Legal Aid: Despite errors in complaints, landlords win rent cases

Maryland Legal Aid: Despite errors in complaints and failure to notify tenants, landlords winning rent cases.

Landlords have won cases in rent court despite failing to completely document claims or prove they are licensed to rent properties, and in instances were tenants were not properly served notice that they faced possible eviction, according to a study released Tuesday 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 who are 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."

Some concerns raised by the Legal Aid study will be addressed as the judicial system modernizes its records system, said John P. Morrissey, chief judge of Maryland District Court. The current manual processing of landlord-tenant cases will be automated in the next several years, which will improve accuracy and transparency, Morrissey said Tuesday in a prepared statement.

Morrissey also noted that since 2012, the year Legal Aid reviewed, tenants have access to more free legal advice from groups like the Public Justice Center and a clinic staffed by lawyers and students from the University of Maryland law school. Additionally, District Court offers mediation services, and one of its judges, Mark Scurti, chairs a legislative work group that is reviewing the rent court system to recommend ways of improving it, he said.

"The District Court is dedicated to improving services, employing best practices, and expanding the use of technology, he said. "I look forward to a continued dialogue and the implementation of further improvements that will benefit all Marylanders."

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 conclusions 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. "It seems like a squishy concept to me."

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," Rachel Wolpert, Legal Aid staff attorney, said.

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.

Legal Aid's study comes in the wake of other groups and researchers highlighting problems with Baltimore rent court.

In December, the Public Justice Center found that most renters facing eviction in Baltimore reported living in conditions that warranted withholding at least part of their rent in escrow, as allowed by law. But, the group found, most tenants are not represented by lawyers and are unaware of potential defenses against eviction.

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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