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Landlord-Tenant Disputes: A Recent Win for Tenants Could Mean Future Problems For Landlords

By of Aceto, Bonner & Cole, PC. posted in Business & Commercial Law on Friday, June 3, 2016.

Landlord-tenant disputes are nothing new to large cities, especially a big city like Boston.

Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 239, Section 1A, a landlord may bring a summary process action against the residing tenant to recover possession of the rental property prior to the end of the lease term due to alleged lease term violations. In order to recover possession of the rental property, the landlord has to demonstrate that there are substantial grounds to allow the Court to conclude that granting the landlord recovery of the property is appropriate and warranted. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 239, Section 8A allows for defenses or counterclaims to this type of action providing that a "tenant or occupant shall be entitled to raise, by defense or counterclaim, any claim against the plaintiff relating to or arising out of such property, rental, tenancy, or occupancy for breach of warranty, for a breach of any material provision of the rental agreement, or for a violation of any other law."

In Garth Meikle v. Patricia Nurse, 474 Mass. 207 (2016), a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case, the Court held that a landlord's violation of the Security Deposit Statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 186, Section 15B, may be asserted as a defense to a summary process action for possession. This means that if a landlord violates the Security Deposit Statute, a tenant can raise the landlord's violation as a defense and a counterclaim to a summary process action, thereby preventing the landlord from obtaining early possession of the rental property. The Court reasoned that under Section 15B, the phrase "a violation of any other law" was to be interpreted broadly in order to include any law enacted to protect tenant's rights in the landlord-tenant relationship. Further, the Court indicated that the legislature enacted Section 15B in order to prevent abuse and insure fairness to the tenant. Therefore, a landlord's violation of the Security Deposit Statute fell under the interpretation of the phrase "a violation of any other law."

What does this mean for future litigation? This means that tenants are allowed to raise a landlord's violation of the Security Deposit Statute, or violation of any other law that prevents abuse and insures fairness to the tenant, as a defense and counterclaim against the landlord in order to defeat efforts at obtaining possession of the rental property. However, this does not preclude a landlord from bringing a second summary process action against the tenant once the violation has been remedied and potentially recovering possession of the property in the future if there are no further issues.

What is the teaching moment in this ruling? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A prudent landlord will obtain counsel prior to entering into a lease and ensure that it is complying with all landlord-tenant laws at the time of signing the lease .

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