Massachusetts’s highest court will be issuing a decision in the coming months on an important (and unclear) matter of importance for landlord-tenant law: collecting rent during an eviction. Namely, the court will decide if, during an eviction proceeding, a court can order a tenant to escrow rental payments for the duration of the case.
Information on this case, Davis v. Comerford, can be found here.
The factual background for Davis is common to many Massachusetts eviction cases. Many evictions begin due to a tenant’s non-payment of rent, leaving a landlord without payment as the eviction proceeds. For evictions not involving non-payment of rent, such as a no-fault eviction case, it is not uncommon for tenants to stop paying rent once a case begins.
A common request for landlords in such cases has been to ask for an order that the tenant make use-and-occupancy payments for the duration of the case. These are rental payments that are escrowed while the case goes forward: the money sits in a bank account, and is not withdrawn until the case is resolved. Landlords, of course, want use-and-occupancy payments so there is money available if they win the case.
Trial courts have been generally split on whether they can order rent escrow during an eviction case. Davis is expected to resolve this question.
Legal Arguments For/Against Collecting Rent During An Eviction
The general argument for collecting rent during an eviction is that a tenant should be paying something while the case goes on. Landlords argue that the failure of a court to require such payments will harm landlords, as they won’t have assurance that rent money is available to them at the end of an eviction case.
Opponents of this generally argue that such an order is similar to that of a preliminary injunction; a court order requiring a party to do something prior to the resolution of a case. A preliminary injunction generally requires a showing of “irreparable harm”, such as a loss of property. Loss of money, alone, is generally not enough for a preliminary injunction.
Opponents also argue that there is no Massachusetts law that explicitly requires rent withholding, unlike other states, such as Vermont, which permits this relief.
I predict that Davis will be decided on a critical (but overlooked) part of this particular eviction case: the tenant’s request for a jury trial. In all Massachusetts eviction cases, a tenant has a right to a jury trial. Choosing this option, almost always, delays an eviction case, as it takes additional time to schedule, select, and seat a jury.
The argument goes that, because a tenant has chosen a jury trial, they should be paying rent for the delay in the case. Without a jury trial, an eviction case usually goes to trial several weeks after it is filed, leading to a much more immediate resolution.
One could argue that a requirement to pay rent as a condition for a jury trial infringes on this sacred right, found in Massachusetts’s constitution. Nonetheless, this appears to be a solid middle ground for this tricky legal question, and I would not be surprised if Davis goes this way.
If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.