'Jared Kushner Act' aims to curb use of arrests for debts in Maryland

A Democratic state lawmaker from Baltimore has introduced a bill that would prohibit Maryland judges from issuing civil arrest warrants for tenants being sued for less than $5,000 in unpaid rent — a proposal entitled the “Jared Kushner Act.”

Del. Bilal Ali’s proposed legislation comes five months after The Baltimore Sun reported that the apartment management company owned by Kushner, son-in-law and top adviser to President Donald Trump, was the most aggressive landlord in Maryland in obtaining civil arrest warrants called “body attachments” against tenants.

Ali’s bill seeks to curb the controversial debt-collection tactic that other lawmakers failed to limit last year even with the support of Attorney General Brian Frosh. The bill proposes that courts “may not issue a body attachment for a tenant who is a defendant in a landlord-tenant action in which the amount of rent claimed does not exceed $5,000, exclusive of interest and costs.”

Kushner affiliates had filed at least 1,250 legal actions in the state from 2013 through August last year, The Sun’s analysis showed. Judges awarded a total of $5.4 million in judgments against tenants who owed an average of $4,400, The Sun found. That included the original debts, plus lawyers’ fees, court costs and interest.

Since 2013 — the first full year in which the Kushner Cos.’ Westminster Management began managing 17 apartment complexes in Maryland — corporate entities affiliated with the firm sought the civil arrest of 105 former tenants for failing to appear in court to face allegations of unpaid debt, more than any other landlord in the state over that time. Court records show that 20 former Kushner tenants have been detained.

“Government has always developed policies to financially protect wealthy institutions such as the Bank Bailout of 2008,” Ali told The Sun. “On the flip side, regressive policies that hurt and even incarcerate the poor have historically been the norm. This bill prohibits policies that were developed to hurt poor communities and jail poor residents.”

Landlords have said that body attachments are often the only way to get tenants to come to court to answer claims about money they allegedly owe. Kushner Cos. officials have said the New York-based firm employs the tactic as a last resort, and follows industry standards and state law.

“Our local counsel in Maryland handled these matters consistent with other attorneys in similar situations there and in accordance with Maryland law,” said Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Kushner Cos. “A body attachment is issued by a court for the failure to abide by two court orders, and is not in any way related to the ability or failure of a debtor to pay a debt….

“It is clear that this proposed bill with its proposed name is politically motivated,” she added. “For a couple of local politicians to sponsor a bill called the Jared Kushner Act when neither Kushner Companies nor Jared Kushner, when he worked at Kushner Companies, had anything to do with these issues is petty.”

Kushner was CEO of the Kushner Cos., the parent company of Westminster Management, from 2008 until Jan. 19, 2017, when he stepped down to join the Trump administration. He retains ownership of the firm.

Tenants are not arrested for owing money, but for missing at least two court hearings about the alleged arrears, landlords say. Judges approve body attachments to compel tenants to show up at civil proceedings.

When a landlord wins a judgment against a tenant, he or she may ask the judge to order the tenant to appear in court to answer questions about assets and employment to determine garnishments. If the tenant fails to appear, the judge may issue another summons to determine why the person shouldn’t be held in contempt.

If the tenant again fails to show up, the landlord can ask the judge to issue a body attachment.

When a tenant is arrested, a judge or commissioner can hold him or her and set a bond. Defendants unwilling or unable to pay the bond can end up in jail.

Sen. Wayne Norman, an attorney who represents landlords, said judges approve body attachments only after tenants repeatedly ignore court orders to show up to address the debt.

“It doesn’t matter about the dollar amount,” the Harford County Republican said. “If it’s a $50 debt you still have to obey a court order.”

Landlords spend at least $150 to file the paperwork required to compel tenants to appear to negotiate debt repayment, Norman said. Such tenants drive up rents for everyone else as well as jeopardize property owners’ ability to pay their mortgages, he added.

“I’m absolutely opposed to the legislation,” Norman said. “For the legislature to say, ‘The heck with the judge’s order’ — It’s ridiculous.”

Critics say the practice amounts to jailing people for being poor — and can interfere with their livelihoods, making it more difficult to pay the money they allegedly owe. Moreover, at least some tenants who have been targeted say they did not receive proper notice of the court appearances they were accused of missing.

Frosh has expressed concerns about body attachments because judges in small claims cases may act on informal evidence from landlords about the alleged debts and about their attempts to notify tenants about court hearings. Frosh and others said tenants sometimes may be unaware of a debt because it has been sold to a company whose name they do not recognize, and may miss notice of a court hearing because they have moved.

Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced legislation last year that called for limiting the use of body attachments. He has not cross-filed a bill with Bilal’s proposal.

Last year, Frosh supported Smith’s measure, writing to the Judicial Proceedings Committee that his office “has long expressed concern about the courts being used as an instrument to assist debt collectors in collecting what is often questionable debt.”

But Smith withdrew the measure after Norman expressed his opposition.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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