Eviction Settlement Agreements
Several weeks ago, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision concerning eviction settlement agreements. The full decision, Darcey v. Burgess, is included below.
The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. A tenant filed a lawsuit in Housing Court against his landlord, claiming his apartment had a bedbug infestation, and requested that the court order the landlord to address this matter. Importantly, this was not an eviction case but a civil matter brought by the tenant.
The landlord and tenant participated in a mediation and agreed that the tenant would vacate the apartment in exchange for a month of free rent.
The tenant failed to vacate the apartment and challenged the validity of this eviction settlement agreement. The tenant argued that (1) a court cannot award possession of a rental apartment outside of an eviction case and (2) the tenant had a mental disability that permitted him to get out of this settlement agreement.
Possession in a Non-Eviction Case
The Court ruled that Housing Court was permitted to award possession of a rental apartment outside of an eviction case. Here, evictions (formally known as “summary process” cases in Massachusetts) are the typical means of evicting a tenant. However, possession issues can arise in non-eviction cases, such as when a landlord is defending against a lawsuit that a tenant initiated.
Here, the Court ruled that requiring the landlord to start another case made little sense when the parties had already resolved the matter. Because Housing Court could undisputedly determine matters of possession involving rental apartments, it had a right to enforce this settlement agreement.
It is critical to note that circumstances like this are exceptionally rare. If a landlord wants possession of a rental apartment, there are almost always better off filing an eviction case against the tenant.
Capacity to Enter Into Eviction Settlement Agreements
The tenant also argued that the Court should set aside the settlement agreement because the tenant had an alleged mental illness. While the Court agreed that such an agreement could be undone if a party lacked mental capacity, here, the tenant showed no medical evidence of having a qualifying disability.
Years ago, I defended a homeowner who was taken to court in a dispute over a contract he signed to sell the property. I got the case dismissed by showing medical records that the homeowner suffered from dementia and other impairments that impacted his ability to make legally binding agreements. Proof like this is critical for a defense that a party did not understand what they were signing.
This case demonstrates the complexities of landlord-tenant law. If you need assistance with such a legal matter, contact me for a consultation.1