The Massachusetts Landlord Tenant Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent Meikle v. Nurse decision, an appeal involving the important issue of defenses in Massachusetts eviction cases. Attorney Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at email@example.com.
Supreme Judicial Court:
Violation of the Security Deposit Statute is A Defense to Possession In An Eviction Case
On April 27, in Meikle v. Nurse, Slip Op., SJC-11859, 474 Mass.—, the Supreme Judicial Court held that a residential tenant could assert a violation of the security deposit statute (G.L. c.186, §15B) as a defense to possession in a summary process action (a copy of the decision is posted below).
In October 2011, Ms. Nurse executed a one-year lease to live in a residence Mr. Meikle owned and paid a $1,300 security deposit equivalent to one month’s rent. Although Mr. Meikle acknowledged receipt of the deposit, he neither informed Ms. Nurse where he deposited the lease-nor paid her interest. Ms. Nurse lived there until April 2014, when Mr. Meikle commenced the instant summary process action. Ms. Nurse counterclaimed on multiple grounds, including a violation of the security deposit statute.
A Judge in the Boston Housing Court held for Ms. Nurse on her security deposit claim because Mr. Meikle failed to provide proper receipts and interest. However, in conflict with at least three past Housing Court rulings, the Judge ruled that the violation would only offset the unpaid rent and was no defense to possession. Ms. Nurse appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court took the case directly on their own motion.
Writing for the Court, Justice Geraldine S. Hines distilled the case to the interplay of G.L. c.186, §15B and G.L. c.239, §8A, establishing defenses to eviction. The Court applied two established interpretive principles to resolve this issue. First, the Court interprets statutes to effectuate the intent of the Legislature based on the language of the statute and its purpose. Plain and unambiguous language in a statute was “conclusive of the intent of the Legislature.” Second, the Court interprets remedial statutes broadly to best effectuate their purposes.
Against this backdrop, the Court noted that the fifth paragraph of Section 8A provided that “a tenant may retain possession if: (1) the tenant prevails on a counterclaim or defense brought “under this section; and (2) the damages on that defense or counterclaim exceed the amount due the landlord, the tenant pays to the court the amount due within one week.” Construed harmoniously, the phrase “under this section” referred back to the first paragraph of Section 8A to assert a defense or counterclaim “arising out of such property, rental, tenancy…occupancy of breach of warranty, for a breach of any material provision of the rental agreement, or for a violation of any other law.”
The Court held that violation of the security deposit statute “fits squarely within this framework [as relating to or arising] out of the tenancy” and its violation was one “of any other law.” The Court emphasized that security deposits were a “prerequisite to most residential tenancies” the security deposit statute was “part of an elaborate scheme of rights and duties to prevent abuses and to insure fairness to the tenant.” Moreover, a contrary interpretation would frustrate both statutes, especially the historic expansion of Section 8A leading to the language “violation of any other law” in 1977. Finally, Mr. Meilke was not without a remedy. If he ameliorated the security deposit violation, he could later bring a new summary process action-even if Ms. Nurse paid the amount due.
The Court’s decision reflects a thoughtful balance. First, the Court broadly effectuates two remedial statutes as a harmonious whole to protect residential tenants. Security deposits are a sine-qua-non of residential tenancies and the Legislature enacted a broad constellation of rights to protect tenants. Holding that a security deposit violation was not “a violation of any other law” ignored two lessons of history: the expansion of defenses to tenants and robust protection of security deposits.
At the same time, the Court establishes a key limit for future cases by interpreting “any other law” to invariably correlate to the landlord tenant relationship. Future tenants will therefore need to make this showing to have a defense to possession. Landlords also may remedy their violation and bring a new summary process action; indeed, “the Legislature’s [was to provide…] a time limited equitable remedy.” The open question thus potentially becomes how long a tenant may retain possession for a security deposit violation-or, conversely, how long a landlord has to remedy a security deposit violation before commencing a new summary process action. Hopefully, despite the summary nature of summary process, the SJC will address these issues again strike a balance.
Joseph N. Schneiderman has an appellate practice “on circuit” in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and argued his first civil appeal in the SJC on March 10. See Goodwin v. Lee Public Schools, SJC-11977. Joe gratefully thanks Adam for the opportunity to guest blog (again)!