Study iden­ti­fies flaws in rent court

Le­gal aid or­ga­ni­za­tion says land­lords win cases de­spite fail­ing to fol­low the rules

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Jean Mar­bella Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter Doug Dono­van con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle. jmar­bella@balt­sun.com

Land­lords in the state have won cases in rent court de­spite fail­ing to prop­erly doc­u­ment claims, serve le­gal no­tice on ten­ants or prove that they are li­censed to rent prop­er­ties, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased to­day by Mary­land Le­gal Aid.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which pro­vides free le­gal ser­vices to the poor, doc­u­mented such er­rors in more than 17 per­cent of cases in which land­lords won de­fault judg­ments against ten­ants for fail­ure to pay rent. Be­cause those land­lords didn’t fol­low the law, the group said, they shouldn’t have won in court.

Once land­lords re­ceive a fail­ure-to-pay judg­ment, they can pro­ceed to file an or­der of evic­tion.

Le­gal Aid called for bet­ter ver­i­fi­ca­tion of land­lord com­plaint forms, ar­gu­ing that evic­tion can start a cas­cade of dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences — from adults los­ing jobs be­cause they can no longer get to them, to chil­dren miss­ing class time or hav­ing to switch schools, to fam­i­lies suf­fer­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal health prob­lems from be­ing dis­placed.

“Hous­ing plays such an in­te­gral role in a per­son’s life that the loss of that hous­ing, for any rea­son, can have an enor­mous neg­a­tive rip­ple ef­fect not only on the per­son in­volved, but also on his/her fam­ily and the com­mu­nity at large,” the re­port said.

Prob­lems with rent court tend to dis­pro­por­tion­ately strike those whoare low-in­come or oth­er­wise dis­ad­van­taged or vul­ner­a­ble, such as the dis­abled and vic­tims of do­mes­tic abuse, Le­gal Aid said.

Among the most dis­turb­ing find­ings, Le­gal Aid of­fi­cials said, was that in 8.5 per­cent of cases, ten­ants had not re­ceived proper no­tice they were be­ing taken to court. A fail­ure to ap­pear gen­er­ally re­sults in a de­fault judg­ment in fa­vor of the land­lord.

“Proper ser­vice — the most ba­sic tenet of due process, af­ford­ing ad­e­quate no­tice of le­gal claims and a mean­ing­ful op­por­tu­nity to be heard — was not pro­vided to ten­ants in ac­cor­dance with Mary­land law,” the study said. “De­fault judg­ments were, nonethe­less, en­tered against the ten­ants.”

Le­gal Aid launched the study as part of the Hu­man Rights Project at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity’s Wash­ing­ton Col­lege of Law.

The study was based on a ran­dom sam­ple — 1,380 of the es­ti­mated 614,735 fail­ure-to-pay rent cases heard statewide in 2012. Re­searchers re­viewed court doc­u­ments and lis­tened to au­dio record­ings of the hear­ings.

Kathy Howard, who chairs the leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee of the Mary­land Multi-Hous­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, a group that rep­re­sents land­lords, said she doubted the study’s con­clu- sions be­cause they were based on a small, old sam­ple of cases.

“These are pretty sweep­ing and gen­er­al­ized as­sess­ments about the en­tire rent court sys­tem, based on a very small num­ber of cases,” Howard said. “It takes an aw­fully small num­ber of cases from four years ago and then it ex­trap­o­lates that the en­tire sys­tem is bro­ken.”

Howard said she took is­sue with the group’s find­ing of “in­cor­rect case out­comes.”

“From whose per­spec­tive? Is it be­cause the ten­ant didn’t win?” Howard said.

In ad­di­tion to find­ing that land­lords failed to serve le­gal no­tice, Le­gal Aid at­tor­neys said some land­lords failed to pro­vide proof that they are li­censed to rent prop­er­ties, mean­ing that by law, they could not take ten­ants to rent court.

Also, some land­lords did not pro­vide proof that they were in com­pli­ance with Mary­land law re­quir­ing own­ers of older rentals to regis­ter the prop­er­ties and pro­vide cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that they have been in­spected, ac­cord­ing to the study.

Le­gal Aid at­tor­neys said that land­lords, like plain­tiffs in all civil pro­ceed­ings, bear the bur­den of proof.

“Our con­cern for all Mary­land lit­i­gants is that they are get­ting full ac­cess to the jus­tice sys­tem and the due-process rights in that sys­tem,” said Rachel Wolpert, a Le­gal Aid staff at­tor­ney.

Le­gal Aid re­ported dif­fi­culty in get­ting com­plete and ac­cu­rate records from some of the state’s rent courts; doc­u­ments and au­dio tapes were at times un­clear, to the point that re­searchers weren’t sure what kind of judg­ment re­sulted.

Le­gal Aid found other in­stances in which land­lords pro­vided in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion on com­plaint forms and court staff didn’t ver­ify it.

For in­stance, land­lords can move more quickly with evic­tions if they con­tend that a ten­ant has had mul­ti­ple judg­ments for fail­ing to pay rent in the past — three statewide in the past year, or four in Bal­ti­more City. If a ten­ant hasn’t had that many judg­ments, they have a “right of re­demp­tion,” which al­lows them to stop an evic­tion by pay­ing the judg­ment up un­til the time the sher­iff ar­rives with the or­der.

But courts do not al­ways ver­ify in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the land­lord on past judg­ments, the study said.

Also, land­lords did not al­ways in­form the court when a ten­ant re­ceived a hous­ing sub­sidy or was in ac­tive mil­i­tary ser­vice. In both sit­u­a­tions, ten­ants qual­ify for ex­tra pro­tec­tions from evic­tions, Le­gal Aid said.

The study of­fers rec­om­men­da­tions on how to rem­edy the prob­lems re­searchers iden­ti­fied, in­clud­ing bet­ter train­ing for judges and court staff, in­creased ver­i­fi­ca­tion of land­lord claims and im­proved record keep­ing.

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