Housing Discrimination in Massachusetts: A “Ruff” Lesson On This Important Area of Law

A recent case from Western Massachusetts of a landlord refusing to rent to tenants with service animals is an example of the perils of ignoring state and federal housing discrimination laws, and a reason why landlords need to be extremely careful when advertising rental units.  Discriminating against tenants with service animals will put landlords in the doghouse (pun intended!).

Housing Discrimination 101

Both state and federal law prohibits discrimination in housing.  This includes, but is not limited to: race, national origin, sex, and disability status.  The list of these protected categories is long, and it is best to check on this by reviewing the state and federal government websites on fair housing laws, which do a good job of explaining the basics about housing discrimination.  Simply put, a landlord is not allowed to deny a tenant housing based on one of these protected categories.

In this case, the landlord advertised that it would not accept pets or service animals.  While a restriction on pets is generally okay (and common) for rental units, the latter is a big no-no: a blanket restriction on service animals is discrimination on the basis of disability.

Practical Implications

Although the landlord in this story was likely fine in not allowing tenants with pets, it was not lawful to outright prohibit service animals.  If a tenant with a service animal wished to apply for a rental unit, the landlord would have to consider them for a reasonable accommodation.  If the landlord fails to properly consider this request, this is housing discrimination.

The increased use of service dogs promises that this will be an issue for years to come.  While every situation is different, I would imagine that most landlords will have difficulty making a case that a service dog is not a reasonable accommodation.  Landlords who fail to take this issue seriously set themselves up for severe damages and penalties.

In this case, the penalty against the landlord was likely not as bad as it could have been.  It is not unheard of for housing discrimination cases in Massachusetts to result in steep damages for landlords.

Conclusion 

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

Getting Back a Security Deposit in Massachusetts

It is not uncommon for Massachusetts landlords to accept  security deposits from tenants.  In doing so, many make mistakes in complying with Massachusetts’s security deposit law; arguably one of the most complex and detailed laws in the state.

This law provides numerous protections that can help tenants with getting a security deposit back if a landlord unreasonably refuses to return it.

Overview of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law

Massachusetts’s security deposit law regulates how a landlord is allowed to collect and hold a tenant’s security deposit.  Skim through this law and you’ll see that almost everything concerning a security deposit is subject to one of this law’s provisions.  The amount of the security deposit, bank account where it can be held, and the return of the deposit are all covered by this law.

Failure to comply with Massachusetts’s security deposit law has dire consequences for landlords.  Penalties can include treble damages, court costs, and attorney fees.  This means that even a small security deposit violation can lead to a large judgement for non-compliance with this law.

Penalties for Not Complying with the Security Deposit Law

Penalties for not complying with this law generally fall into two categories: forfeiture of the deposit or treble damages.

The first type of penalty, forfeiture, allows a tenant to get their deposit back right away if the landlord fails to comply with certain portions of the law, and the tenant demands the deposit’s return.  If a landlord does not immediately return the deposit, they risk subjecting themselves to the more severe penalties under this law.

The second category of damages are treble damages, which are reserved for the most egregious violations of the security deposit law.  Most common is a landlord’s failure to return the deposit (or account for its use) within thirty days after the tenancy ends.

Options for Getting Back a Security Deposit 

A common way for raising a security deposit claim is through a Consumer Protection Law demand letter.  Such a demand letter can be an effective means of getting a prompt resolution to one of these disputes.  Moreover, a landlord’s failure to respond to such a letter with a reasonable settlement offer can be further grounds for liability.

Security deposit claims can be pursued in small claims court or in a civil action.  To do so, a tenant should strongly consider speaking with an experienced landlord-tenant attorney about one of these matters.

Conclusion 

If you need help with getting back a security deposit in Massachusetts, contact me for a consultation.

Help for Landlords With Bad Tenants in Massachusetts

Landlords with bad tenants are often in need of immediate resolutions to their problems.  While a landlord must bring an eviction case against a tenant to get a tenant out of a rental unit, a landlord has other options for dealing with a bad tenant prior to the conclusion of an eviction case.  A “bad tenant” is one I define as someone who is (a) not paying rent or (2) damaging the rental premise.

Rent Escrow

One of the most common reasons for evicting a tenant is non-payment of rent.  Although an eviction case is intended to proceed quickly, many times, the final resolution of these cases can be delayed due to the trial court’s schedule or a tenant’s request for a jury trial.

In such a scenario, where the trial date is not imminent, a landlord can (and should) request that the court order the tenant to escrow rent as the court case proceeds.  The rationale is straightforward: if the tenant is living at the rental unit, it is reasonable for them to pay something as the eviction case proceeds.

The law on rent escrow is divided, and requires a convincing argument to obtain this relief.  Simply arguing for a rent escrow, without citing the proper authority, will likely not be enough to convince a court on this point.

Injunctive Relief 

Another important tool for landlords with bad tenants is seeking injunctive relief.  Injunctive relief is a court order requiring or preventing a party from doing something.  For example, if a tenant is purposely damaging a rental unit, a landlord is permitted to ask for an injunction prohibiting the tenant from doing so.  A tenant who disregards such a court order can be subject to contempt of court and other harsh penalties.

No Self-Help

An important reminder for landlords with bad tenants.  A landlord cannot, under any circumstances, use “self-help” methods to evict or punish a tenant.  Changing an apartment’s locks or shutting off the utilities is highly illegal in Massachusetts and can result not only in large penalties from the court, but criminal punishment as well.

Don’t take this chance!  Contact an experienced landlord/tenant attorney when dealing with bad tenants.

Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law

A recent article from the Boston Globe, “Apartment management won’t return security deposit? That’s just one problem at this Revere complex,” highlights the importance of understanding Massachusetts’ security deposit law: an important consumer protection law for tenants.

Overview of Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law

This article discusses a common scenario for tenants who have provided a landlord with a security deposit: a landlord’s outright refusal to return the deposit at the end of the tenancy.  Prior to the security deposit law, tenants had few options for pursuing such claims; often, the expense in attorney fees for suing  for one of these deposits made such claims far more expensive than the actual deposit itself.

For this reason, Massachusetts passed the security deposit law, which, I imagine, is one of the most pro-tenant laws in the entire country.  This law imposes numerous regulations on the acceptance, holding, and return of a security deposit, and provides stiff penalties for a landlord’s failure to comply with this law, namely, treble damages of the deposit. This is 0ne reason, among many, why a landlord should consider not accepting a security deposit in the first place.

Violation of the Security Deposit Law 

It is a common misconception that every violation of the security deposit law allows a tenant to recover treble damages, attorney fees, and costs against a landlord.  Rather, the Supreme Judicial Court has clarified that some violations of the law simply require the immediate return of the deposit, while others mandate treble damages.  Generally, a landlord’s failure to return a security deposit within thirty days after the end of the tenancy (or otherwise account for its use towards any damage in the apartment) will impose the treble damage penalty.

Conclusion

If you find yourself having difficulty with a security deposit, contact me for a consultation.  I have helped many Massachusetts tenants obtain the return of their deposits and take full advantage of the protections of this law.

Firm News: Sherwin Law Firm Moves to Charlestown

Starting July 1st, my firm will be moving to Charlestown, Massachusetts (only several blocks away from my current office).  My new office has plenty of parking and facilities that will help me continue to best serve my clients, and hopefully open up new opportunities for me in years to come.

It was a blast to have worked in Somerville for the past five years.  Luckily, I won’t be far away, and look forward to staying active in this wonderful city.

Here’s hoping your summer is off to a great start!

 

Service of an Eviction Case

reversing-a-foreclosure

Service of an eviction case is a requirement for starting any eviction against a tenant.  The law requires that the tenants have proper notice that such a case has been brought against them.  A landlord’s failure to comply with these service requirements can be fatal to one’s case.

Service of an Eviction Case

An eviction generally requires serving two types of documents to a tenant: a notice to quit, informing the tenant that their tenancy is being terminated, and a summons,  informing the tenant that an eviction case is occurring in court against them.

Service of an eviction is needed to put a tenant on fair notice that the landlord is attempting to obtain possession of the rental unit.  Simply calling or emailing the tenant is not sufficient; the law requires (like any other lawsuit) that the tenant have formal notice of the eviction.

Contrary to popular belief, a landlord does not need to serve a notice to quit by constable or sheriff.  However, the landlord bears the burden of proving that the tenant received this notice.  If the landlord is unable to do so, the court will dismiss the eviction.  For this reason, most landlords (smartly) serve notices to quit through a constable or sheriff.  Under the law, such service creates a presumption that the tenant received the notice.  Absent a compelling argument to the contrary, proof of service by a constable or sheriff establishes that the tenant received the notice to quit.

A summons, which is a formal court notice stating that an eviction case will begin, must be served by a sheriff.  A constable, who is a private officer, is also permitted to serve most eviction cases.  This formal service is a mandatory requirement, unless the tenant elects to waiver service.  Failure to properly serve an eviction case will likely result in its immediate dismissal by the court.

Conclusion

Service of an eviction is a critical part of a Massachusetts landlord-tenant case.  Failure to comply with these requirements can add unnecessary time and expense onto one of these cases, and make the process far more difficult than it needs to be.  For this reason, consider hiring an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to assist with one of these matters.

 

Who Can File An Eviction in Massachusetts?

foreclosure appeal

The Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision this week for landlord-tenant law: who can file an eviction in Massachusetts?  The decision, Rental Property Management Services v. Hatcher, is included below.

Overview

The facts of this case are fairly straightforward.  A property manager (a person hired to maintain rental property) filed an eviction (“summary process”) case against a tenant in Housing Court.  This property manager brought this case in the name of “Property Management Services” (his business), which was not the owner of the subject property, nor the lessor.  This property manager personally signed the eviction summons.

Who Can File An Eviction in Massachusetts?

This case presented two main questions for the Supreme Judicial Court.  First, could this property management service bring this eviction case against the tenant?  Second, could the property manager (who was not a lawyer) sign the eviction summons?

The Court held that only an owner or lessor of rental property is entitled to bring an eviction case against a tenant.  Here, while the property management company may have been responsible for maintaining the property, it was not the right party to bring this eviction.

It is not uncommon in Massachusetts for property management companies to directly enter into leases with tenants.  Here, if this property management company had a lease or written agreement with the tenant, I suspect the outcome may have been different.  However, where this company was neither the owner nor lessor, it was not entitled to proceed with this eviction.

The Court then addressed whether the property manager was permitted to sign the eviction paperwork.  Because this manager was not an attorney, the Court held that he was not permitted to do so, and had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Lessons for Massachusetts Landlords

This case has an important lesson for Massachusetts landlords: proceed with caution when filing an eviction in Massachusetts.  While I highly recommend that landlords use property management services if they need assistance in maintaining their rental units, these services cannot substitute as lawyers.

The Court declined to find that doing so was an unfair and deceptive business practice against the tenant (a claim that could allow for monetary damages and attorney fees).  Hatcher is clear, however, that a Court can punish a party who knowingly disobeys these eviction requirements.

Conclusion

If you are confused about who can file an eviction in Massachusetts, take away this critical advice: hire an experienced landlord-tenant attorney for your eviction.  Aside from avoiding some of the problems stated above, an experienced attorney will help you navigate this tricky area of law and reach an effective resolution to your dispute.  If you are in need of such assistance, contact me for a consultation.

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Landlord Not Returning a Security Deposit in Massachusetts

reversing-a-foreclosure

A landlord not returning a security deposit is one of the most common complaints that comes up between tenants and landlords in Massachusetts.  Massachusetts law heavily regulates the handling of security deposits, and this law can be used when a landlord improperly refuses to return a security deposit.

Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law

A quick skim of Massachusetts’s security deposit law shows the complexity of this law.  G.L. 186 Section 15B regulates every aspect of a security deposit, from the acceptance of the deposit up to its return to the tenant.  The extensive requirements of this law is one reason why I advise Massachusetts landlords to never accept a security deposit.

Penalties for not complying with this law can be steep.  Some violations entitle the tenant to the immediate return of their deposit, and others permit the tenant to obtain triple damages, costs, and attorney fees against a landlord who fails to comply with this law.

What To Do About a Landlord Not Returning a Security Deposit 

If a landlord fails to return your security deposit, contact an experienced landlord/tenant attorney for assistance.  While the security deposit law offers numerous protections for tenants, an experienced attorney is often necessary for determining whether a violation occurred, how to pursue such a claim against the landlord, and the likely damages that can be obtained from such a case.

Landlords can equally benefit from having the assistance of an experienced attorney when handling a security deposit claim.  An attorney can help determine if a violation occurred and whether any possible defenses exists to such a claim.  An attorney can be helpful  in negotiating a settlement and minimizing damages.

A landlord should not wait until a security deposit claim has arisen to seek the assistance of a landlord/tenant attorney.  If you think you may be in violation of this law, or want help in making sure you comply with the law’s detailed requirements, speak to a landlord/tenant attorney right away.

Conclusion 

If you find yourself involved with a security deposit matter, contact me for a consultation.  Having an experienced attorney on your side can make all of the difference in getting you the help you need.

Responding to a 93A Demand Letter

Massachusetts has an important law that is of critical importance to Massachusetts landlords: the Consumer Protection Law.  Commonly known as “Chapter 93A” (where this law is located in the Massachusetts statutes), the Consumer Protection Law prohibits “unfair and deceptive business practices.”  This, as one can tell, is broad language that can cover an infinite number of scenarios.  Courts have construed the reach of Chapter 93A broadly, to include many potential claims that are not otherwise covered by other existing laws.

For a consumer to bring a Consumer Protection Law claim, the claimant must generally send the business a demand letter prior to filing a lawsuit.  For a landlord, responding to a 93A demand letter is incredibly important.  The failure in responding to a 93A demand letter can come with steep penalties if the matter ends up in court.

I always advise a landlord (and anyone else who receives such a letter) to hire an attorney when responding to a 93A demand letter.  Even if the demand appears to be without merit, it is worth having a legal professional ensure that you are handling the complaint properly.  Here are a few points that should be considered when responding to a 93A demand letter.

Is the Landlord Covered Under the Consumer Protection Law?

First, is the landlord covered under the Consumer Protection Law?  The general rule is that a person or business who rents residential space for a fee is engaged in business, and would be subject to Chapter 93A.  However, there is an exception if the landlord lives in the subject property, and is merely renting a unit in the building.  Courts have found that in such cases, the landlord is not a business.  An experienced landlord/tenant attorney can help determine this for you, and whether or not you might be subject to Chapter 93A.

Does the Demand Letter Satisfy the Requirements of a 93A Demand Letter? 

The second inquiry when responding to a 93A demand letter is whether the demand letter satisfies the Consumer Protection Law requirements.  Contrary to popular belief, simply calling a demand letter a Chapter 93A demand does not make it compliant with Consumer Protection Law.  Rather, the law has specific requirements on what needs to go into the letter.  The failure to send a proper demand letter can have severe consequences: in some cases, courts have thrown out a Consumer Protection Law lawsuit for not complying with the demand letter requirement.

Responding to a 93A Demand Letter

Regardless of the above, a landlord should always respond to a 93A demand letter.  Even if the claim is meritless, or the landlord is not covered by Chapter 93A, the failure to respond can be disastrous if the matter ends up in court.

In responding to a 93A demand letter, an attorney can help you determine whether to make a reasonable settlement offer.  Because Chapter 93A generally requires a demand letter before starting a lawsuit, the law (and judges who hear these cases) strongly favor resolution of these matters without litigation.  The Consumer Protection Law gives landlords strong incentives for settling these cases out-of-court, and strong penalties if the court believes that the landlord should have resolved the matter without the court’s involvement.

Conclusion 

Responding to a 93A demand letter is important.  If you find yourself in receipt of one of these demand letters, contact an experience attorney for assistance.

 

Guest Blog Post: Renters Insurance

The Massachusetts Landlord Tenant Blog is pleased to have Jordan Lavalle from Liberty Mutual guest blog on the important topic of renters insurance.  Jordan may be contacted at Jordan.Lavallee@LibertyMutual.com

‘I Don’t Have Renters Insurance, what is the big deal?’ is a question I hear from my clients on a daily basis.  Purchasing home insurance on your house is widely accepted, but having renters insurance on your apartment is often ignored.  In fact, a 2016 study conducted by the ORC International, found that 95% of homeowners had insurance, while only 41% of renters did.

In my profession as a Sales Representative at Liberty Mutual, I hear weekly stories of people who are left empty-handed after their apartment building experienced a traumatic loss. “It is better to be safe than sorry,” is my motto when it comes to purchasing renters insurance, especially when it is much more affordable than people think.  In the same way I aim to advise my clients, my hope for this article is to educate readers on the offerings of renter’s insurance and eliminate any misconceptions.

Renters insurance includes three main coverage’s, although there are many additional coverage’s, called endorsements, which can be added on.

Personal Property

Anything in your apartment, home, or space you rent that belongs to you is covered by renters insurance.  All too often, clients underestimate the value of their belonging.  Luckily, there are several apps on the market, including Liberty Mutual’s Home Gallery App, which will allow you to calculate the value your belongings.  Do not be surprised how quickly you reach the thousands, when you start adding up the cost of your clothing, furniture, and electronics.  Not only will your renters policy cover your personal property while it’s sitting in your apartment, but it will be covered ANYWHERE in the world.  So you are on vacation in Bora Bora and you lost your designer sunglasses?  Good news, you can get a brand new pair with your renter’s insurance policy!

Loss of Use

Not only are your personal belongings protected, but renters insurance has another significant coverage known as Loss of Use.  If your apartment is deemed unlivable, Loss of Use will cover costs associated with housing, food, laundry and more while your building is being renovated, up to the policy limits.  Not having to think twice about how you will afford being displaced from your home, takes stress away from the situation, so you can continue to focus on work, family and friends.

Liability

The third major component to renter’s insurance is liability protection, which will protect you up to your policy limits for medical expenses of others and legal fees.  As a renter, you are responsible for any injuries to your guests.  From a slip or fall, dog bites, or serving alcohol to your guest who later gets into a car accident, the law suits or medical bills could come back to you.  Liability coverage will also protect you if you are found responsible for property damage in your home.  For example, if you light a candle near a flowing curtain and start a fire, you will be accountable for the damages.  This is where liability coverage can kick-in and cover the expensive repair, so it will not come out of your pocket.

Not only does renters insurance offer these instrumental coverage’s, but you also have the option to add on endorsements to personalize your policy.  One endorsement that I often add to renter’s insurance policies is called our Home Computer Endorsement.  It covers my client’s computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets if they are damaged or lost, with a $50 deductible.  For only an extra $2.00/month to add the Home Computer Endorsement on, it is much less expensive than the cost to buy insurance for you smartphone through your mobile carrier.

Many clients think that adding renters insurance would be a huge cost to them.  However, in Boston, most renters’ insurance policies that I sell cost less than $20.00 a month.  That is less than the cost of 4 lattes from Starbucks or a night out to dinner!  Do not take a gamble on your financial well-being. Protect yourself and your family by putting a renter’s insurance policy in place today!

About Jordon Lavallee

Thank you all for reading about the significance of Renters Insurance.  My name is Jordan Lavallee, and I am a Sales Agent for Liberty Mutual, servicing the state of Massachusetts.  My passion for what I do, comes from my innate desire to help people.  Through coaching clients and offering my advice, I am able to give them invaluable peace of mind.  If you or anyone in your network would like to discuss their best insurance options, please email me at Jordan.Lavallee@LibertyMutual.com and connect with me on LinkedIn to see more educational insurance posts.