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.

Top Five Landlord Mistakes

Landlord Mistakes

In this blog post, I want to discuss the top five landlord mistakes made by those renting residential property in Massachusetts.   Massachusetts has numerous laws protecting tenants, and a landlord’s failure to comply with these regulations can cause major problems down the road.  Fortunately, these landlord mistakes are easily avoidable.

 1.  Accepting a Security Deposit From a Tenant

Few things get a landlord into more trouble than Massachusetts’s security deposit law.  Take a minute (or several!), attempt to figure out all of this law’s requirements, and you’ll learn quickly why the law is a disaster waiting to happen.  Few landlords comply with all of the law’s detailed requirements, and the failure to do so can result in treble damages, attorney fees, and costs.  The risks for landlords just aren’t worth it.

As I have suggested before, a landlord who wants a security deposit should make this part of their monthly rent.  For example, if a landlord wants a $1,200 security deposit, they should add (or set aside) $100 each month, rather than requesting it upfront from the tenant.  This keeps a landlord from having to comply with the security deposit requirements.  Moreover, unlike a security deposit, this money belongs to the landlord if no repairs need to be done at the end of the tenancy.

2.  Not Choosing Tenants Carefully 

Another common landlord mistake is not choosing tenants carefully.  A bad tenant can cause enormous problems to landlords.  Evictions can be long and expensive, and collecting a judgment against a tenant can be difficult.  Try to avoid these problems in the first place by selecting  reputable tenants.

3.  Not Using a Written Rental Agreement 

Landlords should always use a written rental agreement with tenants, regardless of whether it is a a month-to-month agreement or lease.  A written agreement lays out all of the expectations of the landlord and tenant, and can avoid problems from coming up later on.  Moreover, if a landlord expects a tenant to pay for any of the apartment’s utilities, a written agreement is a requirement under the state sanitary code.

4.  Failing to Maintain Rental Property

If you own rental property, the law requires you to maintain it.  Massachusetts’s state sanitary code contains detailed regulations for rental property, and many towns and cities have their own requirements for rental property as well.  A tenant must generally provide notice, and a reasonable opportunity to the landlord to address the problem, before the landlord can become liable for not maintaining the property, but a landlord should avoid these problems in the first place by keeping on top of a rental property’s maintenance and care.

5.  Attempting an Eviction Without An Attorney 

If a landlord needs to get rid of a tenant, an eviction is required.  A landlord should never try and do an eviction on their own.  While it may be tempting to try and avoid the costs of an eviction, the consequences of making a mistake in one of these cases can be far more expensive down the line.  Moreover, an experienced landlord attorney can often help finds ways to make the eviction process go as quickly as possible.

If you find yourself in need of legal assistance, contact me for a consultation.

How Long Does an Eviction Take?

How long does an eviction take in Massachusetts?  Answering that question is like a weatherman stating what the weather is going to be the next day: an expert can give a good prediction, but many unknown factors can make a big difference in the ultimate outcome.

Beginning a Massachusetts Eviction Case

The beginning of a Massachusetts eviction case is an important consideration in determining how long one of these cases will ultimately take.  To start an eviction, a landlord is required to send a notice to quit, which informs the tenant that their tenancy is over.  The timeframe under one of these notices depends on the reason for eviction, and are usually anywhere from seven to thirty days.

Filing An Eviction Case

Following the service of a notice to quit, the landlord must file the eviction case.  Unlike a typical lawsuit, where the lawsuit is filed with the court and then served on the party, in an eviction case, the opposite happens: the eviction case paperwork is served on the tenant first, and then filed with the court.  This notice must be served on the tenant at a minimum, seven days before it is filed with the court (and not more than thirty days).

Discovery, Trial

The next factor in determining how long an eviction takes is whether the tenant(s) request discovery and a jury trial.

Discovery is the right of a party to learn information from the opposing side, through interrogatories (written questions) and request for documents.  A request for discovery automatically postpones an eviction trial by two weeks.  Depending on the amount of information requested, discovery may take even longer.

A defendant in an eviction case has a right to a jury trial.  Unlike bench trials, which are held before a single judge, a jury trial requires the calling of potential jurors by a court, and usually happens on select days at a court.  As such, a request for a jury trial typically also pushes back an eviction case, depending upon the court’s trial schedule.

Conclusion 

The above are some of the many factors that help answer how long  an eviction in Massachusetts take.  Generally, an uncontested eviction will take between one to two months.  A contested eviction, with requests for discovery and a jury trial, can take anywhere from three to six months.

Having an experienced attorney on your side can make a huge difference in moving one of these cases along, and getting you the results you need.  Contact me for a consultation.

I’ve Been Served With An Eviction Notice! Now What?

What to Do After Receiving a Massachusetts Eviction Notice

Getting served with an eviction notice can be a stressful experience.  Tenants who receive one of these notices need to act quickly to protect their rights.

What is An Eviction Notice?

An eviction notice in Massachusetts is generally one of two things.  To start an eviction, a landlord must send a tenant a notice to quit, informing the tenant that their tenancy is being terminated.  These notices typically provide fourteen or thirty days notice to the tenant, depending on the reason for the eviction.

After a tenancy is terminated, a landlord must serve the tenant with an eviction summons.  This is the official court notice that an eviction is beginning against a tenant, and is the eviction notice that a tenant needs to be most mindful of.

Important Dates in an Eviction Notice

An eviction summons contains a number of different dates, including an entry date, hearing date, and answer deadline.  This last date, the answer deadline, is the most important date to keep in mind in responding to an eviction notice.  This is the date by which the tenant must respond to the eviction notice, and state the reasons why the tenant believes he or she should not be evicted.

Under the rules for Massachusetts evictions, the answer must be received on the answer date.  Unlike other types of court cases, mailing an answer on the answer deadline is not compliant with this deadline; the clerk’s office and the landlord must actually get the answer by this deadline.  Failing to comply with this deadline puts you at risk of a default judgment (an automatic win for the landlord).

Filing An Answer and Request for Discovery

This response to an eviction notice is known as an answer.  In an answer, the tenant is required to admit or deny each of the allegations made by the landlord against the tenant, and to list each of their defenses against the eviction.  A tenant also has the option of bringing claims against the landlord, known as counterclaims.  Common defenses and counterclaims in eviction cases include poor conditions in the rental unit, discrimination, and violation of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law.

A tenant also has the right to request discovery from the landlord.  Discovery is the process by which a tenant can ask a landlord written questions, which the landlord must answer under oath, and to request that the landlord produce all documents relevant to the case.

Speak With A Landlord/Tenant Attorney For Help in Responding to An Eviction Notice

If this process sounds confusing to you, you aren’t alone.  Despite the availability of many landlord/tenant resources online, eviction cases can be complex and tricky.  Tenants who have received an eviction notice should give serious thought to  meeting with a landlord/tenant attorney for help with their case.  Many tenants are surprised to learn that such services can be affordable and, most importantly, effective at getting you the results you need.

Appealing an Eviction Case

Appealing an eviction case is a complicated subject.  I could write for hours on the topic, and even then, would only cover the basics.  Here, I want to offer two critical points for anyone appealing an eviction case: act quickly, and hire an attorney for your appeal.

What is an Appeal?  What Court Does it Go to?

An appeal is a request for a higher court to review A trial court’s decision (the court where the eviction case was first brought).  An appeal looks at whether the trial court judge made the right decisions in the case, and whether the matter should be sent back to the trial court (“remanded”) for another hearing or trial.

An appeal, importantly, is not a “do over.”  A party generally does not get to do their case all over again, in hopes that the appeals court will come out a different way.  Rather, the appeals court looks at whether the trial court made any errors of law.  This is an important things to keep in mind: even if you believe, strongly, that the trial court got its decision wrong, this may not be enough to win on appeal.

Appeals for eviction cases, whether they be for standard landlord/tenant cases or post-foreclosure eviction matters, are brought in one of two courts.  For eviction cases brought in the District Court, appeals go to the District Court Appellate Division.  This is a court made up of other District Court judges, and hold hearings in different courthouses around the state.  A decision from the Appellate Division can then be appealed to the Appeals Court.  Eviction cases coming from the Housing Court or Superior Court go directly to the Appeals Court, which sits in Boston.

The appeal rules for the Appellate Division and Appeals Court have some differences, but the process is generally the same.  An appeal requires a party to prepare a brief, a written document (usually 40-50 pages) stating the reasons why the lower court was wrong.  Depending on the case, the parties may have an opportunity to do an oral argument before the appellate judges, and state the reasons why the lower court was wrong.  The appellate court will then issue a written decision, where the court will either agree or disagree with the lower court’s decision, and state what will happen next for the case (if anything).

Anyone considering appealing an eviction case should follow the following pieces of advise closely.

Tip #1: Act Quickly 

Hands down, the most important advice on the topic of appeals: act quickly.  Unlike most other appeals, which allow a party thirty days to file a notice of appeal, a notice of appeal for an eviction case must be filed within ten days of the trial court’s entry of judgment.  Moreover, several cases have held that the failure to comply with this deadline is grounds for dismissing an appeal . . . regardless of the circumstances.  This suggests that even a showing of good cause is not enough to file a late notice of appeal for an eviction case.  With this in mind, never, never take a chance of missing this deadline.  If you do not have a lawyer, the clerk’s office can generally help you fill out a notice of appeal, a short form telling the court and other side that you plan to appeal.

This advice, importantly, applies equally to both landlords and tenants/former homeowners: the failure to comply with this appeal deadline can be fatal to your case.

Tip #2: Get a Lawyer

The second piece of advice for appealing an eviction case is to get an attorney.  I’m generally not a fan of advising people with legal matters to do cases on their own.  Without a solid legal background, it is difficult for even the smartest pro se  party to prevail in court.  For appeals, it is near impossible.  The rules of appellate procedure are a challenge for even experienced lawyers, and the many other complexities of appeals make this process a real challenge for even the best lawyers.  If you find yourself involved in appealing an eviction case, don’t do it on your own.  Speak to an experienced attorney about obtaining legal representation.

Returning a Security Deposit

 

Rule number one for Massachusetts landlords: never, never take a security deposit.  As I have written before, the risks just aren’t worth it.  The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law is one of the most complex and detailed laws on the books, with numerous traps for the unwary.  Failing to follow one of the law’s requirements can result in treble damages, attorney fees, and costs against the landlord.  As such, a $1,000 security deposit can easily result in $4,000-$5,000 in damages against a landlord if the security deposit law is not strictly followed.

An important part of this law concerns returning a security deposit.  Returning a security deposit would seemingly be an easy task, with the landlord simply taking the required amount of damages from the deposit and returning the balance to the tenant.  The security deposit law, however, has detailed requirements for how this must be done.  Failing to comply with even the most minor requirements of this law can result in enormous damages to the landlord.

How should a landlord handle returning a security deposit?  Contact a landlord/tenant attorney.  An attorney can help ensure that each of these requirements are complied with and save time, money, and heartache down the road.  While it may seem “overkill” to hire an attorney for such a seemingly small matter, doing so can avoid an even bigger problem resulting for a violation of this law.

Tenants who are having problems with getting their security deposits back should also speak to a landlord/tenant attorney.  The aim of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law is to avoid having tenants lose their security deposits without cause, and provides relief for violations of this law.

Text Messages as Evidence – Lessons from the Massachusetts Texting Suicide Case

If you followed the news today, you know about the guilty verdict in the texting suicide case taking place in the Massachusetts Juvenile Court.   In a well reasoned oral decision, Judge Lawrence Moniz  found the defendant, Michelle Carter, guilty of involuntary manslaughter through her numerous text messages urging her boyfriend to kill himself.  This case earned national attention as it concerned sensitive topics of teen bullying, suicide, and electronic communications.  Here, I want to focus on another important aspect of this case: the growing use of text messages as evidence.

Text messages, like most areas of technology, have changed a great deal over the past decade.  I remember when text messages were more of a novelty than an accepted means of communication.  Now, it is completely acceptable to use text messages to share important information.  This is quite a change from years ago, when many of us relied more on email and phone conversations to communicate.

The texting suicide case shows an important implication of text messages as a means of communication: these messages last forever.  Unlike a phone call, which is rarely recorded, text messages often remain in a cell phone or in “the cloud” permanently.  This has enormous implications, as the defendant in this criminal case learned the hard way.  If this defendant had urged her boyfriend to kill himself over a phone call, it is doubtful the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could ever have obtained the evidence needed to convict her.  This is an important lesson from this case: text messages as evidence have powerful consequences in legal matters.

A simple lesson should always apply to using text messages: if you text a message, be prepared for it being presented as evidence if a legal matter ever arises.  This is not the first (and certainly will not be the last) time that text messages are the basis of a legal matter.  Last year, the Massachusetts Land Court ruled that text messages could constitute a legally binding real estate contract, emphasizing how courts are adopting to electronic communications in civil and criminal cases.

In my practice, I take advantage of text messages as evidence.  Such messages are extremely credible and persuasive in presenting facts to a judge or jury.  However, text messages are worthless if these communications are not preserved and, most importantly, in a form available to present to a court.  You would be surprised at how many people are prepared to simply hold up their cell phone to show a text message to a judge or jury!  That approach doesn’t work; a court requires such evidence to be presented in a manner that can be part of a permanent record.

As an evolving area of the law, it is not completely clear on the best way to present text messages as evidence.  Most smartphones have apps that allow a user to turn text messages into PDF files, which can be printed and introduced as evidence.  This approach appears to be generally allowed by courts in accepting such messages into evidence.  For anyone with a text message that may be relevant to a legal matter, I recommend using such an app, as well as keeping the original text message on your phone and making a backup copy.  Like any piece of evidence, if it is lost, it isn’t much help to you.

 

Levying An Execution

Levying an execution in a Massachusetts eviction case is the process by which a landlord, if they are successful in the eviction, is permitted to remove the tenant’s belongings from the rental property.

An execution for possession is a legal document that a court issues if it determines that a landlord is entitled to possession of the rental property.  This occurs if the tenant defaults in the case (does not show up to court) or if the landlord prevails at trial.  Following the court’s judgment, the tenant has ten days to appeal the decision.  If the tenant appeals, the execution will not issue, pending the appeal’s resolution.  If the tenant does not appeal, the clerk’s office will issue the execution.

After the execution is issued, the landlord must levy it.  Levying an execution must be done by a Massachusetts sheriff or constable; a landlord cannot remove a tenant’s possessions on their own (doing so will get the landlord into serious trouble).  A sheriff or constable is required to provide the tenant with 48 hours notice prior to levying the execution.  Moreover, the landlord is responsible for making arrangements to store the tenant’s property after the execution has been levied.  Needless to say, the costs of levying an execution can be significant: it is not unusual for this process to cost thousands of dollars.

A tenant facing the levying of an execution has the option of requesting that the court stay the execution.  Under certain circumstances, the court will permit a tenant to stay beyond the time otherwise allowed.

Landlords should always be cognizant of the reality that levying an execution is time consuming and expensive.  Whenever possible, landlords should attempt to work out resolutions with tenants that avoid this burdensome process.

Does An Eviction Show On a Credit Report?

A common question for tenants facing eviction is whether an eviction will show on a credit report.  Tenants, understandably, are concerned about whether such cases will become a public record and be accessible by others.

According to the credit bureaus, the mere filing of an eviction case by a landlord will not, on its own, show on a tenant’s credit report.  This makes sense: the mere filing of an eviction case does not mean that the tenant deserves to be evicted.  If a tenant has a viable defense to an eviction case, the eviction will be unsuccessful.

However, if the landlord does succeed in an eviction case and the tenant owes the landlord money, the landlord can obtain a judgment for this owed amount.  Such a judgment can be reported to the credit bureaus (the same as any owed debt).  A landlord can also obtain a judgment if the tenant fails to show up to the scheduled court hearing; a landlord is permitted to obtain a default judgment, automatically giving the landlord possession of the property and the owed rent.

Although an eviction, on its own, may not show up in a credit report, evictions in Massachusetts are public record.  Court records are available on masscourt.org and eviction cases can be searched a party’s full name.  When an eviction is filed, it automatically becomes a public record and is accessible through this website.  Several tenant screening services are said to search this website and create lists of filed eviction cases, to help landlords learn the rental history of a prospective tenant.

With this in mind, tenants need to be careful in resolving an eviction case with a landlord.  If one of these cases is settled, the tenant should insist that an agreement for judgment or some similar paperwork be filed in the case to note that the matter was resolved amicably.

If you find yourself facing a landlord/tenant problem, contact me for a consultation.