Aviksis v. Murray: Payment of Attorney Fees in Landlord/Tenant Cases

The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision today on the right of parties to collect attorney fees in landlord/tenant cases.  In Aviksis v. Murray, the Court held that “guarantors” of a landlord/tenant lease could not rely on laws that allow tenants to collect attorney fees for cases brought against landlords for failure to comply with any “covenant or term of the lease” or in the defense of a lawsuit brought by the landlord. A gurantor of a lease, simply enough, is someone who assumes liability if rent is not paid or damages occur to the rental property. This is often required for tenants with limited credit history or no references.
A little background on attorney fees in civil cases.  Under what is called the American Rule, each side in a civil case pays their own attorney fees.  Even if you win the case and a judgment against the other side, you are still on the hook for your legal costs.  The exception to this rule is when a law allows one side to recover legal costs against the other or, as is common in leases, a contract provision allowing a party to obtain attorney fees if they ever need to go to Court.
In these situations where the lease allows the landlord to collect attorney fees against tenants, Massachusetts law provides an important safeguard for tenants:  tenants, in such cases, can likewise obtain legal fees against landlords for a landlord’s failure to comply with any “covenant or term of the lease” or in the defense of a lawsuit brought by the landlord. . . even if the lease does not explicitly allow attorney fees for the tenant.

In Aviksis, several tenants brought suit against their landlord for damages arising from water in the apartment.  A father of one of the tenants was a guarantor on the lease and accordingly, was countersued by the landlord for these damages.  The father won his case and attempted to recover his legal fees under the law discussed above:  G.L. c. 186, § 20.  The question for the Court was whether a guarantor of a lease was entitled to attorney fees under this law.

The Court relied on the plain meaning of the statute and held that tenants, and tenants alone, are entitled to the provisions of G.L. c. 186, § 20.  Even though the guarantor may have been in the tenants “shoes” for the purposes of this case, the guarantor does not have the same rights as the tenants under this law.

What are the take home points of Aviksis v. Murray?

  • Under Massachusetts landlord/tenant law, guarantors of leases are not treated the same as tenants.  In short, if you assume liability for a lease, do not expect to get the same protections afforded to tenants under the law.
  • Obtaining attorney fees continues to be the exception, rather than the rule, in civil litigation . . . something to always consider in deciding whether to pursue litigation.