Tenants face unfair fight in Rent Court, study says UM scholar contends law favors landlords

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

The sound you hear is Baltimore tenants -- usually poor, black women -- being shoved ever closer to eviction. It is uttered in Rent Court with numbing regularity by a Baltimore judge every workday of every week. Scores of times. Hundreds on busy days.

"Judgment for landlord. Next case."

In the end, the vast majority of tenants who appear in Rent Court are able to stave off eviction, but first, tens of thousands of them, year after year, must endure this warning: Pay up or expect to hit the road.

A soon-to-be published study by a University of Maryland law professor suggests that when their day in Rent Court arrives, many of those tenants face an unfair fight. They lose, says Barbara Bezdek, the study's author, not simply because they may not have a valid defense against claims that their rent is late. They lose because the court is biased toward the landlords, a point that is overwhelmingly evident to tenants sitting in the courtroom. It is so apparent, Ms. Bezdek says, that the tenants are dissuaded from standing up for themselves.

Effectively silenced

"Tenants are silenced by dynamics occurring in and around the courtroom," Ms. Bezdek writes in her study, which will be published in the Hofstra Law Review this fall.

"If you just look at it straight on, at what happens," Ms. Bezdek said during an interview last week at the University of Maryland School of Law, "it looks unfair, it looks unequal. It does not look evenhanded. So I surmise that if it doesn't look evenhanded to me, it doesn't look evenhanded to tenants."

Linda Hollins, a 35-year-old mother of four, agreed wholeheartedly with Ms. Bezdek. Mrs. Hollins' housing case last week in the Eastside District Court at Harford Road and North Avenue lasted all of 30 seconds. She lost without ever saying a word.

"When you come down here," Mrs. Hollins said afterward, clutching her Bible outside the basement courtroom, "it's like they're for the landlord."

She said her rented house on Park Heights Avenue has no heat, faulty wiring and holes in the walls, through which water swamps during rainstorms. However, she mentioned none of that to the judge. "Nothing gets done if you complain," she said. "I just ask the Lord to take me through it."

The judgment against Mrs. Hollins means that within days a constable could appear at her doorstep and order her family out. Of those who get this far, however, fewer than 10 percent are actually evicted. Most pay or leave voluntarily.

Rent Court enables people to talk directly to a judge without an attorney. Its purpose is to help landlords get their rent from delinquent tenants and for tenants to have unsafe housing conditions addressed.

But Ms. Bezdek writes that Rent Court is actually serving only one of those functions, operating as nothing more than "a collection agency at public expense."

Ms. Bezdek and a team of law students observed Rent Court for four months in 1990. They also interviewed tenants and examined court records.

They found a forum in which landlords were overwhelmingly successful. Judges ruled in favor of landlords in nearly seven of every 10 cases. Tenants prevailed in only 3.5 percent of the cases. Most of the remaining cases were dismissed because the landlord did not appear.

Most tenants -- 85 percent of them -- did not show up either, which automatically led to a judgment for the landlord. Only one in five tenants who did come to court raised a defense.

Ms. Bezdek says it is unfair to assume tenants are silent because they have nothing to say. "It seems just as likely to me that tenants who do have a basis for a claim don't expect that that claim will be treated fairly . . . and so it's not worth it to come," said Ms. Bezdek.

During interviews, the majority of the tenants told her there were serious problems with their homes, deficiencies that the court can recognize as a valid excuse for withholding rent. (Ms. Bezdek's study notes a city housing report determining that 35 percent of Baltimore's rental housing was substandard, a figure that is much higher in poorer neighborhoods.)

Why, then, Ms. Bezdek wanted to know, do so few tenants raise these complaints in court?

Her answer is that tenants, from the moment they walk into Rent Court, receive signals telling them that it is not worthwhile to try to defend themselves. "They see a court system tailored to serve landlords," she says.

They see, for example, judges on familiar terms with landlord agents, who represent the majority of landlords and are in the courtroom every day. They see that the court accommodates the schedule of those agents unlike the tenants, who may have to wait hours for their cases.

They watch as the judge virtually conducts the landlord's case by taking up the questioning of tenants. "Did you pay your rent?" the judge asks. "No. Judgment for landlord."

"In a surprising number of cases," Ms. Bezdek writes, "the landlord says nothing. He hardly needs to . . . The judge conducts the landlord's case."

Double standard

In the rare cases where tenants countered that they had paid rent, Ms. Bezdek said, the judge demanded proof, such as a receipt. "I've seen it happen enough times where the judge is incredulous where the tenant doesn't keep records or where the tenant says, 'I have them and they're at home,' and the judge yells at them, 'You mean you've got records and you didn't bring them to court?' I've never seen a judge yell at a landlord for not bringing the records."

Landlords are rarely asked for any evidence, although the law theoretically requires them to prove their cases.

Some of Ms. Bezdek's observations were confirmed in Rent Court last week. Judge Robert Gerstung, conducting the questioning, asked tenants if they hadn't paid their rent. When they said they hadn't, he ruled for the landlord without another question.

Those who did raise arguments were often quickly cut off. Judge Gerstung told them that if there were problems with their apartments, they should have set up rent escrow accounts. It was too late to do so now. "Ignorance of the law," he said several times, "is no excuse."

Typical was Rose Simms, a 43-year-old woman living in a West Fayette Street apartment. Her landlord summoned her to court claiming she hadn't paid her $190-a-month rent since January. She countered that she had paid, but could produce only one receipt for $150. The landlord agent had no records.

Ms. Simms switched tactics and began complaining about her apartment building. She has no hot water. There are holes in the exterior walls. The central staircase with its loose banister is bathed in pitch darkness because there is no electricity in the hallways. She later said she and her 18-year-old son have both fallen on the staircase.

Judge Gerstung listened to her complaints for a few moments; then he broke in. "Ma'am, you have a perfect right to give notice to the landlord," he said.

"I did," Ms. Simms interrupted.

The judge raised his voice. "Ma'am, your talking me down is not going to help. You have not done these things. You have not written a certified letter. We do not have a complaint to the housing authority. We have nothing but your statement, and you've already fibbed to me because you said you paid your rent when you didn't.

"Judgment for the landlord."

Interviewed later, it was apparent that Ms. Simms, who is jobless and without any income, knew nothing about escrow accounts or the role of the city's housing department. She came across town to court by bus that morning only because she had been summoned. As for her experience in court, she said, "He [Judge Gerstung] didn't listen."

Such treatment in open court, Ms. Bezdek says, convinces other tenants to keep their mouths shut.

She said that even though most cases are about late rent, judges should ask more questions and should try to determine if the housing is safe.

Judges interviewed denied that the operation of the courtroom favors the landlord. Judge Gerstung, for example, said he cannot put money in escrow if tenants have not raised complaints before becoming delinquent. Ms. Bezdek argues, though, that judges have the power to order inspections and to place rent in escrow until repairs are completed. It is rare, her study says, for judges to take those steps.

(A new judge is rotated into Rent Court every three months. Judge Gerstung was actually filling in for Judge Alan Lipson, who, upon his return the next day, did order inspections nearly every time a tenant complained about conditions.)

Legal advantages

Robert Sweeney, chief of Maryland's District Court, also denied that judges favor landlords. On the other hand, he says that the law gives landlords advantages. Maryland is one of the few states where landlords can begin the eviction process in court the day after rent is due. For years, he has unsuccessfully urged the General Assembly to require that landlords first make an effort to contact tenants themselves.

"Judges have come to me many times and expressed their abhorrence with the eviction process," Judge Sweeney said Friday. "The sympathy of judges is with the tenants. The law and the facts are with the landlord."

Because landlords can so easily go to court, Rent Court is overwhelmed. It is not unusual for a judge to have to handle nearly 3,000 cases in a single day. Only New York City has more tenant-landlord cases in a year than Baltimore, Judge Sweeney said.

"The consequence [of the high volume] has to be that the cases are treated more perfunctorily," said Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court. Judge Rinehardt, who had not yet read Ms. Bezdek's study, disputed the professor's assertion that the operation of Rent Court is biased against the tenants. "I believe that people who appear before me say what they have to say," she said, acknowledging, however, that people unfamiliar with the court also are at a disadvantage.

Ms. Bezdek insists that it is important that her study is heeded because she says she has exposed a huge leak in a fundamental principle of U.S. justice. "The American notion we hold of courts is that we are equal before the law, that whether you are rich or poor, whether you have power or not, when you come to court, you will be given a fair shot," she said. "But when you come to this court and see . . . what the judge does for landlords and doesn't do for tenants, it's hard to think that what happens in that court gives tenants a fair shake."

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