Eviction Mistakes: Untimely Filing of Court Documents

The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision this week on eviction mistakes arising from the untimely filing of court documents. The full decision is below.

Evictions 101

Evictions, known in Massachusetts as “summary process” cases, are done to obtain possession of a rental property from tenants. The intended goal of these cases are to be “just, speedy, and inexpensive.”

With this in mind, evictions move at a much faster pace than most other cases. Evictions can end up in trial less than a month after being filed in court.

Eviction Mistakes: Not Timely Filing Court Documents

A critical part of eviction cases are the deadlines for filing documents. Court filings for eviction cases come with strict deadlines, and the failure to meet these deadlines can be fatal to one’s case.

In this case, the defendant wished to appeal an eviction decision, and filed the notice of appeal after the ten-day deadline. Compared to other types of cases, eviction cases come with an incredibly tight deadline, with little room for error if it is missed.

As this decision notes, case law holds that a court has no jurisdiction to hear an eviction appeal if one is filed after this deadline. Although the defendant’s attorney claimed he never received a written notice of the decision, and therefore did not know that the appeal deadline had begun, the Appeals Court nonetheless still dismissed the appeal.

Practical Implications

Years ago, I won an appeal on a nearly similar issue. These decisions emphasize a critical mistake to avoid with evictions: the importance of timely filing court papers. The failure to do so can be highly problematic in such a matter.

Like the Appeals Court, I am very sympathetic to the defendant in this case. Things do get lost in the mail, especially now, which can be a real problem for those involved in an eviction case (or other legal matter).

An important way to avoid this is to keep an eye on the online court docket for an eviction case. This way, if something is lost in the mail, you can still learn of the case status and when a decision is issued.

Conclusion

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

g19P1342

Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium Goes to Court

The Massachusetts eviction moratorium, which has been in place since March, is off to court. A group of Massachusetts landlords have brought a lawsuit challenging the legality of this order, and have asked for a preliminary injunction, requesting that the court immediately stop the eviction ban while the case proceeds.

It would take much longer than a blog post to discuss all of the legal arguments for and against the Massachusetts eviction moratorium, but here’s a quick summary of some of the major points:

  • Landlords argue that the moratorium interferes with the right to access the courts, and the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches
  • Landlords argue that the ban is a constitutional “taking” of property, where landlords are deprived of property without compensation
  • Landlords argue that the eviction moratorium interferes with private contracts (leases)

This court case, which was filed in Suffolk Superior Court, is being followed by another legal action in federal court, concerning federal constitutional issues.

Attorney Richard Vetstein and Attorney Jordana Greenman represent the landlords, and did an superb job representing their clients. I’m not familiar with the attorneys who represented the Commonwealth, but they did an excellent job as well.

Judge Paul Wilson is hearing this case, and will be issuing a decision soon. I’ve had the opportunity to argue before Judge Wilson, and can attest that he is a good judge who will issue a well-reasoned decision on these important issues of law. Stay tuned.

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, or have a question about the eviction moratorium, contact me for a consultation.

Evictions in Massachusetts on Hold Through October 2020

Evictions in Massachusetts are now on hold through October 2020, per Governor Baker’s extension of the eviction and foreclosure moratorium. The moratorium was set to expire on August 18th, and is now extended through October 17, 2020.

As I have written before, the eviction moratorium has put the brakes on nearly every eviction in Massachusetts. With the exception of emergency matters, no eviction cases may be filed until the end of the moratorium. Tenants still remain liable for rent, but without evictions, there is no immediate option for dealing with a non-paying tenant.

Without evictions in Massachusetts, what should landlords do?

  • For non-paying tenants, landlords should send monthly notices of owed rent. It is critical that such notices make it clear that no such eviction will occur during the moratorium.
  • Landlords can and should speak with tenants about problems that arise during the eviction moratorium, including unpaid rent. It may be possible to work the matter out with out court involvement, such as through a repayment plan.
  • Landlords should always keep good records of all landlord-tenant matters . . . especially now. If an eviction becomes necessary, such records are vital for a successful case.

I’ve heard from many landlords who are struggling during the eviction moratorium, and who are understandably concerned about the future. While the moratorium remains in place, it will pass . . . just like the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, if a landlord has a situation that they believe is a true emergency, they should speak to an experienced attorney. Even with the moratorium in place, I’ve been able to help landlords with some difficult tenant cases, and would be happy to speak with you about your matter. Contact me for a consultation.

Evicting a Tenant: What To Do

Evicting a tenant is the process required for obtaining possession of rental property. Evictions, known in Massachusetts as summary process, are done through an expedited court process; most often brought in Housing Court or District Court.

A recent news article reveals a disturbing trend about many landlords, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, attempting to evict tenants on their own; a process commonly referred to as “self-help evictions.” Self-help evictions are highly illegal in Massachusetts, and can get landlords in an enormous amount of trouble.

Evicting a Tenant: When Is It Required?

An eviction case is required for obtaining possession against any tenant, regardless of the reason why the eviction is necessary. Although there is a limited exception for tenants engaging in illegal behavior, an eviction is generally required in every other circumstance.

No Self-Help Evictions

A “self-help eviction” is a case where a landlord attempts to remove a tenant from the rental property without a formal court case. Changing the locks, cutting off utilities, and threatening a tenant can all be considered a self-help eviction, and are expressly forbidden under Massachusetts law.

An eviction case requires a landlord, in most cases, to provide the tenant with a notice to quit, serve the tenant with a formal eviction summons, and appear in court. The process takes time and, understandably, can be frustrating, especially when it is against a non-paying tenant.

Presently, there is an eviction moratorium in Massachusetts, which is preventing the filing of almost all eviction cases for the foreseeable future. As such, it is understandable why some landlords may be tempted to bypass a formal eviction case against a tenant. Doing so, however, is a terrible idea, and will be far more trouble than it is worth.

Conclusion

Instead of considering a self-help eviction, contact me for a consultation. While evictions are not going forward now, I can explain the process to you, what can be done in the meantime, and how to prepare for such an action when the courts reopen.

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.

k18P0818

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.

Damages for a Security Deposit Violation in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision on Massachusetts’s security deposit law earlier this year which clarifies the damages than a tenant can obtain from a security deposit violation.

In Phillips v. Equity Residential Management, LLC, the Supreme Judicial Court held that treble damages are not required for every security deposit violation.  Like Massachusetts’s security deposit law itself, Phillips is a complex case.

Overview of Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law 

Massachusetts’s security deposit law heavily regulates a landlord’s acceptance, holding, and return of a tenant’s security deposit.  This law is so detailed that I, along with many other landlord/tenant attorneys, warn landlords to never accept a security deposit.  This law, among other things, has requirements on where a security deposit must be held, what information must be provided to a tenant about the acceptance of the deposit, and what deductions may be taken from the deposit at the end of the tenancy.

Damages for a Security Deposit Violation

Failure to comply with the security deposit law can come with harsh consequences.  The law imposes treble damages, attorney fees, and costs for failure to comply with many of its detailed requirements.  In Phillips, the Supreme Judicial Court clarified which security deposit violations permit treble damages against a landlord.

The security deposit law contains a number of “forfeiture” provisions, where a landlord is required to automatically return a deposit.  The law also imposes treble damages for a failure to “return to the tenant the security deposit or balance thereof to which the tenant is entitled after deducting therefrom any sums in accordance with the provisions of this section, together with any interest thereon, within thirty days after termination of the tenancy.”  Phillips determined whether a tenant gets treble damages for failing to return a portion of the deposit that was otherwise forfeited under the law.

Prior to Phillips, many courts took the position that treble damages applied anytime a landlord violated the security deposit law.  Now, the law is clear that for some violations of the law, a tenant is simply entitled to the full return of his deposit, without treble damages.

Conclusion 

While Phillips places limits on the damages one can receive for a security deposit violation, it would be a mistake to under estimate the importance of complying with this law if you are a landlord, and understanding its protections for tenants if your security deposit has been wrongfully withheld.

In my opinion, one of the dire consequences of Phillips is that tenants may not be able to obtain attorney fees for certain security deposit violations.  They may be able to get their full deposit back, but nothing for the expenses of hiring an attorney to assist with the case, making it cost prohibitive to hire a lawyer for such a matter: the reason why the harsh penalties of this law exist in the first place.

However, there is an often unknown law that may provide help in such a scenario.  G.L. c. 186, § 20 provides that, if there is a written lease agreement allowing the landlord to get attorney fees against a tenant, the tenant is also allowed attorney fees against a landlord for any violation of the lease agreement.  This law suggests that a tenant may be able to obtain attorney fees for security deposit violations that are not within the scope of treble damages, attorney fees, and costs, per Phillips.

If you find yourself involved with a security deposit violation, contact me for a consultation.  An experienced attorney is essential in one of these tricky matters.

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.

72 Hour Notice to Quit

A 72 hour notice to quit is a unique type of notice that is generally used for post-foreclosure eviction (“summary process”) cases.  Receipt of one of these notices is a sign that an eviction case following a foreclosure sale will begin soon.

A notice to quit is required prior to the start of an eviction case.  For evictions involving landlord/tenants, where the parties previously entered into a rental agreement, there are specific requirements for the notice to quit required prior to eviction.  Terminating a tenancy for non-payment of rent, for example, generally requires a 14 day notice to quit.  The sending of a notice to quit for a landlord/tenant eviction is a mandatory part of the process; a court will throw out an eviction if the proper notice is not sent, or the landlord cannot prove that the landlord received it.

The same is not true for a post-foreclosure eviction case, where the landlord (often the bank or lender who purchased the home at the foreclosure sale) is attempting to evict the former homeowner.  There is no specific requirement as to what type of notice a foreclosing entity needs to provide to a former homeowner.  Many cases on this matter suggest that no notice to quit is required for one of these cases (unlike a landlord/tenant eviction).

Despite the law suggesting that no such notice to quit is required, out of custom, a 72 hour notice to quit is generally used for post-foreclosure eviction cases.  This notice informs the former homeowner that they have 72 hours to leave the property, or an eviction will begin.  A notice to quit is generally served by a sheriff or constable.

Despite the 72 hour “deadline” in one of these notices, a former homeowner does not need to leave their home after receiving one of these notices.  A homeowner only needs to leave the home after a court enters an execution for possession, allowing the owner of the property to physically remove the former homeowner and their possessions from the property.  Before doing so, a former homeowner (like a tenant) is entitled to their “day in court” and allowed to present their reasons why they should not be evicted from the home.  The 72 notice to quit, simply put, is merely the start of the eviction process, and not the end.

A homeowner who receives a 72 hour notice to quit needs to act quickly in defending themselves against the imminent post-foreclosure eviction.  If you find yourself in such a case, contact me for a consultation.  Eviction cases move quickly, and it is important to have an experienced attorney to help you understand your rights.

Does a Landlord Need a Reason for Terminating a Tenancy?

Does a landlord need a reason for terminating a tenancy?  The answer depends on the type of tenancy that exists between the landlord and tenant.

In a tenancy at will, the rental agreement between the landlord and tenant continues until either party chooses to end it.  As an agreement “at will”, either party is free to end the tenancy simply by providing adequate notice to the other side.  Tenancies at will are generally month-to-month rental agreements, which requires the landlord to provide the tenant with thirty days notice prior to ending the tenancy.  The landlord, importantly, does not need to provide the tenant with a reason for terminating the tenancy.

In contrast, a tenancy by lease, where the rental term is fixed by the terms of an agreement, generally requires a reason for terminating the tenancy.  Here, the terms of the agreement generally defines the grounds for terminating the tenancy, and the type of notice that the landlord must provide to the tenant.  Such an eviction is known as a “for cause” eviction for that reason: the landlord must have a reason for terminating the tenancy.  This generally occurs when the tenant has broken one of the terms of the lease.  A landlord can also terminate a tenancy by lease for non-payment of rent.  Absent one of these reasons, a landlord cannot arbitrarily terminate a lease agreement (unless the agreement provides for this).  This is one of the benefits of a lease: a tenant is guaranteed a place to rent for a set period of time.

Regardless of the type of tenancy, there are limitations on the grounds that a landlord can use to terminate a tenancy.  A landlord can never discriminate against a tenant on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, or one of the other protected classes of discrimination under state and federal law.  Similarly, a landlord can never retaliate  (“punish”) a tenant by terminating a lease due to a tenant’s reporting of bad conditions in a rental unit.  A landlord who terminates a tenancy for one of these reasons can get into huge trouble, and be liable for large monetary damages.

If you find yourself in a situation involving the termination of a tenancy, contact me for a consultation.