Help With A Security Deposit

Help With A Security Deposit

Both tenants and landlords can benefit from help with a security deposit.  Massachusetts’s security deposit law is not light reading, and often requires even the most experienced landlord-tenant attorney to review the law more than once to understand its many, many provisions.  An experienced attorney can often provide invaluable help with a security deposit matter.

Landlords Who Have Accepted A Security Deposit From a Tenant

I, along with many other attorneys (as well as a former Housing Court judge) recommend that landlords do not take a security deposit from a tenant.  The law has too many requirements for a landlord to comply with, and the risks of violating the law are steep, which can include treble damages, attorney fees, and costs.

For landlords, help with a security deposit often involves determining whether a landlord complied with the law’s detailed requirements.  If a landlord has erred in holding one of these deposits, an attorney can often help assist a landlord in avoiding or minimizing the damages that can arise from violating this law.

If you’re a landlord, don’t make the assumption that you need to wait until a problem arises to get help with a security deposit.  A consultation with a landlord-tenant attorney can often help determine if you have violated any part of the law, and determine the best way to avoid a larger problem down the road.

Tenants Who Cannot Get Their Security Deposits Back

For tenants, help with a security deposit often involves legal action against a landlord for failing to properly return a deposit.  Massachusetts’s security deposit law explicitly provides for attorney fees in such cases: the purpose being to give tenants incentives for pursuing these claims.  A landlord-tenant attorney can help you determine if you have grounds for pursuing a security deposit claim and the best court for pursuing such a matter.

Conclusion 

I provide assistance to both landlords and tenants with security deposit matters.  My experience in representing both types of clients provides me a unique perspective on this area of law.  If you find yourself in need of help with a security deposit matter, contact me for a consultation.

 

 

Returning a Security Deposit

 

Rule number one for Massachusetts landlords: never, never take a security deposit.  As I have written before, the risks just aren’t worth it.  The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law is one of the most complex and detailed laws on the books, with numerous traps for the unwary.  Failing to follow one of the law’s requirements can result in treble damages, attorney fees, and costs against the landlord.  As such, a $1,000 security deposit can easily result in $4,000-$5,000 in damages against a landlord if the security deposit law is not strictly followed.

An important part of this law concerns returning a security deposit.  Returning a security deposit would seemingly be an easy task, with the landlord simply taking the required amount of damages from the deposit and returning the balance to the tenant.  The security deposit law, however, has detailed requirements for how this must be done.  Failing to comply with even the most minor requirements of this law can result in enormous damages to the landlord.

How should a landlord handle returning a security deposit?  Contact a landlord/tenant attorney.  An attorney can help ensure that each of these requirements are complied with and save time, money, and heartache down the road.  While it may seem “overkill” to hire an attorney for such a seemingly small matter, doing so can avoid an even bigger problem resulting for a violation of this law.

Tenants who are having problems with getting their security deposits back should also speak to a landlord/tenant attorney.  The aim of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law is to avoid having tenants lose their security deposits without cause, and provides relief for violations of this law.

Who Pays for Legal Fees in an Eviction Case?

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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.

Overview of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law

 

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Ask a room full of lawyers a legal question, and you will likely get a handful of different responses.  I would bet, however, that there is a major exception to this on the question of whether a landlord should accept a security deposit from tenants in Massachusetts.  On that question, Massachusetts landlord attorneys (including your’s truly) would likely uniformly answer no.  A Massachusetts landlord should never accept a security deposit from a tenant.

Why?  The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law is one of the most complex and detailed consumer laws on the books in Massachusetts.  Few lawyers and judges understand the detailed requirements of this law, and I imagine even fewer landlords actually comply with every part of it.  The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law has lengthy provisions for accepting, holding, and returning a deposit, making the acceptance of a security deposit a huge hassle for landlords.

The danger for landlords under the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law are the penalties associated with a landlord’s failure to comply with this law.  Several specific violations will result in a tenant being entitled to treble damages (three times the tenant’s security deposit), costs, and attorney fees.  This means, for example, that a violation of a tenant’s $500 security deposit can result in over $2,000 of damages, if the security deposit is not handled correctly.  If the tenant is represented by an attorney, expect these damages to be even higher.

An even greater danger to landlords is the use of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law as a defense to a eviction case.  A recent Supreme Judicial Court decision has held that violation of this law not only entitles a tenant to monetary damages, but also serves as a defense to an eviction.  In other words, if a landlord fails to comply with the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law, he or she likely will not be able to evict a tenant, and may face a huge penalty from the court.

What can a landlord do to avoid the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law but still get some security from their tenants?  Plan accordingly by incorporating a “security deposit” into your monthly rent.  For example, say you wish to rent an apartment for $1000/month, and want a security deposit.  Instead of renting for $1000/month, add $80-$100 more to the rent ($1000/12 months = $83.33) , and set that money aside.  If, at the end of the lease, there is damage in the apartment, you’ll have the funds to deal with it, without the burdens of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law.  Even better, if there are no damages in the rental property, you’ll have some extra cash at the end of the tenancy.

If you’re a landlord and think you have violated the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law, don’t despair: it may be possible to remedy the situation by returning the deposit or reaching a resolution with the tenant.  To do so, contact an experienced landlord/tenant attorney as soon as possible.

 

Guest Blog Post: Meikle v. Nurse (Defenses in Massachusetts Eviction Cases)

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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 connlawjoe@gmail.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)!

Decision