A central question that anyone in a landlord/tenant case needs to consider is, who pays legal fees in an eviction case? The answer to this question makes a huge difference in determining whether to pursue a potential claim against a landlord or tenant.
Massachusetts, like most of the country, follows the American Rule in awarding attorney fees in a lawsuit. Unless there is a law explicitly allowing attorney fees, a prevailing party doesn’t get attorney fees in a lawsuit . . . even if the court determines they were on the “right” side of the law.
The American Rule most directly impacts landlords in eviction cases against tenants. Landlords generally cannot recover attorney fees in an eviction case against a tenant. A landlord who prevails in an eviction case is entitled to the “costs” of the case, but this is generally limited to the filing fee of the lawsuit, and not any attorney fees incurred in one of these cases. Some leases provide for attorney fees if a landlord brings an eviction case in court, but this alone does not guarantee that a landlord will obtain these fees from the tenant: a landlord (like any party in a lawsuit) can only obtain a judgment from a party with assets. If the tenant does not a steady income, property, or anything else of value, the landlord will have a judgment that they cannot recover.
The same isn’t true for tenants bringing claims against landlords. Massachusetts has some of the most tenant friendly laws in the country, allowing for legal fees in an eviction case. Violation of one of Massachusetts’s many landlord/tenant laws, such as the security deposit law, will not only subject a landlord to monetary damages, but require them to pay a “reasonable” attorney fee if the tenant prevails. For a lengthy eviction case, these attorney fees can be huge.
With this in mind, both landlords and tenants should keep in mind who pays attorney fees in eviction cases when evaluating their options. For landlords attempting to evict a tenant, strong consideration should be given to working out settlement agreements in lieu of litigating these cases. The potential risks of fighting one of these cases can be costly (as unfair as this can be). For tenants who are dealing with an unfair landlord, Massachusetts’s landlord/attorney laws, which provide for attorney fees for a prevailing tenant, are a strong reason why tenants should speak with an experienced landlord/tenant attorney if they are dealing with a bad landlord.
If you find yourself in either scenario, contact me for a consultation.