they can get sued over someone getting hurt on their rental property and what they can do to minimize their risk.

The landlord in this case made some catastrophic mistakes which, had the facts been different, could have resulted in a multi-million dollar liability. The first mistake she made was not securing written leases for all tenants and occupants at the rental property. The form lease that I have drafted contains a unique indemnification clause which would have help shield the landlord for liability for injuries caused by the tenants. The second major mistake made by the landlord was holding title to the rental property in her individual name, thereby exposing her personal assets to a lien or judgment. Although not always appropriate for every landlord, it’s a prudent idea to hold rental property in a limited liability company which would shield the landlord’s personal assets from liability. There is expense to set up the LLC and there is a $500 annual fee, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it relative to the risk of getting sued for wrongful death.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngIf you are a rental property owner and would like advice concerning your leases or would like to discuss setting up an LLC, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352. I would be happy to help you in any way.

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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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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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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-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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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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Avoid The Professional Tenant Like The Plague

Using best practices to screen and select good tenants is the most important thing a Massachusetts landlord can do to avoid costly non-payment and eviction problems down the road, as I have posted about on this Blog. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In my 14 years of practice, I have come across a sub-set of tenants which are extremely dangerous to Massachusetts landlords. They should be avoided like the Plague. I like to call them Professional Tenants.

Let me give you the profile of a typical Professional Tenant. (This is a generalization based on my personal experience, but it’s fairly accurate).

  • History of eviction history and/or delinquency with prior landlords
  • Surprising (and dangerous) knowledge of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law
  • Background in real estate, engineering, contracting
  • Marginal to bad credit: prior history of nonpayment collections, judgments or bankruptcies
  • Gaps in rental history
  • Non-existent or incomplete prior landlord references

The Professional Tenant’s Scheme

Shortly after moving in, they will start to complain about small issues with the rental property. Some will complain to the local board of health to have the landlord cited for code violations. (The state Sanitary Code can trip up even the most conscientious landlord.) Then the Professional Tenant will stop paying rent, claiming they are “withholding rent” due to bad property conditions. Of course, these tenants completely ignore the smart practice that any withheld rent be placed in an escrow account. Then the Professional Tenant will assert the landlord violated the last month rent and security deposit law, and ask for their deposit back, trying to set up the landlord for a triple damage claim.

In the meantime, months go by and the Professional Tenant has failed to pay any rent and the minor code violations, if any, are repaired. The landlord is forced to start eviction proceedings, only to be met with a slew of counterclaims and defenses from the Professional Tenant. The Professional Tenant then sends the landlord a myriad of document requests and interrogatories which automatically delays the eviction hearing by 2 weeks. If the Professional Tenant is really savvy, they will demand a jury trial, which in most small District Courts can delay the eviction by weeks and typically months. Meanwhile, the entire time, the Professional Tenant has still not paid any rent.

Months and thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees later, the landlord finally gets his day in court. And the Professional Tenant doesn’t show up, leaving the landlord with a worthless judgment for thousands in unpaid rent and a trashed apartment.

Screen and Screen Again

The sad thing is that because Massachusetts landlord-tenant law is so tenant friendly, there is not much a landlord can do to avoid this situation, other than not rent to the Professional Tenant in the first place! Once a landlord has signed a lease with a Professional Tenant, they are stuck until the tenant violates the lease. My advice to landlords is to make screening the most important thing you do as a landlord, and do the following:

  • Invest in good credit history checks.
  • Follow up with landlord references
  • Check employment info
  • Check prior bankruptcies
  • If someone seems fishy, they probably are

If you find yourself stuck with a Professional Tenant, give me a call. There are certain things an experienced eviction attorney can do to prevent or minimize these shenanigans. At least you will be fighting back against what I perceive as scam artists.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. Please contact him with any questions.

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Massachusetts Summary Process Evictions: An Unlevel Playing Field For Landlords

How do you evict a tenant in Massachusetts? In Massachusetts, evictions are called “summary process.” According to the rules governing eviction cases, summary process is supposed to be “just, speedy, and inexpensive.” In practice, however, summary process can be anything but that. In fact, as I always inform my landlord clients, Massachusetts is one of the most tenant friendly states in the country, and an eviction can be costly, frustrating and unfair to landlords. In some cases, it can take many months to evict a tenant.

Further, Massachusetts eviction practice is loaded with traps for the unwary and procedural complexities for landlords. Landlords who represent themselves do so at their own peril and will often arrive at court with their cases dismissed for not following these requirements. It’s not a do-it-yourself situation.

Grounds For Eviction

A.      Non-payment

There are several common grounds for evicting a tenant. The most common is for non-payment of rent. In these cases, the landlord must send the tenant a statutory 14 day “notice to quit” before starting the eviction process. The 14 day notice to quit must be drafted carefully, and the best practice is to have it served by a constable or sheriff to ensure proof of delivery. The landlord must prove in court that the tenant received the notice, and service by constable or sheriff will automatically qualify as “good service.” Certified mail is not good enough as tenants can avoid pickup. Having an experienced eviction attorney draft the notice to quit can prevent have your case being “dead on arrival.”

B.      No-Fault

Another common ground for eviction is for termination of a 30 day tenancy at will, otherwise known as a no-fault eviction. Again, a 30 day notice to quit must be served on the tenant before commencing an eviction. Landlords often trip up on this type of notice with short months. In practice, judges will often give tenants in no-fault evictions a bit more leeway in terms of vacating the premises.

C.      For cause

“For cause” evictions encompass the range of bad behavior by tenants in violation of lease provisions. 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. “For cause” evictions are the most involved of all evictions as the landlord must offer proof by way of live testimony of the tenant’s violations of the lease. Getting police officers to show up for an eviction hearing can be challenging. For drugs and other illegal activity, Massachusetts also has a special expedited eviction process.

Read our post on the Massachusetts Notice To Quit: Don’t Be Dead On Arrival At Eviction Court

Going to Court

Starting an eviction requires the preparation and service of a Summary Process Summons and Complaint. You can choose to file your case in the local District Court or the Housing Court which is specialized to hear evictions. The Housing Court fees are less expensive, but can be busier. Some Housing Court judges have the reputation of being tenant or landlord friendly as well. Some would probably be happier retired and playing golf. It’s a tough job these days.

The summary process summons and complaint form is complicated to the layperson. It must be first served by a constable or sheriff on the tenant. Then, no less than 7 days after, it must be filed with the court by the “entry date,” which is always a Monday. The hearings are almost always on Thursday morning. Again, it’s best to have an experienced Massachusetts eviction attorney handle the legal paperwork.

Tenant Defenses and Counterclaims

Through the use of discovery requests, defenses and counterclaims, tenants in Massachusetts have ample legal means to delay and beat evictions. All tenants have a right to file “discovery” – formal requests for information and documents – from the landlord, which will automatically delay the hearing for two weeks. The tenant also may assert defenses and counterclaims against the landlord. These can range from improper notice or service, state Sanitary Code violations, no heat/hot water, failure to make repairs, retaliation, discrimination, and violations of the security deposit law—which carries triple damages and attorneys’ fees. (See my prior post on security deposits). Regardless of the merits of such claims, these defenses and counterclaims make the eviction process more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive.

Read my post on the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code — Everything A Landlord Wanted To Know But Was Afraid To Ask

Agreements for Judgment and Mediation

Eviction sessions are very busy. In some courts, there are over 100 cases stacked up on any one day and only one judge to hear them all. Accordingly, the courts will encourage parties to work out their differences on their own through mediation which is an informal sit-down between the parties to discuss ways to resolve the case. Some courts have housing specialists who can preside over the mediation session. Mediation is always non-binding so if no agreement can be reached you can proceed to a trial.

In the Housing Court, there are trained housing specialists who facilitate the mediation process. There are many advantages for landlords to mediation, and I almost always recommend giving it a try. The end result of a mediation is for the parties to sign an agreement for judgment. In a non-payment case, you can structure a payment plan and/or voluntary move-out. For a “cause” eviction, you can provide for a “last chance” agreement or move-out. The major benefit for landlords is that an agreement for judgment becomes a binding court order and the judge is supposed to enforce it upon proof of a violation. It also shows the judge that the landlord has been reasonable and accommodating. Experienced Massachusetts eviction attorneys will also make the tenants waive their rights to appeal and right to delay the case any further so as to avoid last minute requests for more time to vacate.

On the other hand, sometimes the situation is untenable and you have to go before the judge. Some judges hold a basic hearing, giving both sides the opportunity to speak. Some judges, particularly in the Housing Court, are more formal and require an actual trial with live witnesses and exhibits. I’ve had hearings last one minute and jury trials in eviction cases go on for days. But I’m always prepared to put on a case on for trial, as I always have my client present in court or on standby.

Appeals

Tenants in eviction cases do have a fairly robust right of appeal which can greatly delay resolution of the case. (A good reason in and of itself to do an agreement for judgment waiving appeal rights). However, in certain cases, the landlord can ask the court to impose an appeal bond so the tenant must pay rent into court to proceed with the appeal. Most tenants do not have the financial ability to do that, so that will terminate the appeal.

If you have any questions or need assistance with a Massachusetts summary process eviction, please contact me via email at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts summary process & eviction attorney who has handled over 2,000 eviction cases all across Massachusetts. For help with a landlord tenant matter, please email him at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or call him at 508-620-5352.

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Rent Deposits: To Take Or Not To Take?

With the students invading Boston any minute now, it’s a good idea to review last month’s rent and security deposits – one of the most heavily regulated aspects of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law and fraught with pitfalls and penalties for the unwary, careless landlord. In my experience, landlords who handle rent deposits correctly are the exception, rather than the norm.

If you don’t really know the rules for handling last month’s and security deposits, DON’T TAKE THEM. The reason is that any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts last month’s rent and security deposit law can subject a landlord to far greater liability than the deposit, including penalties up to triple the amount of the deposit and payment of the tenant’s attorneys’ fees.

Read More: Landlord Prevented From Evicting Tenant Over $3.26 In Interest

If a deposit is necessary, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which are less strict than security deposits. Here is an overview of the security deposit law:

Requirements For Holding A Security Deposit

The following steps must be followed when a landlord holds a security deposit:

  1. When the deposit is tendered, the landlord must give the tenant a written receipt which provides:
    • the amount of the deposit
    • the name of the landlord/agent
    • the date of receipt
    • the property address.
  2. Within 30 days of the money being deposited, the landlord must provide the tenant with a receipt identifying the bank where the deposit is held, the amount and account number.
  3. Within 10 days after the tenancy begins, the landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the premises detailing its condition and any damage with a required disclosure statement;
  4. The tenant has an opportunity to note any other damage to the premises, and the landlord must agree or disagree with the final statement of condition and provide it to the tenant.
  5. The security deposit must be held in a separate interest bearing account in a Massachusetts  financial institution protected from the landlord’s creditors.
  6. The landlord must pay the tenant interest on the security deposit annually if held for more than one year.
  7. The security deposit may only be used to reimburse the landlord for unpaid rent, reasonable damage to the unit or unpaid tax increases if part of the lease. Security deposits cannot be used for general eviction costs or attorneys’ fees. Within 30 days of the tenant’s leaving, the landlord must return the deposit plus any unpaid interest or provide a sworn, itemized list of deductions for damage with estimates for the work. Only then can the landlord retain the security deposit.

What Do I Do If A Tenant Claims I Violated The Security Deposit?

First, talk with the tenant about the situation. Most issues can be resolved amicably, usually with the return of the deposit with interest. That’s always my advice to landlords. If that doesn’t work, call me.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts residential landlord – tenant attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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peeling-paint.jpgBreaking News (8/10/10): Two Local Real Estate Firms Fined By Mass. Attorney General For Lead Paint Housing Discrimination

My Boston.com fellow blogger, buyer’s agent Rona Fischman, has fielded several questions recently regarding the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law. Prospective renters have called apartment listings only to be hung up on abruptly with a “It’s not deleaded!” if they hear a child in the background or if they answer truthfully about having children. Mothers have received termination notices when the landlord discovers they are pregnant – usually of course for tenancies at will. Finally, there is a listing this week in a local paper for an owner occupied 2 family rental which states “Unit Not Deleaded” right in the ad.

The short answer is these are all likely violations of the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, and could expose the offending landlords to stiff penalties and damages.

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, whenever a child under six years of age comes to live in a rental property, the property owner has a responsibility to discover whether there is any lead paint on the property and to de-lead to protect the young children living there. A property owner or real estate agent cannot get around the legal requirements to disclose information about known lead hazards 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.

As the stories above show, landlords routinely flaunt, or are just plain ignorant of, the law. The issue becomes what to do about it and is it worth the time and aggravation? I guess that depends on your situation. Certainly, if you are being threatened with a discriminatory eviction, your first step should be to contact the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and your local Fair Housing Commission. In a recent case, the MCAD hit a property owner with $25,000 in damages and fines for evicting a young family to avoid de-leading. Next consider hiring a housing discrimination attorney. If you are low on funds, the atMassachusetts Lead Paint Lawtorney may agree to take the case on a contingency because violations of the lead paint law and discrimination laws provide for the reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and enhanced damages.

As for the “Unit Not Deleaded” ad, while may be truthful, it might as well read “Children Under 6 Not Wanted.” I would advise a landlord to avoid this sort of indirect discriminatory preference.

Lastly, the law is conflicting regarding owner occupied two family homes.  Chapter 151B, the state anti-discrimination law, exempts owner occupied two family homes from the prohibition of discrimination against children. However, there is no such exemption written into the lead paint law. So if a child is born into a owner occupied 2 family, it must be de-leaded. Vacation/recreational rents and short term (31 days or less) rentals are also exempt from the lead paint law.

As always, contact me, Attorney Richard Vetstein with any questions.

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images-9My last post on this blog and on Boston.com on Massachusetts landlord-tenant law spawned many questions on the Massachusetts security deposit law.  So, I decided to go into more detail about the topic.

Massachusetts Security Deposits–An Overview

Last month’s rent and security deposits are one of the most heavily regulated aspects of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law and are fraught with pitfalls and penalties for the unwary, careless landlord. Any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts last month’s rent and security deposit law can subject a landlord to far greater liability than the deposit, including penalties up to triple the amount of the deposit and payment of the tenant’s attorneys’ fees. This is why I advise landlords not to require security deposits. If a deposit is necessary, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which are less strict than security deposits. If landlords insist on taking a security deposit, they must follow the law to the letter.

Requirements For Holding A Security Deposit

The following steps must be followed when a landlord holds a security deposit:

  1. When the deposit is tendered, the landlord must give the tenant a written receipt which provides:
    • the amount of the deposit
    • the name of the landlord/agent
    • the date of receipt
    • the property address.
  2. Within 30 days of the money being deposited, the landlord must provide the tenant with a receipt identifying the bank where the deposit is held, the amount and account number.
  3. Within 10 days after the tenancy begins, the landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the premises detailing its condition and any damage with a required disclosure statement;
  4. The tenant has an opportunity to note any other damage to the premises, and the landlord must agree or disagree with the final statement of condition and provide it to the tenant.
  5. The security deposit must be held in a separate interest bearing account in a Massachusetts  financial institution protected from the landlord’s creditors.
  6. The landlord must pay the tenant interest on the security deposit annually if held for more than one year.
  7. The security deposit may only be used to reimburse the landlord for unpaid rent, reasonable damage to the unit or unpaid tax increases if part of the lease. Security deposits cannot be used for general eviction costs or attorneys’ fees. Within 30 days of the tenant’s leaving, the landlord must return the deposit plus any unpaid interest or provide a sworn, itemized list of deductions for damage with estimates for the work. Only then can the landlord retain the security deposit.

What Do I Do If The Landlord Mishandles My Security Deposit?

First, talk with the landlord about the situation and respectfully remind him or her of the law’s requirements. Many landlords will balk at the potential penalties for a security deposit violation, and most issues can be resolved amicably, usually with the return of the deposit with interest. If that doesn’t work, send the landlord a certified demand letter under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. If that fails, take the landlord to Small Claims Court (the limit for these type of claims involving triple damages is $6,000) or contact an attorney.

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istock_000008947813xsmall-300x223.jpgWith the impending influx of renters and students invading the Greater Boston area soon, let’s review some often asked questions concerning Massachusetts landlord tenant law to assist landlords in navigating the rental process.

Screening Prospective Tenants: What You Can and Cannot Ask?

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 as they can be held liable for renting to a known offender. 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.

Students, especially undergraduates, 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.

Careful screening of tenants is far less expensive than the cost of evicting a problem tenant.

Security And Last Month’s Rent Deposits:  Should I Take One?

I advise landlords not to take security deposits because any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts security deposit law can subject the landlord to far greater liability than the deposit. Among other requirements, the security deposit law provides:

  • a landlord must give the tenant a written receipt with information as to where the deposit is being held;
  • a landlord must hold a security deposit in a separate interest bearing account, and pay interest to the tenant yearly;
  • at the beginning of the tenancy, a landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the rental unit detailing its condition and any damage;
  • the tenant may note any damage on the statement of condition
  • At the end of the tenancy, if the landlord desires to deduct repair costs from the security deposit, it must provide the tenant with written notification and copies of all estimates within 30 days of the tenant’s move-out.

Under the law, any slip-up on these requirements can subject the landlord to liability for 3 times the deposit plus the tenant’s attorneys’ fees. That’s why I advise my landlord clients that security deposits aren’t worth the money. If you need a deposit, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which can be found here in the Massachusetts last month’s deposit law.

Due to the high interest in security deposits, I wrote a full post on the topic.  Click on Massachusetts Security Deposits to view the article.

My Property Has Lead Paint, What Do I Do?

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, landlords (and real estate agents) must disclose to tenants the presence of known lead paint for property built before 1978. The property must be de-leaded if a child under 6 will live there. That means if a young couple moves into a unit, then has a baby, the landlord must de-lead the property. There is no way around de-leading other than risking a discrimination claim for not renting to families with small children which is illegal. (Of course, many landlords unlawfully reject families with children). Exposing children to lead paint puts a landlord at huge legal risk.  Financial aid and tax credits for de-leading are available to qualified property owners. For all Massachusetts rental property built before 1978, landlords must provide all tenants regardless of family composition with a Massachusetts Tenant Notification and Certification form, and all lead inspection reports and testing information, if available.

Can I Take A Finder’s Fee?

Only a licensed real estate broker can lawfully collect a finder’s fee for bringing together a landlord and a tenant.  Landlords who don’t work with brokers cannot charge a finder’s fee.

For more information, I recommend reading the Landlord’s Guide To the Law by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. Please contact him with any questions.

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