Trusts in Massachusetts Courts: Do You Need a Lawyer?

The Massachusetts Appeals Court last month issued an important decision about trusts in Massachusetts courts, on whether a lawyer is needed to represent such entities. The full decision, Braxton v. City of Boston, is included below.

Although I am writing this as a blog post about landlord-tenant law, this issue regarding trusts in Massachusetts courts is equally relevant to other areas of law, especially real estate matters.

What is a Trust?

A trust is a property interest held by one person for the benefit of others. Trusts have become a common means of passing property to others without having to do a formal probate proceeding. A trust is generally run by a trustee, who runs it for the beneficiaries.

Trusts are a common means of holding real estate. When placed into a trust, the trust becomes the owner of the property.

Trusts, importantly, can sue, and be sued in Massachusetts courts.

Trusts in Massachusetts Courts: Get a Lawyer!

Braxton concerned a simple question: does a trust need to be represented by a lawyer in court?

Prior cases make it clear that a corporation or limited liability company (“LLC”) need an an attorney for a court proceeding (except small claims). The rationale is that an organized business is a separate legal entity, and not the same as the individuals who own it. Braxton, to the best of my knowledge, is the first case to address whether this rule also applies to a trust.

In Braxton, the Appeals Court ruled that trusts, like businesses, must also be represented by a lawyer in court. This ruling makes sense: a trust, like a business, is a separate legal entity, and it makes little sense to require a business to have an attorney represent it in court, but not a trust.

Limited Exception: Filing a Notice of Appeal

Braxton recognizes a limited exception to this rule: the filing of a notice of appeal. An appeal is a court case that reviews a lower court decision. To do an appeal, one must file a notice of appeal by a fixed deadline after a final decision in a case is reached. For civil matters, this deadline is generally thirty days. (eviction appeals are ten days, and zoning appeals are twenty days).

A notice of appeal must be filed by this deadline; if it is not, the appeal can get dismissed. In Braxton, a trust wished to appeal a court decision, but no longer had a lawyer representing it. Rather than miss the appeal deadline, it went ahead and filed a notice of appeal without an attorney. The question for the Appeals Court was whether this was an adequate notice of appeal.

The Court ruled that in such a scenario, where a trust no longer had an attorney, it was proper for a trustee to file the notice of appeal on its own, with the caveat that the trust needs to find a lawyer ASAP. This ruling applies to business entities as well: a corporate officer can also file a notice of appeal for a corporation or LLC if it does not have a lawyer.

The rationale of this rule, in my opinion, is the need to meet appeal deadlines. It would be unfair to deprive a trust or business with the right to appeal solely because it does not have an attorney by the deadline date.

Practical Implications

A trust, like a business entity, needs a lawyer for court proceedings. Although Braxton recognizes an exception to this rule, this exception appears to be a narrow, limited one. Recent cases show that Massachusetts courts are not tolerant of non-lawyers practicing law. The consequences for doing so can be severe.

Conclusion

If you need legal representation for an eviction, contact me for a consultation.

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Commercial Evictions in Massachusetts: 5 Things to Know

Commercial evictions in Massachusetts concern property that is not used for human habitation, such as a store or office space. Similar to residential property, an owner of commercial property must bring a formal court action (known as “summary process”) for obtaining possession from a tenant.

This is where the similarities between commercial and residential evictions end. Read on for important information that one should know about commercial evictions in Massachusetts.

No Right to Housing Court for a Commercial Eviction Case

Housing Court is a popular forum for resolving residential property disputes in Massachusetts. A residential landlord is permitted to file an eviction in Housing Court, and if an eviction is filed in another court, either party (tenant or landlord) has the right to transfer it to Housing Court.

Housing Court, however, does not have jurisdiction over commercial evictions in Massachusetts. These cases must be brought in District Court or Superior Court.

Commercial Property Is Often Rented “As Is”, Which Limits the Available Defenses in a Commercial Eviction Case

Residential property comes with an implied warranty of habitability. A landlord can only rent property that is fit for human habitation: a responsibility that cannot be waived. Residential property must also comply with the state sanitary code.

Commercial property, in contrast can (and most often does) get rented “as is.” In such a case, the tenant is generally responsible for the care and maintenance of the property. As such, problems arising from conditions in the rental property are limited as defenses to commercial evictions in Massachusetts.

Commercial Leases Often Require the Waiver of a Jury Demand

Tenants in residential evictions have the right to a jury trial. Most commercial evictions require tenants to waive their right to a jury trial if an eviction case ever becomes necessary. As a result, commercial evictions typically move at a much faster pace than residential cases.

Counterclaims Are Not Allowed in Commercial Evictions

Counterclaims are not allowed in commercial evictions. As such, a tenant defending a commercial eviction is much more limited in the potential defenses they can raise in such a proceeding.

Commercial tenants, however, are free to file a separate lawsuit against a landlord and ask that it be consolidated with the eviction.

Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law Does Not Apply to Commercial Tenancies

As I’ve written, Massachusetts’s security deposit law is a trap for unwary residential landlords, and can result in steep penalties if violated. This law, however, does not apply to commercial tenancies. A commercial landlord can accept a security deposit without having to comply with the numerous requirements of the residential security deposit law.

Massachusetts’s security deposit law often comes up in residential evictions, and is a problem if the landlord has not followed this law. For commercial evictions, however, this law does not apply.

That’s not to say that a commercial landlord can do whatever they want with a security deposit. Chapter 93A, which prohibits unfair and deceptive business practices, can apply if a commercial landlord acts unreasonably with a security deposit.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with commercial evictions in Massachusetts, contact me for a consultation.

Choosing a Landlord Attorney

Choosing a landlord attorney can be a critical decision for your landlord-tenant dispute. Among the many things to keep in mind is how your attorney will attempt to resolve your case as affordably as possible.

You may be wondering why this blog post includes a picture of a table above. It is not simply because I built it myself (although I am proud of it!). Rather, it demonstrates an important part of my approach when representing all clients, especially landlords.

When I’m not lawyering, I enjoy woodworking. I’ve built a great workshop and have constructed some good pieces of furniture, including the table above. This table is made from a piece of California redwood that my wife and I purchased during our last vacation. With some power tools and a lot of elbow grease, I turned it into a great addition for our home.

Not everything I make is of this quality. Below is a table that I made as a stand for my scroll saw:


It doesn’t have the bells and whistles as my other project for a good reason: it stays in my workshop, and not in my living room. I could have designed it to look like the redwood table above, but I’d rather spend my time and money on other projects.

So, what does this have to do with choosing a landlord attorney?

Not every part of the legal process requires the construction of a perfect piece of furniture. Sometimes, a basic table will do. In other words, although one can spend enormous time and money in a legal proceeding, it isn’t always necessary.

Landlord-tenant disputes can get expensive . . . very quickly. My goal in these cases (and for my other practice areas) is to make sure that I’m spending my client’s money wisely. I’ve seen some attorneys spend an enormous amount of time on matters that could otherwise be avoided. I have also seen attorneys attempt to litigate cases where the end goal just isn’t worth it for their client.

Of course, some expenses can’t be avoided. My workshop table above didn’t need a polyurethane finish, but it certainly required the right fasteners to ensure that it doesn’t fall apart. Having a solid background in landlord-tenant law is the key to knowing what is needed (and what isn’t) in a landlord-tenant dispute.

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

Evictions for Massachusetts Businesses: Get a Lawyer!

reversing-a-foreclosure

Massachusetts businesses in eviction proceedings have a unique requirement: they must be represented by a licensed attorney. This is true not just for eviction cases, but all civil actions (with the exception of small claims). Read on about this important topic.

Evictions for Massachusetts Businesses

A Massachusetts landlord is only entitled to represent themselves in an eviction if the tenancy is in their individual capacity. This is common for many small landlords, who own rental property individually, in their own name. These landlords are permitted to represent themselves in an eviction case.

If, however, the landlord is a business entity, such as a corporation or a limited liability company (“LLC”), the landlord must be represented by an attorney. This comes from a Supreme Judicial Court decision, which holds that such business entities cannot represent themselves in court. Most courts take the position that this requirement also applies to landlords organized as trusts.

Practical Implications

Another recent Supreme Judicial Court case, concerning who is entitled to bring an eviction, requires trial courts to take a careful look at the parties before them. If a corporation or LLC is appearing in an eviction case without an attorney, there is a strong chance that the court will dismiss the proceeding. For this reason, Massachusetts businesses should never take a chance of not having a lawyer in court. If there is any doubt about whether an attorney is needed for your eviction, speak to a lawyer before pursuing such a claim.

Landlords who are not business entities can represent themselves in court. Doing so, however, is not always a good idea. Massachusetts landlord-tenant law is complex, and if a matter proceeds to trial, most non-lawyers are unable to handle the procedural requirements for litigating a case. For this reason, hiring a competent attorney is a good idea.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a Massachusetts eviction, contact me for a consultation.

Starting An Eviction in Massachusetts

The process for starting an eviction in Massachusetts generally requires the sending of a notice to quit and the proper filing of a court summons. The ins and outs of these two requirements are much more detailed than can be covered in a single blog post. The use of an experienced landlord-tenant attorney for an eviction is highly recommended.

Here, I want to focus on a few things that landlords can do on their own to assist with starting an eviction case against a tenant.

Address Any Condition Issues in the Rental Unit

Landlords have a responsibility for maintaining a rental unit. Prior to starting an eviction, a landlord needs to ensure that any health or safety issues in the rental unit are addressed. This needs to be done regardless of the reasons why the landlord wishes to evict a tenant.

Starting an eviction when there are unaddressed conditions in a rental unit can be problematic, and sometimes fatal to the case. Best to address these matters before an eviction case begins.

Gather Together All Documents Relevant to the Tenancy

In an eviction case, like any other civil action, tenants have the right to request discovery, which is information relevant to the claims and defenses raised in the case. These generally consist of written questions and document requests.

A landlord can make this process easier (and save themselves legal fees) by getting together this information in advance. A good resource for this are the sample discovery requests that tenants often use in Massachusetts eviction cases. Not every one of these requests, of course, will be relevant to every eviction case. These sample requests, however, can give landlords an idea of what information will be required as part of their eviction case.

Speak to An Attorney Before Accepting Rent During an Eviction

Landlords need to be careful about accepting rent during an eviction. In certain cases, accepting rent can reinstate a tenancy and delay an eviction. Accepting rent in such cases needs to be done in a specific manner, which an attorney can assist with.

Be Professional With Your Tenants and Manage Expectations

Even under the best circumstances, evictions can be stressful. Landlords, however, should always remain professional with tenants. While it may be tempting to express anger with a tenant during an eviction, rarely do such confrontations help in the long run. Assume everything you say or write to a tenant will go before a judge or jury. Often, it is a good idea to let your attorney be the one to speak directly with your tenants during such a case.

Landlords also need to manage their expectations for an eviction. Evicting a tenant will not happen overnight, and there are parts of the process that cannot be avoided. Educate yourself about the eviction process, and be realistic about your goals in one of these cases.

Conclusion

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

How Can a Landlord Increase Rent?

Help With A Security Deposit

Massachusetts landlords need to act carefully when attempting to increase rent from tenants. With the exception of landlords who rent to tenants whose rent is subsidized by certain state and federal housing vouchers, there are no limitations on the amount of rent that a landlord may collect from a tenant. There is, however, a process that landlords must use to increase rent from existing tenants.

Tenants with a Lease

A lease is a formal agreement for the rental of property for a definitive period of time. Leases are legally binding agreements that obligate a landlord to rent the premises at the agreed-upon rent. As such, until the end of a lease, a landlord cannot demand an increase in rent.

A landlord, of course, can ask for an increase in rent after the lease, either through offering a tenants a new lease or a month-to-month tenancy. Landlords, however, need to be careful in these situations. If a tenant refuses to sign a new lease or agree to a month-to-month tenancy with the increase in rent, a landlord’s continued acceptance of rent after the end of the lease will create a month-to-month tenancy (known as a tenancy at will). The prior terms of the lease (including the monthly rent) will stay the same. Which brings us to the next topic . . .

Tenants At Will

For a tenancy at will, either party can end the tenancy by giving the other side a full rental period notice (which is most often thirty days). A landlord with tenants at will, therefore, can increase rent for these tenants by giving them proper notice of the rental increase.

There is a informal and formal way to do this. Informally, a landlord can simply ask the tenant to pay an increase in rent. If a tenant does, a new tenancy is created. If you go with this option, be sure to have the tenant sign a written agreement. While a tenancy at will can be oral, it is rarely ever a good idea.

If the tenant refuses a landlord’s offer to increase the rent, the prior month-to-month agreement (and prior rent) stays in place.

The formal way to increase rent is to end the month-to-month tenancy with a notice to quit, and offer a new month-to-month tenancy with the increased rent. This way, if the tenant refuses to accept the higher rent, the landlord has the option of evicting the tenant.

Practical Implications

Although a landlord can ask for higher rent from tenants, doing so is not always the prudent choice. Good, reliable tenants are a huge advantage to a landlord. Keep this in mind when choosing whether to pursue a rental increase. Many landlords find that modest increases in rent each year avoids the hassle of asking for a significant increase in rent in a single year.

Landlords also need to be mindful of state law that prohibits retaliation against tenants. Landlords cannot increase rent to “punish” a tenant for raising a complaint about the conditions of the apartment or filing a grievance with the town or city’s inspectional services department. Doing so exposes a landlord to liability from a tenant.

Conclusion

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

Breach of a Lease in Massachusetts

Breach of a Lease

This week, I obtained a successful judgment on behalf of several tenants against their landlord for a breach of a lease. This is an important topic for landlords and tenants that I want to discuss here.

What is a Lease?

A lease is a contract for the rental of property. A landlord agrees to allow a tenant to take possession of property for a specific period of time, in exchange for rent. Most residential leases in Massachusetts are for a year, but can be longer.

As stated above, a lease is a contract: a legally binding agreement. Failure to comply with one of the terms of a lease can result in a breach of this agreement, which has legal consequences.

Although a lease is a legally binding agreement, there are certain limitations that a landlord may not include. Massachusetts law prohibits the waiver of many landlord-tenant laws aimed at protecting tenants, such as the security deposit law. This is in contrast to a commercial lease, where landlords have much more flexibility in the rental terms offered to a tenant.

Breach of a Lease by Tenants

The most common type of a breach of a lease by tenants is the failure to pay rent. In such a case, a landlord can pursue an eviction, and seek possession of the rental unit and any owed rent. If the tenant is no longer in possession of the rental unit, the landlord can still seek owed rent through a civil action.

Tenants can also breach a lease by failing to comply with one of the other lease terms, such as keeping the property clean and not making excessive noise. If the breach is severe enough, this can also be grounds for eviction.

Breach of a Lease by Landlords

Landlords, importantly, can also violate a lease. In my recent case, the landlord failed to provide amenities in the apartment that it agreed to do, under a written lease. The Court agreed that the landlord’s failure to do so was a lease violation, and entitled my clients to monetary damages.

This is a critical lesson for landlords: a lease works both ways. Just as a tenant must comply with their end of the bargain, so must a landlord. Failure to do so can result in penalties if brought before a court.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a breach of a lease, contact me for a consultation.

Landlords and Vacated Property

Landlords and Vacated Property

As a landlord-tenant attorney, my goal is to keep clients out of the dog house (pun intended). That’s why I want to discuss a new requirement for landlords and vacated property: checking for abandoned animals.

Landlords and Vacated Property

This law applies to landlords whose rental properties are vacated as a result of an eviction proceeding. It is fairly new, and is not yet included in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s eviction laws, found online. The full text of the law can be found in the passed law, and is included below:

Not more than 3 days after a property owner or a lessor knew or should have known that a property has been vacated as a result of summary process, the property owner, lessor or a designee shall inspect the property for the presence of abandoned animals.

If the property owner, lessor or a designee encounters an abandoned animal under this section or section 4, the property owner, lessor or a designee shall immediately notify an animal control officer as defined in section 136A of chapter 140, a police officer or other authorized agent of the presence and condition of the animal.

The property owner, lessor or designee who encounters an abandoned animal pursuant to this section shall not be considered the owner, possessor or person having the charge or custody of the animal under section 77 of chapter 272.

For the purposes of this section, an animal shall be considered abandoned if it is found on or in a property vacated as a result of summary process.

If the property owner, lessor or a designee fails to comply with this section, the lessor or property owner shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $500 for a first offense and not more than $1,000 for a second or subsequent offense. Funds collected under this section shall be deposited into the Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund established in section 35WW of chapter 10.

G.L. c. 239, § 14

This law, notably, only applies to vacated properties after an eviction (known as a “summary process” case). The law defines an abandoned animal as one that is “found on or in” a vacated property. This suggests that landlords should also report abandoned animals that are in the vicinity of their rental properties.

Practical Implications

From my years of representing landlords, I doubt this law will have a major impact for most owners of rental property. Generally, after an eviction, most landlords can’t wait to get into their rental units and check on their property.

Nonetheless, this is an important, new requirement for landlords and vacated property that should be kept in mind following an eviction.

Besides animals, it is a good idea for landlords with vacated property to take a close look at their rental units for other potential issues, such as health and safety concerns.

3 Things to Consider When Hiring a Landlord Attorney

Hiring a landlord attorney is necessary when problems with tenants will not go away. Choosing the right landlord attorney is an important decision, and one that can make all of the difference in your case. Here are three things to consider when making such a choice.

Knowledge of Landlord-Tenant Law

Just as you wouldn’t hire a plumber to work on an electrical problem, you don’t want a landlord attorney who does not have expertise in landlord-tenant law. All lawyers are not the same, and you want one with a background in this area of law.

A great example of this is Massachusetts’s security deposit law. At first glance, the holding of a security deposit wouldn’t seem like a big deal. However, Massachusetts law heavily regulates the receipt, holding, and return of such a deposit, with steep penalties for those who do not comply with these provisions. A good landlord attorney knows the importance of this law and how to keep landlords out of trouble.

Trial Experience

A good landlord attorney should have trial experience. While many eviction cases end up getting resolved short of trial, trials can and do happen for landlord-tenant cases. You want to be prepared for this by having an attorney who knows how to litigate such a matter.

Keeping Costs Under Control

Legal services aren’t cheap. However, a good landlord attorney makes a real effort to keep his or her fees and costs as low as possible.

The best example of this is using mediation for an eviction matter. Even in the strongest eviction case, there are fees and expenses that are unavoidable if the matter goes to trial. Mediation, where each party compromises in an effort to get the case resolved, can go a long way towards keeping legal fees under control.

Conclusion

These are all important topics to keep in mind when selecting a landlord attorney. If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.