Landlord-Tenant Screening in Massachusetts

An important tool exists for landlord-tenant screening, one that is completely free and easy to use.  All of Massachusetts’s trial court dockets are online, providing both tenants and landlords with the ability to see filed eviction cases across the state.  The website is http://www.masscourts.org.

Eviction (“summary process”) cases are almost always filed in District Court or Housing Court.  To use masscourts.org for landlord-tenant screening, you need to search individually for each court.  The site doesn’t allow a general search for all trial courts across the state.  

However, if you know where the tenant or landlord has resided or owner property (or have a reasonably good idea), you can narrow down the applicable courts.  Bear in mind that searches on the site can be sensitive, and slight variations in names may not produce the desired results (the website is not Google!).

Search results will tell you if a case has been brought by or against a particular party, and a history of the case.  Search results generally will not provide details on the case, such as the reason(s) for evictions and counterclaims.  Information such as this can generally only be obtained by visiting the court and reviewing the case file.

For this reason, masscourts.org isn’t perfect for landlord-tenant screening.  However, it is useful for determining if a particular tenant has been frequently evicted, or if a landlord has often been subject to complaints from tenants.

An important word of caution, from someone who represents landlords and tenants: don’t assume the worst because a party has been involved in an eviction case.  Tenants are sometimes named in eviction cases for no-fault reasons, such as the adult children of parents who are being evicted.  Likewise, claims can be raised against a landlord that aren’t really meritorious, and are only meant to be a “delay” tactic.  In short, while masscourts.org is helpful for landlord-tenant screening, it should never be the only deciding factor in selecting a tenant or landlord.

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

Dividing Property Through Partition: 3 Things to Know


Dividing property through partition is the legal process by which an owner of real property can force the sale of property owned with a co-owner. In Massachusetts, a partition case may be filed in Land Court or Probate and Family Court. In this post, I’ll discuss three things to know about this process.

Partition is An Absolute Right

Partition occurs when multiple persons own real property together, and one wants to sell. If the parties cannot agree to a sale of the property or buy-out of the individual owner’s share of the property, any party may file a case for partition.

In my experience, the most common case for partition occurs when property is owned among family members, such as a home that a set of siblings inherited from their parents. Married couples generally cannot divide property through a partition; such a matter is usually handled through a divorce.

Partition is a matter of absolute right. This means that, with few exceptions, any owner of property owned by multiple parties is entitled to divide the property.

A Court in a Partition Case Can Either Divide the Property or Order it By Sale

Dividing property through partition is done through one of two ways: (1) a physical division of property (“in kind”) or (2) by sale.

Courts prefer to physically divide property, if possible, to avoid a sale. This, however, is not possible in many cases, particularly for residential property in urban cities and towns. When this is not possible, the court will order the property for sale.

Most times, a court in partition will allow any of the parties who do not wish to sell the property to buy the other party’s share, to avoid having to do a full sale, commonly referred to as a “set off.”

Dividing Property Through Partition Is Expensive

One of the main functions of a court in a partition case is to determine who gets what from the sale of the property. The starting point is the ownership shares of each owner. If a brother and sister each own 50% of partition property, this will be the starting point for determining how much each gets from the sale.

While this is the starting point, it is not the end for determining each owner’s portion from sale. A court in a partition case determines the respective shares of each owner based on what is “just and equal.” This means that, if one owner has paid more of the required property expenses than another owner, the court can take this into account when determining the final distribution.

Dividing property through partition, however, is an expensive process. Attorney fees, court costs, and other required fees can add up quickly, and eat into the parties’ proceeds from the property.

For this reason, it is wise to try and avoid a partition altogether and reach an agreement for selling the property without court involvement.

Conclusion

As an experienced real estate attorney, I’ve helped many Massachusetts property owners resolve their legal disputes promptly and affordably. If you are involved in a dispute regarding the division of property, contact me for a consultation.

Deadlines for Enforcing a Mortgage

The Appeals Court issued a decision last week concerning the deadline for enforcing a mortgage in Massachusetts, under the obsolete mortgage statute. The full decision, Thornton v. Thornton, is included below.

Thornton isn’t the first appellate decision to look at this issue, and continues a trend of Massachusetts courts rejecting attempts by borrowers to eliminate mortgage requirements.

What Is a Mortgage?

A mortgage is an agreement that gives a lender security against a borrower when making a loan for real property. Under a standard mortgage, a lender is permitted to foreclose a property if the debt is not repaid. Without a mortgage, a lender would only have the right to sue the borrower for the owed money, and have no claim to the property itself.

A mortgage, importantly, is only a security agreement, and not the loan itself. While it is common for homeowners to state they are “paying their mortgage”, in reality, the homeowner is making payments towards the loan associated with the mortgage, known as the promissory note.

Mortgages and the Statute of Limitations

Massachusetts, like nearly every other state, has deadlines for bringing civil lawsuits, known as a statute of limitations. A common misconception is that the deadline for bringing a breach of contract claim applies to the enforcement of mortgages. The argument goes that, if the lender has not pursued a foreclosure for the owed loan within six years, no claim exists.

As explained in Thornton, this deadline applies only to enforcing the loan itself . . . not the mortgage. In other words, even if six years has passed since the loan default, the lender can still enforce the mortgage through a foreclosure.

Mortgages and the Obsolete Mortgage Statute

A bar, however, does exist for enforcing a mortgage through the obsolete mortgage statute. This law prevents the enforcement of mortgages in limited circumstances:

35 years from the recording of the mortgage or, in the case of a mortgage in which the term or maturity date of the mortgage is stated, 5 years from the expiration of the term or from the maturity date, unless an extension of the mortgage, or an acknowledgment or affidavit that the mortgage is not satisfied, is recorded before the expiration of such period. 

The borrower in Thornton argued that this deadline came from the promissory note. The Appeals Court rejected this argument, holding there was no basis for using the deadline from the note for this purpose.

In this case, because there was no maturity date stated in the mortgage, the thirty-five year deadline applied.

Practical Implications For Enforcing a Mortgage

Thorton underscores a critical point about the obsolete mortgage statute: courts, in my view, interpret this law strictly and will not allow a borrower to escape the enforcement of a mortgage unless all conditions of the statute are met. This statute is primarily intended for mortgages that are “up in the attic” and long forgotten by lenders, and courts are reluctant to extend this law much further than that.

This isn’t to say that a borrower has no options against a foreclosure. To the contrary, I’ve help many homeowners avoid foreclosure based on a wide array of defenses. None of these defenses, however, involve an elimination of the mortgage. For this reason, borrowers need to be realistic when dealing with such a matter.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a mortgage matter, contact me for a consultation.

y19P1222

Evicting a Tenant: What To Do

Evicting a tenant is the process required for obtaining possession of rental property. Evictions, known in Massachusetts as summary process, are done through an expedited court process; most often brought in Housing Court or District Court.

A recent news article reveals a disturbing trend about many landlords, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, attempting to evict tenants on their own; a process commonly referred to as “self-help evictions.” Self-help evictions are highly illegal in Massachusetts, and can get landlords in an enormous amount of trouble.

Evicting a Tenant: When Is It Required?

An eviction case is required for obtaining possession against any tenant, regardless of the reason why the eviction is necessary. Although there is a limited exception for tenants engaging in illegal behavior, an eviction is generally required in every other circumstance.

No Self-Help Evictions

A “self-help eviction” is a case where a landlord attempts to remove a tenant from the rental property without a formal court case. Changing the locks, cutting off utilities, and threatening a tenant can all be considered a self-help eviction, and are expressly forbidden under Massachusetts law.

An eviction case requires a landlord, in most cases, to provide the tenant with a notice to quit, serve the tenant with a formal eviction summons, and appear in court. The process takes time and, understandably, can be frustrating, especially when it is against a non-paying tenant.

Presently, there is an eviction moratorium in Massachusetts, which is preventing the filing of almost all eviction cases for the foreseeable future. As such, it is understandable why some landlords may be tempted to bypass a formal eviction case against a tenant. Doing so, however, is a terrible idea, and will be far more trouble than it is worth.

Conclusion

Instead of considering a self-help eviction, contact me for a consultation. While evictions are not going forward now, I can explain the process to you, what can be done in the meantime, and how to prepare for such an action when the courts reopen.

Zoning Litigation: Lessons from a Recent Decision

The Massachusetts Property Law Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on a recently Appeals Court decision on the pitfalls of zoning litigation.  Attorney  Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at connlawjoe@gmail.com.

On April 24, 2020, a panel of the Appeals Court (Massing, Desmond, & McDonough, J.J.) decided Bylinski v. Building Commissioner of Douglas, 97 Mass. App. Ct. 1113, Docket No. 18-P-450 (Rule 1:28 decision) and reversed a court order to demolish a cottage for non compliance with the relevant provisions of the zoning act (G.L. c.40A).  This otherwise obscure case represents a cautionary tale for all zoning practitioners-it’s the latest chapter of a tortuous 11 year Dickensian odyssey through three trial court departments that has spurred, counting this case, five appeals to the Appeals Court.

Background

Bylinski owns property along Wallum Lake in the rural town of Douglas near the Connecticut and Rhode Island borders. Tusino owns Guaranteed Builders (GBI) and bought the adjoining lot through GBI. In 2008, despite insufficient frontage and setbacks, GBI obtained a permit to build a cottage. Bylinski unsuccessfully requested that the building commissioner revoke the permit and then appealed to the zoning board (“The Board.”)

The Board failed to resolve Bylinski’s appeal within 100 days. By operation of law, the Board constructively revoked GBI’s permit. See G.L. c.40A, §15, 5th par. GBI unsuccessfully appealed that order to the Superior Court. See Guaranteed Builders and Developers v. Haire, et. al., Civil Action No. 0985CV2052 (Super. Ct. Worcester Co., filed September 3, 2009).

Bylinski then filed a mandamus action in the Land Court to compel the building inspector to enforce the zoning bylaw and now revoked building permit. In the meantime, GBI successfully finished building the cottage. GBI then unsuccessfully sought a variance from the frontage requirements and litigated the issue all the way to the Appeals Court. Guaranteed Builders v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Douglas, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 1101, Docket No. 2013-P-948 (Rule 1:28 Decision, Feb. 21, 2014).

At the same time, the Land Court judge dismissed Bylinksi’s petition for mandamus because Bylinski had not exhausted his administrative remedies before. Bylinski appealed the Land Court’s order to the Appeals Court and pursued administrative relief at the same time. While Bylinski’s appeal was pending, the Board sided with him and reversed the building commissioner’s refusal to enforce the zoning bylaw and issued a demolition order.

The demolition order contained curious language-the order did not require the town to demolish GBI’s house. But the order also did not limit Bylinski’s right to seek direct injunctive relief if GBI and Tusino did not demolish the house. GBI unsuccessfully appealed that order to the Uxbridge District Court before appealing to the Appeals Court.

The Appeals Court consolidated and ultimately dismissed Bylinski’s and GBI’s appeals. See Tusino v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Douglas, et. al. 90 Mass. App. Ct. 89 (2016). Specificially, GBI had appealed to the wrong court by appealing directly to the Appeals Court rather than to the Appellate Division of the District Court-and they were out of time to go back there. Since dismissing GBI’s appeal made the demolition order final, Bylinski’s appeal from the Land Court’s denial of mandamus became moot because he obtained all the relief he sought.

Curiously, Bylinski did not seek to enforce the demolition order from the District Court. Rather, Bylinski went back to the Land Court, reopened his case, joined Tusino as a defendant, and sought an injunction to demolish the completed but empty cottage. (The Building Commissioner has never issued an occupancy permit.) In December 2017, a Land Court judge  finally ordered that Tusino and GBI demolish the cottage or risk being held in contempt of court. Tusino and GBI appealed and successfully stayed the demolition order.

The Appeals Court’s Most Recent Decision

Preliminarily, the panel resolved two procedural issues. First, the panel reached the merits notwithstanding that there were unresolved claims against parties below and the Land Court judge did not certify an immediate appeal under Mass. R. Civ. Pro. 54(b). Indeed, holding otherwise would needlessly further prolong this case. Second, in a lengthy footnote, the panel held that Bylinski properly and timely joined Tusino. By law, trial courts had authority to join any dispensable to permit the case to proceed and related back to the original pleadings-and thus were not outside any statutes of limitation or repose. See FN7, citing G.L. c.231, §51.

Cleared of that underbrush, the panel considered whether Bylinski, as an individual, could seek an injunction from the Land Court to compel Tusino and GBI to demolish the house. The panel comprehensively reviewed the relevant procedures under the zoning act.

G.L. c. 40A, § 7 permitted any person to request that the building commissioner (or other local official) to enforce the zoning by laws. If the party failed to obtain relief from the building commissioner, the party could appeal to and obtain enforcement orders from the zoning board, same as the building commissioner. G.L. c.40A, §§8, 14. If the party still remained aggrieved, they could then pursue judicial review and broad equitable relief. G.L. c.40A, §17.

 Section 7 empowered the Superior Court and the Land Court to enforce zoning bylaws and issue injunctions to remedy bylaw violations. However, Section 7 also contained an important caveat: “no action, suit or proceeding…[or] administrative action or other action…to…compel the removal..of a structure [for violating] a zoning by-law [shall proceed] except in accordance with this section and sections 8 and 17.” This limitation dovetailed with the important principle that  there is no private right of action to enforce zoning bylaws-a private citizen cannot go directly to court to enforce the zoning bylaws when a town or city does not.

The case distilled to whether Bylinski had assiduously followed these procedures. The panel concluded he had not. First, Bylinski’s case could not constitute a zoning appeal under Section 17 because he did not perfect the appeal under Section 17. Bylinski already obtained a demolition order from the Board-thus, he was not an aggrieved party who could appeal.

Although the Board’s order suggested that Bylinski himself could compel demolition, by law, only a building inspector or a zoning board could directly enforce zoning bylaws and compel demolition without pursuing administrative remedies. Bylinski had not done so, and thus the Land Court judge could not issue a demolition injunction directly against Tusino on Bylinski’s behalf. However, Bylinski had remedies. First, he could renew his mandamus action in the Land Court against the building commissioner. Second, he could reopen the District Court case where the demolition order issued. Indeed, because Bylinski remained an aggrieved abutter, he could seek repeated requests for enforcement based on changed circumstances.

The Takeaways

Are There Too Many Zoning Appellate Forums?

This case illustrates how the breadth of forums for zoning appeals can cause problems. Under G.L. c. 40A, §17, one may appeal a zoning board’s order to either of four trial courts: the District Court (except in Hampden County [Springfield]), the Housing Court, the Land Court, or the Superior Court. As occurred here, parallel actions can arise in any or all of those courts.         

This broad choice of forum has also caused serious mischief in the past.  In Skawski v. Greenfield Investors Property Development, 473 Mass. 580 (2016), abutters filed a zoning appeal in the Housing Court challenging a large development in Greenfield. The developers sought transfer to the permit session of the Land Court-which the Legislature specifically created to streamline challenges to large developments. 473 Mass. at 582-583 (describing their requests for transfer), and 586-591 citing G.L. c.185, §3A. Nearly five years later, the SJC finally concluded that the abutters erroneously went to the Housing Court but could press their zoning appeal to either the Land Court or the Superior Court. 473 Mass. at 591-593.

Confused yet? It gets better. Until Tusino’s 2016 appeal, all further appeals in zoning cases proceeded uniformly to the Appeals Court, even if they originated in the District Court. Tusino, 90 Mass. App. Ct. at 91, citing Walker v. Board of Appeals of Harwich, 388 Mass. 42 (1983). Indeed, when a litigant can file a case in the District Court or in another trial court, all appeals in that type of case should proceed to the Appeals Court to ensure uniform treatment of litigants. See e.g. Van Liew  v. Stansfield, 474 Mass. 31, 34-36 (2016). 

 But in Tusino, the Appeals Court held that the Legislature effectively overruled Walker by expanding the equity jurisdiction of the District Court and creating the “one trial system” during the 2000’s. 90 Mass. App. Ct. at 91. The Appeals Court reached this result despite their established rule that they do not and cannot overrule the SJC to alter established rules. See e.g. Burke v. Toothaker, 1 Mass. App. Ct. 234, 239 (1973). Put another way, if the SJC incorrectly decided Walker, or if the Legislature overruled Walker, it was up to the SJC and the SJC alone to overrule Walker. This decision also does not ensure uniform treatment of litigants.

If Section 17 commands that zoning appeals “shall have precedence over all other civil actions and proceedings”, the prospect of parallel actions in up to four trial courts with up to three layers of appellate review hardly seems to accomplish that end. Worse, as in Skawski, the issue of zoning appeal forum selection arose twice and two different trial court Chief Justices took no action to resolve it before it reached the SJC. 473 Mass. at 582-583.

How can you avoid forum wrangling? File the zoning appeal in the Land Court or the Superior Court to keep a case before one judge. Indeed, in the Land Court, all cases proceed before one judge for their entire legal lives there. Land Court Standing Order 1-04(B).  In the Superior Court, you can seek a special assignment of one judge. See Superior Court Standing Order 9-80. If there are multiple related cases in multiple courts, move to consolidate all your cases into one court pursuant to Trial Court Rule XII. Indeed, there is a presumption of consolidation in cases involving identical parties and issues.

Coordinate with Town Officials

This case also, at best, does not flatter, and at worst, is “a study in mulish behavior” of town officials and town government in Douglas, Darcy v. Hankle, 54 Mass. App. Ct. 846, 847 (2002) (Kass, J.) The Building Inspector allowed Tusino to build his cottage. Ironically, Bylsinki won his appeal by appeal by operation of law because of the Board’s inaction on it. Although the Board denied Tusino’s request for a variance, the Board still did not act to stop him from building the cottage. And, the Board wrote an ambiguous demolition order. Practitioners should be alert to whom they are working with locally and ensure that all interests are aligned. If you are seeking mandamus relief, be sure that the official government has no discretion not to act, with a statue or regulation that reads “shall”-and you have no other remedies.

Seeking Additional Appellate Review of Zoning Decisions

This case also exhibits some perils of taking an appeal. Bylinski could have avoided some appellate review by seeking to stay appellate proceedings to obtain administrative relief.  If a party validly entered their appeal, trial courts cannot enter orders that could moot appeals that are pending without leave of an appellate court. Springfield Housing Authority v. Garcia, 44 Mass. App. Ct. 432 (1998) . The same logic should apply to seeking administrative relief.

Moreover, neither party seemed alert to how this appeal was not from a truly final judgment-i.e. that the order resolved all claims against all parties. See e.g. Patel v. Martin 481 Mass. 29, 31-32 (2018). The best practice is to resolve that issue before appealing. The lack of a final judgment is potentially a serious jurisdictional defect. Had this case not dragged out for 11 years, the panel may not have exercised their discretion to decide the appeal.

Finally, this opinion is the latest in an unfortunate prevalence of unpublished opinions. The Appeals Court typically issues unpublished opinions in cases that present “no substantial question of law.” Appeals Court Rule 1:28, soon to be Appeals Court Rule 23.0. These issues do not seem to fit that rule. The question of who had the power to compel demolition seems to arise in an unusual context. A published decision could have clarified that issue as the panel’s decision cites many older cases and practitioners could have benefitted from that.

The end result of an unpublished decision is strange given the timeframe. The panel originally heard this case in January 2019. An April 24, 2020 decision is nearly a year beyond the Appeals Court’s internal guideline to resolve appeals within 130 days of argument.

Granted, cases can last longer under advisement if the Appeals Court will publish it. This is the “second panel” process where every Justice on the Appeals Court reviews the decision-and, if there’s a dissent, the panel may expand. See Sciaba v. City of Boston, 35 Mass. App. Ct. 181, n.1 (1993). But a party cannot compel the full Appeals Court to consider an appeal. Weber v. Appeals Court, 457 Mass. 407 (2010).

Given this background, this case seems like a candidate for further appellate review by the SJC. This case has lasted for 11 years-and the Appeals Court’s decision seems to all but assure further litigation. On practical level, it seems highly wasteful to have an unoccupied cottage taking up space along Wallum Lake because there is no occupancy permit for it-and it’s going to stay that way on remand.

 Although allowance of further appellate review may further prolong this case, further appellate review may finally spur a resolution to this case. The SJC tends to expedite matters on FAR. Indeed, historically, the SJC has seemed concerned about zoning matters dragging out-as in Skawski. See also Murchison v. ZBA of Sherborn, SJC-12867, on further appellate review from 96 Mass. App. Ct. 158 (2019), Paper No. 23 (affirming dismissal for lack of standing with an opinion to follow.) As of now (May 31), no application has been filed.  

 In sum, this decision should operate as a clarion warning for zoning practitioners about how litigation can proliferate out of control. But there are steps practitioners can take to avoid these pitfalls. Moreover, if the SJC does not step in to remedy how these trapdoors opened, the Legislature should-particularly about the breadth of  choices of forum in zoning cases.

 Joseph N. Schneiderman is an appellate practitioner in Massachusetts and Connecticut with particular affinities for zoning, municipal law, and appellate practice and procedure. Joe recently argued his 20th appeal in his career and Joe gratefully thanks Adam for another opportunity to blog.

Evictions After Coronavirus

Next week, I’ll be a panelist on a webinar for the Massachusetts Bar Association concerning evictions after coronarvirus. This is a topic that promises to be extremely relevant once the pandemic ends.

What do landlords need to know about evictions after coronavirus?

New Requirements for Notices to Quit

As I have written before, the federal CARES Act has new requirements for notices to quit for non-payment of rent. This applies to only certain categories of landlords, but the reach of this law is large. Landlords need to check whether this law applies to them, and err on the side of caution if there is any question that it does.

Inevitable Delays With Court Proceedings

No doubt, evictions after coronarvius will take much longer to resolve than before. An eviction case in Massachusetts (referred to as a “summary process” action) is intended to be “just, speedy, and inexpensive.” The growing backlog of cases, unfortunately, will put a strain on the court’s resources. Landlords will need to keep this in mind when deciding to pursue an eviction.

Flexibility With Stays of Execution

When evictions after coronavirus resume, it is inevitable that many tenants will request stays of execution. A stay of execution is a request for a court to delay the time by which the landlord can assume possession of the rental property.

Although the law is written only for no-fault evictions, most judges take the position that a stay is permitted in any eviction, under the right circumstances.

Given the multitude of problems arising from the pandemic, I am inclined to think that most judges will be sympathetic to tenants facing eviction after coronavirus. Landlords need to keep this in mind when negotiating with tenants.

Final Thoughts

If you assistance with an landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Ending a Lease Early: What to Know

Ending a lease early is a matter that often arises when either the landlord and/or the tenant wishes to terminate the rental term before the designated date in the lease agreement. Several factors must be considered when such a matter arises.

Ending a Lease Early by Mutual Agreement

The easiest scenario for ending a lease early is when both the landlord and tenant want the lease to end. Just as with nearly every contract, parties are free to reach a mutual agreement for termination.

In such a case, the landlord and tenant should always put this in writing, and clearly state the date by which the tenancy is over. Landlords who are holding a tenant’s security deposit or a last month rent need to mindful that certain obligations arise when a tenancy is over, and ensure they comply with these applicable laws.

Ending a Lease Early by the Landlord and Tenant’s Conduct

It is a common misconception that only a written agreement can end a lease agreement. Rather, an agreement to reach a lease can occur “from the attendant circumstances and conduct of the parties.”

This means that, although no agreement was put in writing, the actions taken by the landlord and tenant can lead to a determination that the lease ended. For example, if the landlord accepts the apartment keys from the tenant, immediately assumes possession of the unit, and otherwise acts as if the lease had ended, there is a good argument to be made that it has . . . even without a written agreement.

This is important in a circumstance where a tenant wishes to end a lease, but the landlord does not. Here, the landlords needs to be extra careful about accepting the apartment keys or behaving in any way that could be considered as a finding that the lease ended.

One way a landlord can avoid this is by explicitly telling the tenant that he or she is not intending to end the lease.

When Only One Party Wants Out of the Lease

Under most leases, a landlord or tenant is not permitted to unilaterally end a lease. A few, limited exceptions exist, such as for tenants serving in the military or who are victims of domestic abuse. Otherwise, ending a lease early cannot be done alone by a landlord or tenant.

If a tenant does break a lease, a landlord (in the right circumstances) can pursue a claim for damages against the tenant. Before doing so, however, a landlord should consider speaking to an attorney.

Final Thoughts

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

Contracts for Real Estate: Email, Text Messages Count!

Most people with a basic understanding of real estate and property law are familiar with the concept that contracts for real estate need to be in writing. The statute of frauds bars the enforcement of agreements for “the sale of lands, tenements or hereditaments or of any interest in or concerning them” unless such an agreement is in writing.

The “writing” requirement need not be done solely through a formal, written contract. Recent decisions have found such a writing to occur through email, text message, and other electronic means.

Overview of Contracts for Real Estate

The most common forms of contracts for real estate, in my experience, are offers to purchase real estate, purchase and sale agreements, and leases. Such agreements are most commonly done through written paper, which all of the parties sign.

It is a common mistake, however, to believe that such agreements must be put in traditional written form to be binding. Rather, as it is becoming increasingly common to communicate through electronic means, courts are finding that such electronic exchanges can create binding agreements.

Electronic Communications: Email, Text Messages

Several years ago, a Land Court decision held that text messages could be used to create binding contracts for real estate. The court reasoned that, under the proper circumstances, communications through text message were no different than traditional letters between parties.

The same reasoning applies to email and, in my opinion, any electronic means of communication, including social media.

Practical Implications

With this in mind, those involved in real estate need to be incredibly careful when using electronic communications.

Compared to writing a traditional letter, sending a text message or email can be done in a matter of seconds. As such communications can create binding contracts for real estate, one must use extra caution when using email and text messages for such matters.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a real estate matter, contact me for a consultation.

3 Mistakes to Avoid When Preparing a Notice to Quit

Preparing a notice to quit is a requirement for nearly every Massachusetts eviction. This notice informs the tenant of the reason for the eviction and provides them a time period in which their tenancy is terminated.

A mistake in one of these notices, however, can be fatal to an eviction case, and lead to unnecessary delay.

Here, I’ll discuss three common mistakes made when preparing a notice to quit.

#1: Using the Improper Notice to Quit for The Tenancy

The proper notice to quit depends on the type of tenancy. Generally, a fourteen-day notice to quit is required for evictions based upon non-payment of rent, and a thirty-day notice is required for a no-fault eviction for a tenancy at will (commonly known as a month-to-month tenancy).

Landlords need to be careful that they are using the correct notice to quit for their eviction, as the wrong notice will likely lead to the eviction’s dismissal.

Landlords also need to be careful when using templates for these notices. Often, there are many free notices to quit on the Internet that are not intended for a Massachusetts eviction.

#2: Stating Inconsistent Reasons for the Eviction

A notice to quit must be consistent. Including inconsistent reasons for the eviction can also be grounds for dismissing the eviction case.

#3: Not Using a Sheriff or Constable to Serve the Notice

In an eviction, the landlord bears the burden of proving that the tenant received the notice to quit. Simply taping the notice to quit to the tenant’s apartment or mailing it to the tenant can be problematic, if the tenant denies receipt.

A much better option is to use a constable or sheriff to serve the notice. By law, such service creates a presumption that the tenant received the notice to quit. The tenant can try and argue otherwise, but will have a much harder argument to make if there is proof of service from a constable or sheriff.

Final Thoughts

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

Help With Foreclosure

Foreclosure

Help with foreclosure is available to struggling homeowners attempting to save their homes.  The foreclosure process can be intimidating, overwhelming, and a difficult process for many borrowers.  I often meet with potential clients who believe that they they will be removed from their homes in a matter of days and have no options available for avoiding this out outcome.  Fortunately, help with foreclosure is available.

A homeowner should always attempt to apply for a loan modification, repayment plan, or loan deferment as an option for avoiding foreclosure.  If a homeowner can obtain one of these loss mitigation options on their own, they can get the problem solved without the assistance of an attorney.  If, however, a homeowner is not having luck with one of these options, they should speak with an attorney.  An attorney can help with foreclosure through negotiating with the bank or loan servicer or filing a lawsuit to stop the foreclosure if there are grounds for challenging its validity.

Earlier in the process is always better for avoiding foreclosure: the sooner a homeowner begins fighting foreclosure, the better change they have of saving their home.  However, help with foreclosure is available at all stages of the process, from the start of foreclosure all the way until after the foreclosure has occured.

Homeowners can do their part in assisting a foreclosure defense attorney by keeping a paper trail of all efforts made to work with the lender to resolve the problem on their own.  These records can be a huge help in providing an overview of the situation and possible grounds for challenging the foreclosure.

If you find yourself in need of help with foreclosure, contact me for a consultation.