Rent Escrow Orders Upheld by Supreme Judicial Court

by Rich Vetstein on September 16, 2019

Huge Victory for Landlords and Property Managers

Today, in Davis v. Comerford, Justice Scott Kafker of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued the first appellate decision confirming that Housing Court and District Court judges have the legal authority to issue rent escrow orders in favor of landlords while eviction cases are pending. The hard working folks at MassLandlords, who filed a friend of the court brief in the case, and I have been working very hard to get this much needed ruling and guidance from our appellate courts on rent escrow orders. It finally came today.

For those who don’t know, a rent escrow order is an order issue by a Housing or District Court judge in an eviction case requiring the tenant to continue to pay rent (also called use and occupancy) during the pendency of the case which can drag on for many months. It seems like common sense, and several housing court judges do issue them, but up until now, there has never been a formal ruling by a Massachusetts appellate court that rent escrow orders were legal. The district courts, however, in my experience, have traditionally been unwilling to grant these orders.

Davis v. Comerford: Seminal Ruling on Rent Escrow Orders

In the Davis v. Comerford, the Southeastern Housing Court in Brockton issued a rent escrow order in a case where the tenant also claimed various housing code violations and security deposit violations. Arguing that the judge did not properly consider tenant’s counterclaims, he appealed the rent escrow order.

The SJC took the unusual step of transferring the case to its full court panel, using it as an opportunity to consider the legality of rent escrow orders in general, and the various factors that lower court judges should consider in making these orders. First, the Court confirmed what we landlord attorneys have been arguing for years — that rent escrow orders are fully within the statutory umbra and equitable powers of the Housing and District Courts, and should be issued on a case-by-case basis. Second, the Appeals Court held that a tenant’s counterclaims for code violations, property conditions and other defenses are relevant in the calculation of any rent escrow order. Third and lastly, the Court set forth a framework for lower courts to use in considering rent escrow orders, which I will outline below.

Factors for Judges to Consider in Issuing Rent Escrow Orders

  • A landlord must file a written motion for rent escrow. A hearing must be held on the motion, and the judge should issue written findings supporting his/her ruling.
  • A judge should consider the time delay expected before trial or final resolution, noting that a request for a jury trial will typically delay the case substantially.
  • A judge should consider the amount of rent due, whether the landlord has received full or partial payments, and (critically) the amount of the landlord’s mortgage and property expenses and whether there is a threat of foreclosure to the landlord.
  • The tenant’s counterclaims and defenses (and the merits of each) should be considered, especially any code violation/property condition claims which would result in a reduced fair rental amount.
  • A judge should consider whether the tenant had to pay out of pocket for any repairs under the repair and deduct law.
  • The tenant’s own financial situation is also relevant, as well as whether they have a lawyer or are proceeding on their own (pro se).
  • Rent escrow payments may be placed into court, into the tenant’s attorneys account, into a landlord attorney’s account, or if warranted, paid directly to the landlord

This is a great ruling by the SJC, and will be very helpful to both the landlord and tenant bar as cases move forward in our Housing and District Courts. I was also able to discuss this case with Attorney Arthur Doubleday, who represented the tenant. He said: “I am happy with the decision because it gives clarity and a road map through which Judges can now deny or allow use and occupancy orders.  Whereas before, use and occupancy orders were Judge specific, hopefully soon we will begin to see uniformity and in how these orders are denied or allowed. The requirement for an evidentiary hearing and a written finding after such hearing will let both tenants and landlords give their reasons as to why a use and occupancy order should or should not be made. That said, I am fearful that landlords will prevail in their request for use and occupancy orders even when there are poor living conditions for the tenants who may not know how to advocate for themselves in court.” I do agree with much of what Attorney Doubleday says, however, I’m confident that our Housing Court judges are up to the task in considering all the various factors which go into a rent escrow request.

If you have any questions about this court ruling or rent escrow orders in general, please reach out to me at [email protected].

Previous post:

Next post: