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The bond barrier

BY ORDER of the Baltimore City District Court, Karen Billings was being evicted. Wrongfully. A mother of four surviving on cash assistance while she attended a 40-hour-a-week job training program, she had to come up with $250 to appeal the court's decision. She did not have the money.

Under Maryland law, tenants who want to challenge lower court decisions must comply with an archaic provision that requires them to pay a bond to secure the right to appeal. While the statute does not specify an amount, in Baltimore City District Court, judges usually require a deposit of six months' rent. For tenants who can barely scrape together a month's rent, this six-month rule essentially bars them from appealing at all.

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The landlord for Ms. Billings (not her real name) sought to evict her because she had allegedly overstayed the two-year time limit of her transitional housing program. However, the federal government paid the bulk of her rent through a federal housing program. As a result, the landlord was required to use a lease approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The HUD lease provided that she could be evicted only if she was not paying her rent or was bothering other tenants. Yet Ms. Billings had never missed her rent payments and was a model tenant. Thus, the only reason for the eviction was the landlord's decision to move as many people as possible through the transitional housing program, regardless of whether they had anywhere else to go.

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Lacking legal counsel, Ms. Billings initially went to court alone to defend herself against the eviction. Terrified by the trappings of the courtroom and the string of tenant losses before her case was called, she said nothing in her defense. She did not even show the judge her lease, which clearly provided her with an indefinite right to stay in the property as long as she obeyed the rules.

Eventually, Ms. Billings found her way to the University of Baltimore Civil Advocacy Clinic, which decided to represent her. Her student attorney quickly realized that the District Court's decision was wrong as a matter of law and decided to file an appeal.

Unfortunately, Ms. Billings did not have the $250 necessary to appeal the case. Although court costs and fees are waived for indigent tenants, bonds are not. The student attorney began researching the bond requirement - an antique provision practically requiring a dictionary in Olde English.

In theory, an appeal bond serves to protect the status quo while an appeal is moving through the system. After all, a landlord should not have to suffer a monetary loss during the pendency of an appeal that may ultimately be frivolous.

The matter of appeal bonds recently hit the headlines when Philip Morris USA objected to a $12 billion bond as the cost of filing an appeal of a massive verdict against the tobacco company. Philip Morris objected that posting such a bond would force it to bankruptcy and deprive the state attorneys general of their tobacco settlement funds. The plaintiffs countered that the bond ensured that they could collect on the judgment if it was upheld. The judge later halved the bond.

By contrast, in landlord-tenant cases, the status quo is protected as long as the tenant continues to pay her rent in a timely manner. If the tenant fails to pay rent while an appeal is pending, the landlord can always evict the tenant for that reason alone.

The Maryland legislature should repeal these bond requirements in landlord-tenant cases. The only effect of the bond requirement is to deny tenants their so-called "right" to appeal and, in turn, the roofs over their heads.

In our current economic climate, state budgets are shrinking while the legal needs of poor people go largely unmet. Yet repeal of these bond requirements would cost the state nothing - nothing - and would improve access to the courts by our most needy citizens.

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As for Ms. Billings, she eventually obtained a spot in another public housing project while legal maneuverings continued in her case. She was saved from homelessness. But how many others are not simply because they cannot afford their so-called right to appeal?

Michele Gilman is an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.


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