Sherwin Law Firm Succeeds in Case of Easement by Prescription

I’m pleased to announce that I prevailed in a case last week involving an easement by prescription for residential property.  This case involved many interesting areas of Massachusetts property law.

Overview of the Case

My clients were homeowners who, for the past thirty years, had used a nearby paved lot by their home to park their cars.  Along with parking their cars, they regularly maintained the lot and performed improvements on the walls that surrounded the property.

Several years ago, someone else purchased this parking lot and demanded that my clients pay rent to use it.  My clients, who spent years using the lot as their own, were understandably upset about this turn of events and sought my legal advice on what could be done about this problem.

My Approach

I filed a lawsuit against the new owner of the property seeking a declaratory judgment that my clients were entitled to permanent use of the parking lot.  A declaratory judgment is a court order to determine one’s rights under the law.  A court order like this is needed in a case where the goal of the lawsuit is not money, but rather, a legal declaration from a court.

In this lawsuit, I asked for an easement by prescription for my clients.  An easement by prescription is a permanent right to use someone else’s land.  An easement by prescription requires the following:

  • The use of the property must be adverse for at least twenty years.  This  means that the person seeking an easement by prescription must show that the owner of the subject property never gave them permission to use the property.
  • The use of the property must constitute actual use.  This means that the person using the property used it in a way that property of that type is commonly used.
  • The use of the property must be open and notorious.  Simply put, the use of the property must put the actual owner on fair notice that someone else is using his or her property.

An easement by prescription is similar to adverse possession, which is a legal claim for permanent ownership of property that is used for twenty years.  The critical difference is that a claim of adverse possession requires a party to prove that their use of the property was exclusive, and  that the record owner of the property was “cut off” from the property.

An easement by prescription does not require proof of exclusive use.  Easements by prescription are commonly used for cases involving the right to use a road for access to land and for beach and waterfront rights (common in Cape Cod and other coastal areas of Massachusetts).

Outcome 

As with all claims of adverse possession and easements by prescription, the “devil is in the details.”  Proving one of these claims requires an understanding of how the subject property was used for the past twenty years, which often requires going through extensive land records, photographs, and other evidence related to the property’s use.  A trial for one of these cases requires that this evidence be presented to the Court in a way that coherently explains the required elements above.

In the end, the work on this case was worth it: following a trial, the Court agreed with our claim, and granted my clients a permanent easement for parking.

Lessons for Property Owners In Similar Cases 

Claims for adverse possession and easement by prescription may, at first blush, appear to be trivial, with neighbors fighting over small parcels of property.   In actuality, these disputes concern incredibly important matters.  Here, parking access was essential to my clients, who lived in a city that had limited off-street parking, making this easement by prescription a huge benefit to my clients’ home.

If you find yourself in a dispute involving the use of property, contact me for a consultation.  A lesson of this case is that long standing use of property, under the right conditions, can allow for a permanent right to access or ownership .  An experienced real estate attorney can help you decide if one of these claims is worth pursuing.

Advice for Moving in Boston

Advice for Moving

As hard as it is to believe, summer is about to end, meaning that Boston’s unofficial “moving day” is about to begin.  With dozens of college and graduate students, young professionals, and other renters in the Boston area, the beginning of September is the busiest time of the year for moving.  If you are one of the many who will be moving this week, here is some advice for moving.  While this is aimed for those in Boston, this advice generally pertains to any landlord or tenant in Massachusetts.

Get Everything in Writing and Save Copies For Yourself

Arguably the most important advice for moving is to get everything in writing, and keep copies for yourself.  If you’re signing a lease, giving or accepting first and last month’s rent, or otherwise agreeing to an particular term of your tenancy, you want this in writing.  Just as important, be sure you keep copies for yourself.

Take Photos of An Apartment When Moving In and Out

If you are moving in or out of an apartment, take advantage of your smartphone’s camera and take pictures of your unit.  Disputes over the condition of a rental unit can easily be resolved if the tenant or landlord has photographic evidence of the apartment.  Even if you are certain that no problems will arise, take five minutes and do this simple step.  Even better, ask a friend or family member to come with you to the apartment, so you have a witness if such a problem does come up.  This is a simple piece of advice for moving that can make all the difference later on.

Know What to Do About Poor Conditions in a Rental Unit 

Another important piece of advice for moving is to know what to do if your apartment is not in the condition it is suppose to be.  In such a case, you should immediately contact the landlord, report the problem (in writing), and give the landlord an opportunity to correct the defects.  If the landlord fails to take care of it, you can file a complaint with the City of Boston Inspectional Services (if you are renting outside of Boston, contact your town or city government for the appropriate agency to file a complaint).

It is important to know that a landlord cannot retaliate against a tenant for filing such a complaint.  In other words, the landlord cannot “punish” a tenant by evicting them or changing the terms of their tenancy.

For landlords, be certain to address complaints in an apartment promptly.  Failure to do so can lead to larger problems down the road.

Be Aware of Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law

Massachusetts has one of the strictest security deposit laws in the country.  This law is so long and detailed that most do not understand all of its provisions, and many landlords fail to comply with it.  For this reason, I advise that landlords do not accept a security deposit.  If you are a landlord and have accepted a security deposit, consider speaking to a landlord-tenant attorney to ensure you are in compliance with this law.

For tenants, problems with security deposits often arise when tenants attempt to get their deposits back.  If you are having such a problem, an attorney may be able to help.  Massachusetts’s security deposit law provides for attorney fees and treble damages against landlords who do not follow this law.

Don’t Get “Storrowed”

In addition to always having traffic, Storrow Drive is known for being a “trap for the unwary” on moving day.  Trucks are not allowed on this parkway, and each year, at least one renter makes the news for getting stuck under one of Storrow Drive’s many bridges.  Don’t let this be you.

If you need help with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

5B Affidavits

Massachusetts has an important law allowing for the clarification of potential issues in the ownership of property.  G.L. 183, § 5B provides for the following:

Subject to section 15 of chapter 184, an affidavit made by a person claiming to have personal knowledge of the facts therein stated and containing a certificate by an attorney at law that the facts stated in the affidavit are relevant to the title to certain land and will be of benefit and assistance in clarifying the chain of title may be filed for record and shall be recorded in the registry of deeds where the land or any part thereof lies.

Commonly known as “5B Affidavits”, these affidavits allow for the recording of information relevant to real property.  5B affidavits can be used to correct problems arising with Massachusetts real estate, such as potential problems involving the conveyance of property.  I have found 5B affidavits to be useful for foreclosure related matters; a foreclosure by entry, which is a foreclosure that begins with the recording of a certificate in the land records, requires a homeowner to oppose this foreclosure within three years of this certificate’s filing in the land records.  A 5B affidavit can be used as a means of preventing this type of foreclosure from occurring.

5B affidavits, importantly, must be certified by an attorney.  The law does not allow a non-attorney to record one of these affidavits on their own.

While 5B affidavits are commonly used for real estate matters, there is surprisingly little caselaw on the limits to how these affidavits can be used.  Although the law is written broadly, for use in “clarifying the chain of title” for real estate, I take the position that an attorney should exercise caution in recording such an affidavit.  A 5B affidavit should have a good faith basis in law and fact, and have a real purpose for the respective property it pertains to.  An affidavit that does not meet this standard can potentially subject a property owner (and attorney) to potential liability.

If you find yourself in a real estate dispute, contact me for a consultation.

How to Stop Foreclosure in Massachusetts

How to Stop Foreclosure in Massachusetts

In this blog post, I want to discuss the options available to stop foreclosure in Massachusetts.  Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state, meaning that a bank does not need to go to court to foreclose a home.  Instead, a bank can foreclose through sending a number of required notices to the homeowner and publishing these notices in a local newspaper.  As such, the options for stopping a foreclosure are not as apparent as they would be if the matter occurred in a court case (such as the eviction process required against tenants).   Fortunately, homeowners do have options available to stop foreclosure in Massachusetts.

Applying for a Loan Modification 

A homeowner’s first option to stop foreclosure is applying for a loan modification.  A loan modification is a restructuring of a mortgage loan to make the payments more affordable for the homeowner.  Federal law often requires banks to stop foreclosure after a borrower applies for a loan modification, and many banks (allegedly) have policies that put foreclosure sales on hold while an application is under review.

A common misconception among many homeowners is that any submitted loan modification application will stop foreclosure.  This is not correct.  While a loan modification application submitted well in advance of a foreclosure sale will generally put a foreclosure on hold, a bank will not necessarily stop foreclosure if it receives a application close to a scheduled foreclosure sale.  Moreover, many banks, who are overwhelmed with loan modification applications and understaffed, sometimes “forget” to stop a foreclosure sale, even after telling the homeowner they would do so.

If you apply for a loan modification, you should confirm with the bank that no foreclosure sale is pending, and try to get this in writing.  Moreover, you should closely watch the situation to make sure a foreclosure sale is not scheduled.  If you have reason to believe a foreclosure is going to occur, read on for the other options to stop foreclosure.

Filing Bankruptcy 

Another option to stop foreclosure is to file bankruptcy.  Bankruptcy puts an automatic stay on all actions by creditors, including foreclosure.  I am not a bankruptcy lawyer, so you should speak to an experienced professional in this area of law to decide if this option is right for you.

Obtaining the Assistance of A Foreclosure Defense Attorney 

If a homeowner is unable to stop foreclosure on their own, it is time to speak with a foreclosure defense attorney.  An experienced attorney can determine whether there are legal options available for requesting a court order to stop foreclosure.  An attorney may be able to obtain a preliminary injunction from a court, which is a court order preventing a bank from foreclosing while the lawsuit proceeds.

If you find yourself in need of assistance with such a matter, contact me for a consultation.

Help With A Security Deposit

Help With A Security Deposit

Both tenants and landlords can benefit from help with a security deposit.  Massachusetts’s security deposit law is not light reading, and often requires even the most experienced landlord-tenant attorney to review the law more than once to understand its many, many provisions.  An experienced attorney can often provide invaluable help with a security deposit matter.

Landlords Who Have Accepted A Security Deposit From a Tenant

I, along with many other attorneys (as well as a former Housing Court judge) recommend that landlords do not take a security deposit from a tenant.  The law has too many requirements for a landlord to comply with, and the risks of violating the law are steep, which can include treble damages, attorney fees, and costs.

For landlords, help with a security deposit often involves determining whether a landlord complied with the law’s detailed requirements.  If a landlord has erred in holding one of these deposits, an attorney can often help assist a landlord in avoiding or minimizing the damages that can arise from violating this law.

If you’re a landlord, don’t make the assumption that you need to wait until a problem arises to get help with a security deposit.  A consultation with a landlord-tenant attorney can often help determine if you have violated any part of the law, and determine the best way to avoid a larger problem down the road.

Tenants Who Cannot Get Their Security Deposits Back

For tenants, help with a security deposit often involves legal action against a landlord for failing to properly return a deposit.  Massachusetts’s security deposit law explicitly provides for attorney fees in such cases: the purpose being to give tenants incentives for pursuing these claims.  A landlord-tenant attorney can help you determine if you have grounds for pursuing a security deposit claim and the best court for pursuing such a matter.

Conclusion 

I provide assistance to both landlords and tenants with security deposit matters.  My experience in representing both types of clients provides me a unique perspective on this area of law.  If you find yourself in need of help with a security deposit matter, contact me for a consultation.

 

 

Real Estate Contract Disputes

Real Estate Contract Disputes

Real estate contract disputes can arise over the selling and purchase of property.  Given that transfers in real estate have much at stake, these disputes can often become contentious and require the assistance of an experienced property attorney.

Avoiding Real Estate Disputes in the First Place 

Avoiding a potential problem in the first place in a real estate contract should always be a central consideration in entering into such an agreement.  If you are considering selling or purchasing property, you should always seek the assistance of an experienced attorney in preparing such an agreement.  An attorney can often help identify potential problems that might arise later on, and offer advice to protect yourself if a dispute develops.

Ways to Protect Real Estate When a Dispute Arises

A primary, immediate concern for real estate contract disputes is protecting the underlining property.  For example, if you entered into a contract to purchase property, and the seller intends to sell the property to someone else, your immediate goal is to do something to stop the sale.  Similarly, if the subject property is being damaged or neglected, you would want something done immediately to cure the problem.  Fortunately, the law offers some safeguards when these problems arise.

One common device used in real estate contract disputes is a lis pendens.  A lis pendens is a notice of a lawsuit involving an interest in real property, which is recorded in the land records.  This is a simple notice stating the name and case number of the underlining lawsuit, which must be endorsed by the  court.  A lis pendens is effective in real estate contract disputes because, as a public document, it puts any potential buyers of the property on notice about the underlining lawsuit.  Few buyers would be willing to purchase real estate if the property is subject to ongoing legal action.

Another effective tool for protecting real estate is an injunction.  An injunction is a court order restraining or compelling a party to do a particular act.  A court, for example, could issue an injunction stopping a party from damaging property is there is reason to believe such damage is occurring.  An essential requirement of an injunction is irreparable harm.   A court will not issue an injunction is money is the only thing that may be lost; a court will need to be convinced that a loss will occur that money alone cannot solve.

What Can You Get in a Real Estate Contract Dispute?

Contract disputes are generally about money, and determining the proper amount to give to someone for damages.  However, for contract disputes where money alone will not help an injured party, the law provides for the remedy of specific performance.  Specific performance allows a party to get exactly what they contracted for, and is generally allowed when this relief involves something distinctly unique.

Specific performance is usually allowed for real estate contract cases.  The rationale is that a particular property cannot be “replaced” by another, and a damaged party is entitled to the exact real estate they contracted for.  For real estate contract disputes, this is often the preferred outcome by parties in these cases.

If you find yourself involved in such a matter, contact me for a consultation.

Foreclosure Help

Foreclosure Help

Foreclosure help is available for homeowners in danger of losing their homes, or homeowners who have already gone through a foreclosure sale.  While saving a home from foreclosure is never a guarantee, foreclosure help may be an option in your case depending upon the circumstances.

Before a Foreclosure 

Foreclosure help for homeowners pre-foreclosure largely consists of attempting to obtain a loan modification or similar means of paying the outstanding loan debt.  Despite the best efforts of homeowners to properly apply for this assistance with their lenders, it is not uncommon for lenders to make a mess out of reviewing loan modification applications, by claiming to “lose” paperwork and deny such applications for absurd reasons.  In such a case, an attorney can provide foreclosure help through a lawsuit against a lender’s repeated refusal to properly review of these applications.

An attorney can similarly help a homeowner defend against foreclosure by determining whether a mortgage lender complied with the requirements for starting a foreclosure sale.  Errors in the notice requirements and pre-foreclosure laws can all be effective defenses against a foreclosure sale.

After a Foreclosure

Foreclosure help is also available after a foreclosure has occurred.  Massachusetts is a “non-judicial foreclosure” state, and a mortgage lender is not required to file a court case to foreclose a home.  A mortgage lender, however, must strictly comply with the applicable laws and mortgage terms to conduct a lawful foreclosure.  The failure to do so can be grounds for defending against a foreclosure sale and getting a home back.

In addition to errors in the foreclosure requirements, a homeowner can also pursue equitable challenges to a foreclosure’s validity.  Such claims are circumstances where the lender complied with the basic foreclosure requirements, but otherwise acted in a manner that justifies the foreclosure being void.

Avoid Foreclosure Defense Scams 

A critical reminder for seeking foreclosure help is to avoid foreclosure scams.  There are many con artists who try and take advantage of struggling homeowners by promising them services that are unrealistic or not otherwise legitimate.  Avoid anyone who promises you a free home, guaranteed loan modification, or something else that seems “too good to be true.”  The Attorney General’s Office provides helpful resources for homeowners who have been victims to these scams.

Speak to An Experienced Foreclosure Defense Attorney 

Needless to say, the importance of speaking to an experienced foreclosure defense attorney cannot be overstated.  Foreclosure help may be available to you, but such assistance generally requires the knowledge of someone familiar with this area of law and the options available for saving  a home.

Overview of Housing Court Expansion

Housing Court Expansion

After years of stalled legislation, housing court expansion has finally occurred in Massachusetts.  The recently passed 2018 budget provides for statewide Housing Court, allowing all towns and cities access to a regional division of the Housing Court.  Previously, a large segment of Massachusetts towns and cities–including Somerville, Medford, and Chelsea–had no access to a Housing Court division.  This Housing Court expansion allows landlords and tenants from any part of the state to have their case heard in Housing Court.

Overview of Housing Court

Massachusetts’s Housing Court can hear cases for matters involving the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing.  The most common cases in Housing Court are eviction (“summary process”) matters; the Boston Housing Court reportedly hears over 150 new evictions each week.  Housing Court functions similarly as any other court in Massachusetts, but comes with the benefit of judges, clerks, and staff who are familiar with housing law.

Transfer to Housing Court 

A unique provision of Housing Court is the ability by either party to transfer a case into Housing Court from another court.  If you are a tenant in an eviction case filed in District Court (a popular venue for eviction cases), you have a right to have your case transferred to the appropriate Housing Court division.  With the Housing Court expansion, this option is now available to all of Massachusetts.  A Housing Court transfer is a simple process, requiring the filling out of a simple form with the original court and the appropriate Housing Court division.

Although Housing Court expansion became effective on July 1, 2017 (pursuant to the 2018 budget), this change is not yet reflected on the Housing Court website or in the law itself.   The 2018 budget is clear, however, that Housing Court expansion has already occurred.  Several eviction cases have already been transferred from District Courts in cities that were not previously under Housing Court jurisdiction, and I expect more to do so in the coming months.

 Is Housing Court Right For Your Case?

Housing Court expansion will inevitably lead to tenants and landlords asking whether this court is the place to bring their case.  Like with most legal matters, the answer depends.  While many argue that Housing Court favors tenants at the expense of landlords, this is too much of a stereotype to label for every Housing Court division in Massachusetts.  The decision on whether to pick Housing Court for your case is an important one, which you should make with the assistance of an experienced landlord/tenant attorney.

Challenging a Foreclosure in Massachusetts

Challenging a Foreclosure

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Land Court discusses the importance of properly challenging a foreclosure in Massachusetts, and the ramifications of failing to do so correctly.  This case, Kenney v. Brown, is to the best of my knowledge the first decision to interpret Massachusetts’s foreclosure title clearing law, a 2015 law that puts a deadline upon the right of homeowners to challenge a foreclosure in Massachusetts. 

Overview of the Deadline for Challenging a Foreclosure in Massachusetts

Massachusetts’s foreclosure title clearing law places a deadline for challenging a foreclosure in Massachusetts.  This law requires a homeowner to raise a challenge to a foreclosure within three years after a foreclosure affidavit is recorded in the land records where the property is located (this affidavit is generally recorded several months after the foreclosure sale).

How to Preserve A Foreclosure Challenge 

Under this law, a homeowner must challenge a foreclosure by either filing a lawsuit or raising a defense or counterclaim in a post-foreclosure eviction case.  Simply put,  challenging a foreclosure under this new law requires a homeowner to pursue their claim in court.

In Kenney, the homeowners attempted to preserve their challenge to the foreclosure against their home by filing an affidavit in the land records, and pursuing this challenge in court later on.  This affidavit was filed pursuant to G.L. c. 183, § 5B:

Subject to section 15 of chapter 184, an affidavit made by a person claiming to have personal knowledge of the facts therein stated and containing a certificate by an attorney at law that the facts stated in the affidavit are relevant to the title to certain land and will be of benefit and assistance in clarifying the chain of title may be filed for record and shall be recorded in the registry of deeds where the land or any part thereof lies.

These affidavits, commonly known as “5B affidavits” can be useful for resolving property matters.  I have used them in opposing a foreclosure by entry or recording judicial decisions regarding the validity of a foreclosure.  Here, these homeowners attempted to preserve their foreclosure challenge by filing one of these affidavits, and listing the reasons why they believed their foreclosure was unlawful.  These homeowners, undisputedly, did not file a lawsuit within the deadline of the title clearing law.  The question for the court was whether such an affidavit was a proper means for challenging a foreclosure in Massachusetts under the title clearing law’s deadline.

The court in Kenney v. Brown rejected the homeowner’s use of 5B affidavits for this purpose, by holding that the law requires an actual court case to preserve a foreclosure challenge, which may not be done by merely filing an affidavit.  Failure to do so will prevent a homeowner from being able to pursue such a claim, even if the underlining foreclosure was unlawful.

Critical Advice for Homeowners Who Want to Challenge a Wrongful Foreclosure 

The lesson from this case is an important one: speak to an experienced foreclosure defense attorney if you have a potential challenge to a wrongful foreclosure.   The failure to comply with the laws applicable for such a claim can cost you “your day in court” on these matters.

 

 

 

Drone Privacy Law in Massachusetts

Drone Privacy Law in Massachusetts

Drones have changed a great deal in the last several years.  Once entirely used for military and warfare purposes, consumer drones are mainstream and increasingly being used for commercial and recreational purposes.  The uses of drones are endless: home builders, surveyors, and even lawyers are finding that drones, and the ability to do aerial photography and video, is an incredible tool.

Yours truly is an avid drone user.  The picture below was taken by me with my drone from the Middlesex Fells  in Medford, and shows my office location in Assembly Square, Somerville.

This picture highlights a growing concern with drones: this new technology has an amazing ability to capture photographs and video that could not otherwise be seen before.  Such use of aerial vehicles raises many legitimate concerns over privacy rights.  Here, I want to discuss drone privacy law in Massachusetts and discuss what can be done if you have privacy concerns arising from another person’s use of a drone.

Drone Law in Massachusetts 

Massachusetts, like most states, is still grappling with how to regulate drones. Presently, Massachusetts does not have a statewide law regulating drones.  This isn’t surprising; many states similarly do not regulate drones, although there are many proposed laws in state legislatures across the country.  Here in Massachusetts, some local towns and cities, such as Newton, have passed local ordinances on when and where drones can fly.  It is fair to say, however, that drone law in Massachusetts is very much in its infancy.

Drones and Privacy

An increasing problem with drones are privacy concerns.  It is increasingly common to hear complaints about drones flying too closely to homes and places of business and taking unwanted photos and videos.  With the limited laws on drones in Massachusetts, what can be done if you feel your privacy is being invaded by a drone?

Massachusetts, unlike many states, provides a specific right to privacy for its residents:

A person shall have a right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy. The superior court shall have jurisdiction in equity to enforce such right and in connection therewith to award damages.

I’m not aware (yet) of anyone using this law in regards to a drone, but I suspect that Massachusetts’s Right of Privacy Act could be effective in dealing with the unreasonable use of a drone.  This law, importantly, provides a court with equitable powers, allowing a court to issue an injunction, restraining order, or other declaration preventing someone from invading another’s privacy with a drone.

Once again, drone law in Massachusetts is new and it will be up to the courts to decide whether Massachusetts’s Right of Privacy Act and other existing laws cover drones.  If you find yourself in need of assistance with one of these matters, contact me for a consultation.