Service of an Eviction Case

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Service of an eviction case is a requirement for starting any eviction against a tenant.  The law requires that the tenants have proper notice that such a case has been brought against them.  A landlord’s failure to comply with these service requirements can be fatal to one’s case.

Service of an Eviction Case

An eviction generally requires serving two types of documents to a tenant: a notice to quit, informing the tenant that their tenancy is being terminated, and a summons,  informing the tenant that an eviction case is occurring in court against them.

Service of an eviction is needed to put a tenant on fair notice that the landlord is attempting to obtain possession of the rental unit.  Simply calling or emailing the tenant is not sufficient; the law requires (like any other lawsuit) that the tenant have formal notice of the eviction.

Contrary to popular belief, a landlord does not need to serve a notice to quit by constable or sheriff.  However, the landlord bears the burden of proving that the tenant received this notice.  If the landlord is unable to do so, the court will dismiss the eviction.  For this reason, most landlords (smartly) serve notices to quit through a constable or sheriff.  Under the law, such service creates a presumption that the tenant received the notice.  Absent a compelling argument to the contrary, proof of service by a constable or sheriff establishes that the tenant received the notice to quit.

A summons, which is a formal court notice stating that an eviction case will begin, must be served by a sheriff.  A constable, who is a private officer, is also permitted to serve most eviction cases.  This formal service is a mandatory requirement, unless the tenant elects to waiver service.  Failure to properly serve an eviction case will likely result in its immediate dismissal by the court.

Conclusion

Service of an eviction is a critical part of a Massachusetts landlord-tenant case.  Failure to comply with these requirements can add unnecessary time and expense onto one of these cases, and make the process far more difficult than it needs to be.  For this reason, consider hiring an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to assist with one of these matters.

 

Who Can File An Eviction in Massachusetts?

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The Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision this week for landlord-tenant law: who can file an eviction in Massachusetts?  The decision, Rental Property Management Services v. Hatcher, is included below.

Overview

The facts of this case are fairly straightforward.  A property manager (a person hired to maintain rental property) filed an eviction (“summary process”) case against a tenant in Housing Court.  This property manager brought this case in the name of “Property Management Services” (his business), which was not the owner of the subject property, nor the lessor.  This property manager personally signed the eviction summons.

Who Can File An Eviction in Massachusetts?

This case presented two main questions for the Supreme Judicial Court.  First, could this property management service bring this eviction case against the tenant?  Second, could the property manager (who was not a lawyer) sign the eviction summons?

The Court held that only an owner or lessor of rental property is entitled to bring an eviction case against a tenant.  Here, while the property management company may have been responsible for maintaining the property, it was not the right party to bring this eviction.

It is not uncommon in Massachusetts for property management companies to directly enter into leases with tenants.  Here, if this property management company had a lease or written agreement with the tenant, I suspect the outcome may have been different.  However, where this company was neither the owner nor lessor, it was not entitled to proceed with this eviction.

The Court then addressed whether the property manager was permitted to sign the eviction paperwork.  Because this manager was not an attorney, the Court held that he was not permitted to do so, and had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Lessons for Massachusetts Landlords

This case has an important lesson for Massachusetts landlords: proceed with caution when filing an eviction in Massachusetts.  While I highly recommend that landlords use property management services if they need assistance in maintaining their rental units, these services cannot substitute as lawyers.

The Court declined to find that doing so was an unfair and deceptive business practice against the tenant (a claim that could allow for monetary damages and attorney fees).  Hatcher is clear, however, that a Court can punish a party who knowingly disobeys these eviction requirements.

Conclusion

If you are confused about who can file an eviction in Massachusetts, take away this critical advice: hire an experienced landlord-tenant attorney for your eviction.  Aside from avoiding some of the problems stated above, an experienced attorney will help you navigate this tricky area of law and reach an effective resolution to your dispute.  If you are in need of such assistance, contact me for a consultation.

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Guest Blog Post: 2017 Eviction Appeal Recap

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The Massachusetts Landlord Tenant Blog is pleased to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on 2017’s major eviction appeal decisions .  Attorney  Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at connlawjoe@gmail.com.

The year 2017 was a busy time in the realm of the law of summary process. Beyond the expansion of the Housing Court, the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court have heard and issued significant eviction appeal decisions that landlord-tenant and Housing Court practitioners should be familiar with.

Summary Process and Harassment Prevention Orders

First, in C.E.R. v. P.C., 91 Mass. App. Ct. 124 (2017), the Appeals Court emphatically held that harassment prevention orders under G.L. c.258E could not become functional shortcuts or substitutes for summary process. The facts do not flatter the defendants; they were two roommates renting a room from the plaintiff, who was about to sell the home.  Suffice it to say that the roommates engaged in boorish conduct involving sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The situation eventually boiled over to the point of the plaintiff obtaining an ex parte harassment prevention order in the Ipswich District Court. The judge later extended it for one year, effectively forcing the defendants to leave the home.

Although the Appeals Court vacated the orders for insufficient evidence of harassment, the Appeals Court also emphasized that such orders could not be “used as a short-cut for evicted tenants without following summary process procedures.” 91 Mass. App. Ct. at 132. More particularly, the plaintiff repeatedly asserted that she wanted the orders to “induce the defendants to leave without interfering with the rental or sale of the property.”  The police who responded in turn suggested she obtain a lawyer and during the proceedings,  “the defendants had already begun to move out.” The trial judge also hinted that the plaintiff was attempting to avoid summary process-echoing a similar past case.

Practitioners and judges alike should also be aware of how landlords may attempt to employ harassment prevention orders as functional summary process substitutes. Tenant bad behavior should not be condoned. But summary process is the means to redress it-not Chapter 258E. If you have questions, check the dockets in the District Court as defendants have a right to obtain the orders, even though portions of the orders are confidential. G.L. c.258E, §10. If there’s pushback from a Clerk, move for relief from impoundment.

Moreover, evidence that there was no reasonable basis for a harassment prevention order may defeat an Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, think a Donald Trump suing a little guy just for the sake of suing him) motion. Compare Van Liew v. Stansfeld, 474 Mass. 31 (2016), citing G.L. c.231, §59H. Even with changes in Anti-SLAPP this year, an unjustified harassment prevention order or Anti-SLAPP order may constitute retaliatory conduct to trigger treble damages under c.186, §14. But those questions are for another day. For now, be mindful of this possibility.

Termination of a Section 8 Lease, Right to a Jury Trial in an Eviction Case

In CMJ Management v. Wilkerson, 91 Mass. App. Ct. 276 (2017), the Appeals Court held that a tenant’s child’s criminal conduct justified termination of a Section 8 lease-but that the same tenant had been unlawfully deprived of her right to a jury trial. The tenant had custody of her fourteen year old grandson, who shot and fired a BB gun that injured two fellow juveniles.  Although no delinquency charges followed, the eviction occurred.

The Appeals Court rejected the tenant’s argument that the juvenile’s conduct did not constitute criminal activity. Admittedly, the juvenile’s conduct violated a statute that only provided for a fine.  However, the lease unambiguously forbade criminal activity by any tenant, member of a tenant’s household and threatened the well being of fellow tenants.  There was no distinction between juveniles and adults in the lease. Thus, termination was proper.

Although the Appeals Court’s analysis is literally correct, Massachusetts law has always treated juveniles charged with crime  as different in kind from adult offenders. Indeed, “as far as practicable [juveniles charged with crimes ] shall be treated, not as criminals, but as children in need of aid, encouragement and guidance.” G.L. c.119, §53.

Practically speaking, Juvenile Court judges have broad flexibility to deal with juveniles facing delinquency charges to further their best interests. The question for more than 100 years has always been: “What shall be done with this child?” not, how do we punish and deter this child?   Indeed, not only was there was no guarantee that a complaint would issue against a juvenile, but if a complaint had issued, the judge could have dismissed the complaint before arraignment-which would mean that no CARI record would exist Compare Commonwealth v. Humberto H.,  a juvenile, 466 Mass. 562 (2013).

To be certain, summary process and delinquency are different proceedings in kind. However, to deprive a juvenile of his housing, housing he very likely has no control over and must rely on an adult to obtain, is a sufficiently adverse collateral consequence that the consequence effectively defies the command not to treat him as a criminal. This is curiously absent from the Appeals Court’s analysis. This issue also underpinned an ultimately unsuccessful application for further appellate review by the Supreme Judicial Court. See Docket No. FAR-25267.

Practitioners who have clients with family members facing delinquency complaints should keep abreast of this issue. This collateral consequence is substantial and potentially irrationally  treats the juvenile as a criminal. Whether or not Section 8 pre-empts G.L. c.119, §53 (or conversely, that applying Section 8 to a child within the ambit of G.L. c.119, §53 violates the 10th Amendment as unconstitutional strongarming) is a thorny and novel issue-for another day. Compare Boston Housing Authority v. Garcia, 449 Mass. 727 (2007).

On the jury trial issue, the Appeals Court held that the judge’s action striking the tenant’s jury claim amounted to disproportionate sanction. The tenant answered by asserting a jury claim but did not file a pre-trial memorandum to press her claim although the Landlord had-and indeed, the Landlord proposed instructions. The tenant  admitted that she did not understand the pre-trial memorandum. The judge replied, “I can’t let you go forward …without a pre-trial memorandum.” 91 Mass. App. Ct. at 281-282.

The Appeals Court held that the tenant’s answer sufficed to timely demand and assert her jury claim. Two factors mitigated against implying that the tenant waived the jury trial. First, Housing Court Standing Order No. 1-04 specifically imbued judges with power to allow tardy motions and other pleadings since many parties were self-represented. Second, Art. 15 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights specifically guaranteed a right to a jury trial in eviction trials. 91 Mass. App. Ct. at 284-285, citing New Bedford Housing Authority v. Olan, 435 Mass. 364, 370 (2001).

A judge should therefore approach striking a jury demand cautiously. Although the tenant had notice of the possibility of striking the demand as a  sanction, the judge abused her discretion by striking the demand. Indeed, the tenant attempted to understand the memorandum and striking the demand would not serve as a deterrent sanction.

What’s the take-away? If you represent someone who was self-represented, avail yourself not only of Standing Order 1-04-and Mass. R. Civ. Pro. 15 (to amend or conform pleadings.) Indeed, Rule 15 favors granting amendments-there needs to be prejudice to overcome that presumption. Dockets and court files can be messy-indeed, self-represented litigants may try to litigate by paper deluge. These rules are a powerful solvent for counsel to clean them up. If there’s a question about a jury trial, make sure it’s in the answer-and emphasize that striking a jury demand should be a last resort because of the constitutional and statutory implications. And, cite this case!

Waiver of a Jury Trial in an Eviction Case

Cort v. Majors, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 151 (2017) followed Wilkerson.  The case was a typical summary process case; tenant and landlord were self-represented, tenant stopped paying rent, landlord sought eviction, tenant counterclaimed.  After the landlord’s testimony and during his own testimony, the tenant said, “I’d like a jury.” The judge responded that the tenant waived that right, to the tenant’s surprise. “You didn’t tell me that.” 92 Mass. App. Ct. at 152. The trial concluded in the landlord’s favor.  The question on appeal was whether the tenant had indeed waived his jury trial.

The Appeals Court held that he had not. The Appeals Court recalled that generally, Housing Court trials were bench trials unless constitutionally required. Article 15 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guaranteed a jury trial, Mass. R. Civ. Pro. 38(a) incorporated and implemented that right, and Uniform Summary Process Rule 8 implemented that right in summary process trials. Mass. R. Civ. Pro. 39 in turn only provided for a waiver of a jury trial if there was a written or oral stipulation. Because the tenant demanded a jury trial in his answer, the issue was whether the tenant executed a valid oral stipulation.

The Appeals Court held he had not. Although the tenant answered ready for trial, this response to the judge was not a waiver of his right to a jury trial.  Nor was there any suggestion that the tenant authorized the judge “to decide or knowingly relinquished his right to a jury trial.” Rather, under Rules 38 and 39, if there is a valid jury demand, a judge had a duty to “affirmatively inquire of the parties, before any witness is sworn, whether the case will proceed with or without a jury [this was not…] satisfied by commencing a bench trial and awaiting an objection by a party.”  The Appeals Court recognized that many self-represented litigants appeared in the Housing Court. However, Rules 38 and 39 meant what they said-and a judge could still explain the differences to a party.

The two cases above represent robust reinforcement of the rights to a jury trial. The Appeals Court recognize the competing demands on Housing Court judges to, on the one hand, maintain efficient proceedings but also respect the rights of tenants-who are often self-represented and ill-suited to understand assert them. Only the clearest and most unequivocal conduct will amount to a waiver of the jury trial right. Like in the criminal context, judges must engage with tenants to ensure that they are knowingly and clearly and unambiguously waiving their jury trial rights. The Appeals Court also recognizes that Housing Court judges can carry out this duty easily by discussing and informing tenants of this right.

Damages in an Eviction Case

South Boston Elderly Residences v. Moynahan, 91 Mass. App. Ct. 455 (2017) further elucidates damages in the landlord-tenant context. Moynahan lived in a small (450 square feet) unit that suffered from perpetual moisture and mold problems. Conditions eventually deteriorated to the point of mushrooms growing in the carpeting-the landlord refused to address in light of clutter.

Boston Inspectional Services eventually cited the landlord-who in turn served a notice to quit in October 2011 and refused to cash rent checks. Moynahan returned to the apartment but discovered inadequate ventilation-and a second and third summary process action followed. A three day trial ensued-and the trial judge refused to award any rent abatement damages for moisture or mold before August 2011 or for fall of that year because Moynahan prevented repairs. The judge also found that Moynahan rebutted the presumption of in retaliation due to clutter and sustained non-payment of rent.

Although the Appeals Court sympathized with Moynahan’s plight, ultimately, the code violation relative to moisture and mold were minor and did not cause problems until May 2012. Thus, the findings of fact were not clearly erroneous to warrant damages. 91 Mass. App. Ct. at 462-464.  Moreover, since Moynahan prevented access for repairs and had access to another nearby apartment, he only established lack of access to an adequate unit for three months of five –and the judge did not err in only awarding him one month.

Regarding ventilation damages, the judge erred in so far as he based an abatement award to Moynahan as a proverbial eggshell plaintiff, or easily subject to injury due to the lack of ventilation and lack of access to windows. Rather, since a breach of warranty of habitability supported contract and tort damages, the landlord had to take Moynahan as he found him. Since the judge applied an incorrect legal standard while partially crediting Moynahan’s testimony about breathing conditions, the Appeals Court remanded. 91 Mass. App. Ct. at 465-467.

The Appeals Court however found that the judge’s finding that the landlord overcame the presumption of retaliation by clear and convincing was clearly erroneous. Although the landlord complained about the issue in March 2010, there was no evidence that Moynahan was hoarding or making it worse before the notice to quite in October 2011. Nor did the landlord act to correct it until after Moynahan called in inspectional services. Thus, Moynahan deserved statutory damages of up to three months rent or actual damages.

However, Moynahan had not established damages for c.93A. To be certain, the code violation, in and of itself, violated c.93A. But the landlord had acted to cure the violation and since Moynahan had not presented any evidence of a violation before August 2011, Moynahan had no right to 93A damages. Finally, with regards to quiet enjoyment, although unauthorized entry could amount to a breach of quiet enjoyment, the record simply did not bear it out as unreasonable-there was only incident where Moynahan did not desire the landlord’s entry but sought it for another day-which was to address repairs.

There are many possible takeaways from this case. First, a breach of the warranty of habitability should not simply be based on market or contractual damages-it should stem from actual damages a tenant suffers. Moreover, controverting retaliation cannot occur in a vacuum. The landlord must put forth real and specific evidence that the eviction was completely independent of the complaints about conditions. This dovetails with the heightened burden of proof.

This case though stands in marked contrast to the Leisure Woods case holding that c.93A damages are available for per se violations of the regulations governing manufactured housing. Although regulatory violations do constitute c.93A violations, the tenant still has to prove that the violation is continuing-which the landlord can mitigate. Like Leisure Woods however, this case creates the potential for mischief: viz. a lack of incentive for landlords to cure damages by undervaluing damages. Hopefully, the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature will cure or clarify this confusion.

Lurking in the background of this case are questions of hoarding.  This case does not squarely present or involve the question of how a landlord’s response to hoarding may or may not mitigate tenant damages. The factual record of this case is also unclear at best as to whether or not the tenant was indeed a hoarder due to the cramped conditions in the apartment. But, that discreet legal question will have to wait for another day.

Trespass in an Eviction Case

Finally, in Federal National Mortgage v. Gordon, 91 Mass. App. Ct. 527 (2017), the Appeals Court recognized on the one hand that the Housing Court could hear a common law trespass claim. However, the Appeals Court reaffirmed that a post-foreclosure could not bring a trespass action, especially if the holdover tenants claimed leasehold rights after foreclosure.  The defendant tenants had a mortgage that they fell behind on. Following a foreclosure and during a summary process action, the tenants apparently executed a lease and one tenant moved out. The trespass action followed.

The Appeals Court recalled that the scope of the subject matter jurisdiction of the Housing Court was a classically thorny issue. On the one hand, the Housing Court was a court of limited jurisdiction but could also hear matters, including tort or contract actions, related directly or indirectly to the health, safety and welfare of any occupant or place used for human habitation. 91 Mass. App. Ct. at 531-532, citing G.L. c.185C, §3.  The presence of trespassers “will, in many cases, affect the health, safety and welfare of an owner or occupant” and thus was a tort action relating to health, safety and welfare. The Housing Court thus had subject matter jurisdiction.

However,  the action for was trespass was impermissible. The Appeals Court recalled that G.L. c.184, §18 proscribed any attempt to recover land except pursuant to summary process or any other proceeding authorized by law. For twenty-five years, the Supreme Judicial Court held that a foreclosure sale was not a “proceeding authorized by law” as the purchasers entered lawfully and were holdover tenants. Indeed, the tenants had no duty to inquire about the landlord’s status-and had not forcibly entered. Finally, there was no evidence in the record that the bank had constructive possession-any lapse between one tenant and the other tenant was too brief to indicate a possessory surrender-the record indicated otherwise.

This case reaffirms that summary process essentially occupies the field in post-foreclosure matters. To proceed on a trespass action, the bank has to overcome the command of Section 18 and show a forcible entry. A person’s mere presence is not enough-nor can they be imputed with knowledge that a bank does or does not own property. Only a true squatter or someone else who otherwise has no interest qualifies.

The case also represents another case in the long line delineating the subject matter jurisdiction of the Housing Court. Trespass certainly does, as the Appeals Court held, implicate the health, safety, and welfare of human occupants. The trickier issue will be how that plays out in a particular case in the Housing Court-and whether or not Housing Court dockets will see more actions.

Conclusion 

These eviction appeal decisions show that this area of law continues to be changing, and practitioners need to be aware of these recent decisions.  The benefits of having an experienced appellate attorney for an eviction appeal cannot be overstated.

What Happens After a Foreclosure Sale?

Homeowners who have gone through a foreclosure often ask me what happens after a foreclosure sale.  More specifically, these homeowners often ask if they need to leave their home right away after a foreclosure auction sale.  The answer is no.  Even after a foreclosure sale, the new owner is required to perform an eviction of the occupants remaining in the foreclosed property.

Overview of a Massachusetts Foreclosure

Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state.  This means that a bank does not need to go to court to get permission to foreclose (unlike states like New York and Florida).  A Massachusetts foreclosure requires sending a number of required notices, publishing a foreclosure sale notice, and holding a foreclosure auction.  If done correctly, the bank (or third-party buyer) becomes the record owner of the property.  While ownership of the home changes after a foreclosure sale, possession does not.  The new record owner is required to bring an eviction case against the former homeowner(s) residing in the foreclosed home.

Post-Foreclosure Eviction

What happens after a foreclosure sale?  The bank (or third-party buyer) must file an eviction against any persons who remain in the property.  This eviction, known as a summary process action, is generally filed in a District Court or Housing Court.  In these cases, the homeowner has the opportunity to defend against the new owner’s claim to possession by alleging that the foreclosure was not performed correctly.

An important point to note for homeowners in such a case: you do not need to leave the home until the court orders you to do so.  The new owner must obtain a judgment from the court allowing them possession of the home.  Until this is done, the new owner cannot forced you out of the property under any circumstances.

What Should You Do After a Foreclosure Sale?

If you have gone through a foreclosure of your home, contact a foreclosure defense attorney for a consultation, regardless of your intentions for the home.  In other words, even if you plan to leave the home, it is still worth speaking to an attorney.  An attorney can help determine if you have a defense against the foreclosure.  Even if you plan to leave the home, a foreclosure defense attorney can assist you with resolving any liability you may have against the new owner and possibly get you relocation assistance.

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.

Foreclosure Judgment

A common inquiry about foreclosures in Massachusetts is regarding a foreclosure judgment.  What does a bank get from a homeowner after it forecloses?

In judicial foreclosure states, where a bank needs to go to court to foreclose, a foreclosure judgement is a court order allowing the bank to do a foreclosure sale.  Massachusetts, in contrast, is a non-judicial foreclosure state, where a bank doesn’t need a court order.  A foreclosure judgment in Massachusetts, therefore, generally refers to what a bank can get after foreclosure: possession of the property and a deficiency judgment.

Even if a bank performs a lawful foreclosure, it must still bring an eviction (“summary process”) case to get possession of the property.  A foreclosure only changes title to the subject property; a eviction is required to get the former homeowners out of the home.  A post-foreclosure eviction case generally occurs several months after the foreclosure sale, and is usually brought in District or Housing Court.  If a bank is successful in one of these cases, it is entitled to an execution for possession, allowing the sheriff or constable to physically remove the occupants and their possessions from the property.  In one of these eviction cases, a bank can also obtain a judgment for use-and-occupancy against the former owners, which amounts to  rent for the time that the former owner resided in the home after the foreclosure sale.  While banks generally request use-and-occupancy in post-foreclosure eviction cases, it is rare for a bank to pursue this claim for money; the bank generally just wants possession of the home.

Another foreclosure judgment in Massachusetts is a claim for any deficiency judgment that exists following the foreclosure sale.  This is the difference between the amount that the homeowner owes on the mortgage loan and the amount obtained at the foreclosure sale.  For example, if the homeowner owes $400,000 on the mortgage loan, and the bank obtains $300,000 at the foreclosure sale, the homeowner is potentially liable for the difference: $100,000.  Claims for deficiency judgments are not frequently pursued.  Generally, most former homeowners do not have sufficient assets to make one of these claims worth pursuing.  Additionally, a bank has a two-year deadline (“statue of limitations”) from the foreclosure sale to bring one of these claims, which many banks fail to do.  A homeowner can also usually file a bankruptcy to get rid of this type of debt.

Each type of foreclosure judgment in Massachusetts is an important consideration for homeowners who are facing foreclosure or who have been foreclosed.  If you find yourself in either situation, contact me for a consultation.

Guest Blog Post: How To Preserve Your Right to Challenge a Wrongful Foreclosure in Massachusetts

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The Massachusetts Foreclosure Law Blog is proud to have Attorney Uri Strauss guest blog on the Massachusetts foreclosure title clearing bill and its upcoming December 31, 2016 deadline for homeowners who have lost their homes to foreclosure.  Uri Strauss is an attorney at Community Legal Aid in Springfield, MA. He has been a Massachusetts attorney since 2010, and has focused on foreclosure law since 2011.  He may be reached at ustrauss@cla-ma.org.

HOW TO PRESERVE YOUR RIGHT TO CHALLENGE A WRONGFUL FORECLOSURE IN MASSACHUSETTS

If your Massachusetts home has been unlawfully foreclosed, you may need to act very soon to preserve your ability to challenge it.

On November 25, 2015, Governor Baker signed into law An Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties, which amended, among other laws, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 244, Section 15. In a nutshell, the act aims to force homeowners who have left their homes after a foreclosure to bring their case to court within three years, or lose the right to do so against bona fide buyers. This is a reduction of the previous 20-year period during which people could challenge foreclosures that failed to comply with the power of sale.

The deviltry is in the details of this confusing law. This post aims to clear up some of the confusion, and especially to help homeowners identify if they need to act before December 31, 2016 when the first set of people will lose their rights. The other point of this post is to warn people against misinformation about what they need to do to preserve their rights. In all cases, you should consult an attorney, if possible, about your particular situation. I am offering guidance in general, not legal advice for your particular situation.

My aim is to respond to three questions: Who needs to act before December 31? How does a homeowner need to act to preserve his or her rights? And who is entitled to challenge the foreclosure?

Who needs to act before December 31?

If it has been fewer than three years since the foreclosure affidavit has been recorded in your registry of deeds, you do not need to act before December 31 to preserve your rights. You will have until at least three years after the recording of the affidavit. However, if you are already in court in a foreclosure challenge, it is a good idea to record your pleadings. See below for details about the foreclosure affidavit, and about what it takes to challenge the foreclosure.

If it has been three or more years since the foreclosure affidavit was recorded, you need to act to preserve your rights if you fall in one of the following three categories.

  1. People who have moved out of their homes, without the validity of the foreclosure ever being litigated.
  2. People who are currently in litigation over the validity of their foreclosure.
  3. People who have litigated the validity of their foreclosure and won, when there is no deed granting the property back to the owner after foreclosure.

Please note that most lenders and servicers will also conduct a foreclosure by entry at the same time as the foreclosure auction, and that foreclosure is effective after 3 years if it is not opposed. Foreclosure by entry is a whole separate and complicated topic, and I won’t get into it here. If you intend to challenge a foreclosure, be certain to contact your local anti-foreclosure group and/or an attorney about it well before three years have passed.

If you are currently in litigation, do not assume that you are protected. Do not assume that your attorney has thought to take the necessary steps to protect you. Raise the issue with them. Depending on how courts interpret the law, you might get away with missing the deadline if you win your case, but it is risky to rely on it.

You may notice, if you read the amended M.G.L. Chapter 244, Section 15, that only bona fide third party buyers, and not the lender or related organizations like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, have the benefit of the new law. Do not rest assured just because the bank or a related entity has bought your property at foreclosure and has not sold it. As I read the law, your failure to act by the deadline, followed by a sale to a third party, eliminates your right to challenge the foreclosure once it is sold. In other words, your title can be laundered while in the bank’s control, then sold clean to a third party buyer.

The three-year clock starts ticking when the mortgagee records an affidavit of sale in the registry of deeds. The affidavit of sale you are looking is usually recorded together with the foreclosure deed as a document type called “Foreclosure Deed/Affidavit”. It might be titled something different than “Affidavit of Sale.” The affidavit identifies the mortgage that was foreclosed, says that the conditions of the mortgage were not performed, and states that notices were published in a newspaper on three dates and sent by mail to the required parties. A copy of the newspaper publication is attached to it as an exhibit. Do not confuse this affidavit with other affidavits that may have been filed, such as an affidavit concerning the note (also called an “Eaton” affidavit), an affidavit concerning compliance with M.G.L. chapter 244, section 35B, an affidavit certifying compliance with 209 C.M.R. section 18.21A, or an affidavit concerning the right to cure (also called an “Pinti” affidavit).

It is the opinion of some respected attorneys that the affidavits of sale typically filed by mortgagees do not start the clock running, because they do not, as the law requires, “fully and particularly stat[e] the acts” done to foreclose the property. The affidavits are usually brief, do not fully state the facts, state legal conclusions instead of facts, and are made by people who do not have firsthand knowledge of the facts. I believe that this is a mistake, and that the courts will accommodate this failure by the banks to comply with the law, just as they have done with almost every other failure that they have considered.

How does a homeowner need to act in order to preserve his or her rights? 

To preserve your right to challenge your foreclosure, it is necessary to record the relevant *pleadings* in the registry of deeds. It is not enough to record an *affidavit* in the registry, as the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending (MAAPL) has been informing people. The law is very clear that pleadings must be filed.

What is the difference? An affidavit is a sworn statement of facts based on personal knowledge. A pleading is a document filed in court in which legal claims are made. The purpose of the new law is to force people to litigate their claims by the deadline, not simply to make a sworn statement and record it in the registry of deeds. If your deadline is coming up and there is no existing litigation, you need to create litigation by filing a lawsuit. What is more, if you want to actually succeed, you need to file a good case. That means that you need to have a good argument based on your particular circumstances. It will not do to use far-fetched theories of the kind that often circulate on the internet. It is important to speak to an attorney to determine whether you have a good legal argument.

Note that to be valid, the pleadings should be from a court case from a court of competent jurisdiction. In my view, if you challenged the foreclosure as a defense to foreclosure proceedings in Housing Court, that is definitely an appropriate court. If it was in a state district court, that is almost certainly an appropriate court. If you were the plaintiff and you filed your case in Superior Court, Land Court, or the federal District Court, you are probably fine. If it was any other court, consult an attorney about whether it was a court of competent jurisdiction.

That means that if you fall into category (1) above, you need to file a lawsuit in the next few weeks, and record an attested copy of your complaint, to avoid losing your home. If you are in categories (2) or (3), your task is easier. You need to get an attested copy of your complaint, if you were the plaintiff, or of your answer, if you were the defendant, from the clerk’s office of the court in which the litigation is taking place or took place. If the complaint or answer was amended, make sure to get the most recent version, since the complaint or answer should state the foreclosure challenge that the court ruled on, or that you hope the court will rule on.

If you have fought and won your case, you still need to record the *pleadings*, rather than the court’s judgment, in the registry. You might think it makes more sense to record the judgment, in which the court states that it finds in your favor. I would agree, but that is not what the law says you need to do.

According to the law, you need to record a “true and correct” copy of the pleading in the registry of deeds. Does this mean that you can rely on just a photocopy of the pleading? In my view, yes – but the challenge is to get the registry of deeds to record it. The registry is not required to accept any piece of paper you hand to it. The new law requires registries of deeds to accept and record attested copies of pleadings, and this is what I recommend. “Attested” here presumably means attested by the court in which the case is being decided. It may be possible to preserve your rights under the act by signing an affidavit under M.G.L. Chapter 183, section 5B, attaching the pleading is an exhibit, swearing that it is a true and correct copy of a document filed in the court, and having it certified by an attorney as bearing on title – but I recommend getting an attested copy to be on the safe side.

To get an attested copy of your pleading, first call ahead to the court in which your case is being heard and let them know you want this. They might ask for a couple of hours to create an attested copy. Then show up and get your copy. It currently costs $2.50 per page to get attested copies of court documents. If you are poor, low-income or on state assistance, you may qualify for a waiver of fees – ask the court about it. Then go in person to the Registry of Deeds in your district, and ask them to record it. Take a printed copy of the statute – Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 244, Section 15, Subsection (d) – with you. Registries of Deeds have not historically accepted attested copies of pleadings for recording, so you may need to show them the law that says they need to. I believe the cost of recording the document is $75. You can ask the Registry of Deeds about waiver of fees for poor, low-income or state-assisted people as well.

Who is entitled to challenge the foreclosure?

To be eligible to challenge the foreclosure, you need to be a person entitled to a notice of foreclosure, which means that you need to be the person who gave a mortgage to the lender (which is not necessarily the same as the person who obtained the loan), or else a person who held an interest in the property junior to the mortgage more than thirty days before the foreclosure sale. Based on this statute, you are not entitled to challenge the foreclosure if you are the spouse of the mortgagor, the child of the mortgagor, or the tenant of the mortgagor, unless you yourself are a mortgagor, or you happen to have a junior lien on the property.

This represents an apparent change in the law. It used to be the case that if a foreclosure was void, any person whose rights were affected by it – a spouse, a child, a tenant, a long-term guest – could challenge its validity. The new law clearly restricts it so that only persons entitled to notice can challenge the foreclosure.

What about after the pleadings are recorded?

If you have recorded your pleadings challenging a foreclosure within the time limit, do you have the benefit of the previous 20 year rule? Not necessarily. There are at least two ways a foreclosure can be undone by a court. A foreclosure is void if it is not conducted strictly in accordance with the power of sale, or if it fails to comply with preconditions to foreclosure stated in the mortgage. Void foreclosures can be challenged up to 20 years afterwards. A foreclosure is voidable if the power of sale and the preconditions in the mortgage are complied with, but the manner in which it was conducted was fundamentally unfair or perhaps violated some other law. In all likelihood, you need to assert a claim to undo a voidable foreclosure within the statute of limitations of some other law. For example, if you have a claim under the consumer protection statute, M.G.L. section 93A, there is a four year statute of limitations from the time of the unfair or deceptive act. If you have a tort claim, you may have to bring the case within three years. You should consult an attorney about whether your unlawful foreclosure claim is a claim that the foreclosure was void or voidable.

Everything in this article is directed at what it takes to preserve your claim of illegal foreclosure. Of course, it is not enough to have your case in court. You need to actually win your case in order to undo the foreclosure. The legislature has set up a tough procedure for illegally foreclosed homeowners to undo the harm that was done to them. It might seem very unfair that a bank can abuse you, deceive you, and illegally foreclose on you without going to court, yet you have to go to court and follow an unclear procedure just to avoid losing your home. For better or worse, this is the process that your elected representatives have chosen to impose on you, so you need to take care to comply with it.

What Is An Unlawful Eviction?

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Being a landlord in Massachusetts is tough.  There are many traps for the unwary; a reason why landlords should always consult a landlord/tenant attorney on Massachusetts’s numerous housing laws.  A good attorney can help landlords navigate these tricky waters and find the best way to resolve these complex matters.

There is one “sin” that is above everything else in matters of Massachusetts landlord/tenant law: an unlawful eviction.  What’s an unlawful eviction?  A unlawful eviction, sometimes known as a “self help eviction”, is an eviction done without a court process, such as changing the locks of an apartment or cutting off the utilities.  These are attempts to evict a tenant without a court hearing and execution for possession.  An unlawful eviction is just that: unlawful and illegal.  Not only will an unlawful eviction subject a landlord to numerous civil penalties, it may even put them in jail.

A landlord who needs to evict a tenant must do so through a formal eviction (“summary process”)  case.  It doesn’t matter how much money a tenant owes, or how much damage a tenant has done: the failure to properly evict a tenant has enormous repercussions and should never, never be done.

If you are a landlord and need to evict a tenant, do the process properly by hiring a landlord/tenant attorney and bringing a lawful eviction against a tenant.  The risks of an unlawful eviction just aren’t worth it.

How Long Does a Foreclosure Take?

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One of the most common questions I get from homeowners facing foreclosure is, how long does a foreclosure take?  The quick answer is: a while.  Compared to other states that have expedited the foreclosure process, foreclosures in Massachusetts generally take a long time to perform, from default of the loan to the foreclosure sale date.  While earlier is always better for attempting to avoid foreclosure, this lengthy period of time works to a homeowner’s benefit in trying to resolve these matters.

While every foreclosure is different, the following are the typical steps in the process, which helps answer how long does a foreclosure take.

  • Default of Loan (6 – 12 months):  The first stage of the foreclosure process is when the homeowner defaults on the loan.  While a lender can technically begin a foreclosure after the first missed payment, I have typically found that lenders wait 6-12 months after the initial default before moving ahead with the next steps towards foreclosure.
  • Right to Cure/Request a Modified Loan (3-5 months):  The next stage of the foreclosure process is the right to cure/right to request a modified loan period.  Massachusetts law requires lenders to offer borrowers an opportunity to cure their loan default prior to foreclosure, as well as the opportunity to pursue a loan modification.  Depending on the circumstances, a homeowner will either have 90 or 150 days for these options.
  • Servicemember’s Case (4 months):  Following the right to cure/request a modified loan, the next step in the foreclosure process is a Servicemembers’ Case, usually brought in the Massachusetts Land Court.  A servicemembers’ case is solely to determine whether the homeowner is in the military and entitled to a postponement of the foreclosure.  Unless a homeowner or their family member is in the military, the homeowner generally doesn’t have a defense in one of these cases.  However, the lender will usually wait until it gets a default judgment against the homeowner and court order before commencing a foreclosure sale.
  • Foreclosure Sale (1 – 3 months):  Following the Servicemembers’ Case, the bank then begins the foreclosure sale process itself.  This requires notice to the homeowner thirty days before the scheduled sale, as well as publication of three notices in the local newspaper.  Sometimes, foreclosure sales may get postponed, for a number of different reasons.
  • Post-Foreclosure Eviction Case (1 – 6 months):  Following a foreclosure sale, the lender or the party who brought the property at the foreclosure sale needs to obtain possession of the property, through a post-foreclosure eviction.  The eviction case generally begins 3-5 months after the foreclosure sale (through a notice to quit served upon the homeowner).  The time period of the eviction case generally depends on whether the homeowner fights it: if the matter is uncontested, the lender will generally be able to evict in one month.  If the homeowner raises a defense or counterclaim, the eviction can take up to six months (and sometimes even longer).

In answering how long does a foreclosure take, bear in mind that there are many factors that will delay the listed stages above.  A loan modification application, for example, generally delays a foreclosure, while the lender considers whether the homeowner is eligible for loss mitigation assistance.  A bankruptcy will also delay foreclosure: a lender generally can’t foreclose until its gets permission from the bankruptcy court.  Finally, there is often delay in going from one step to the other: the ongoing foreclosure crisis continues to create a backlog of cases, which delays how quickly foreclosures go from start to finish.

Nonetheless, this summary provides a rough estimate of the stages of the foreclosure process and how long to expect each part of the process to take.  If you find yourself in any part of the foreclosure process, contact me to see if I can be of assistance.

Fannie Mae v. Rego: Supreme Judicial Court Permits a Chapter 93A Defense to Foreclosure

 

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued Fannie Mae v. Rego today, an important foreclosure law decision that permits a Chapter 93A defense to foreclosure (full copy of the decision is below).  Chapter 93A, the common name for Massachusetts’s Consumer Protection Law, is a broad consumer statute that prohibits “unfair and deceptive practices” by businesses.  Chapter 93A claims are commonly used for monetary damages, and can provide an an award of treble damages against a party who violates this law (along with attorney fees).  The question for the Court was whether a Chapter 93A defense could be raised to void a foreclosure (as opposed to simply awarding a party money).

Rego  was an appeal of a post-foreclosure eviction (“summary process”) case, where the homeowner was defending against the eviction of his home on the grounds that the foreclosure was void.  The homeowner brought a counterclaim (a lawsuit brought in the same case against the original party who filed the suit) for violation of the Consumer Protection Law.  Here, the trial court dismissed this counterclaim, without offering a real reason for doing so.  The Supreme Judicial Court held in Rego that a homeowner is permitted to raise a Chapter 93A defense in a eviction foreclosure case that goes to the issue of possession of the property; in other words, whether the foreclosure was done correctly.  If this is the relief sought by a Chapter 93A claim, Rego suggests that it can be raised in a post-foreclosure eviction case.  If the Chapter 93A merely seeks monetary damages, such a claim is not allowed in one of these cases (and would have to brought separately).

Rego, in my interpretation, is an important decision because it clarifies that a Chapter 93A claim may be used to void a foreclosure sale.  Many lawyers (and some judges) are not aware that Chapter 93A provides a court with equitable relief.  Equitable relief  is a remedy that goes beyond money damages, and requires a party to act or refrain from performing a particular act.  This type of relief is especially important in foreclosure defense, where the homeowner isn’t looking for money as a defense to foreclosure; the homeowner instead wants the foreclosure reversed.  Rego, in my interpretation, holds that there is a Chapter 93A defense to foreclosure; something that was less clear before today’s decision, where some trial courts took the position that money was the only award from a foreclosure that violated Chapter 93A.

 Rego also decided another issue of foreclosure law: whether an attorney could perform a foreclosure on behalf of a mortgagee without written authorization.  The relevant foreclosure law, G.L. c. 244, Section 14, seemed to suggest that such a writing was required for attorneys who performed foreclosures.  The Supreme Judicial Court held that no such writing is required, and that legal counsel may perform the steps of the foreclosure process without written authorization.  Although the bulk of  Rego was spent on this narrow issue of law, the Court’s decision is unsurprising:  I am aware of only one trial court decision that came out in the homeowner’s favor on this argument (with the overwhelming majority following the reasoning of  Rego).

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