1. What Did You Sign? The most common mistake most tenants in Massachusetts make is foregoing legal representation during eviction cases. The most common effect and pitfall there is signing an Agreement for Judgment in negotiation or mediation that signs away all the tenants’ rights – often giving up tens of thousands in compensation because the tenant is not familiar with the process. Tenants want to save $1000 up front and lose $5000-$10,000 (in some cases) and their apartment in the process. It’s the poor person’s mentality: $1 now is better than $100 later. This is illogical for obvious reasons. If nothing else, know that if your landlord shows up one days and says “sign this” or “disregard that notice we don’t have to go to court,” call my office and make sure your rights are protected.
2. Act Now. Tenants often make the second mistake and wait too long to enforce their rights – often because they are in an inequitable bargaining position with the property owner. One of the most important things you can do as a tenant facing landlord problems is to put the complaints in a provable writing (email, certified letter, and to a lesser extent text message). Still, tenants often avoid doing exactly that in order to capture a perceived balance of harms: in their mind it’s better to have some code violations than face eviction. Yet when you have a problem landlord on your hands and they turn the tables on you – it is quickly regrettable when you cannot prove in court that the landlord had written notice of the problem(s).
3. Be Consistent. Tenants make a third common mistake and hurt their own cases by obstructing access to the landlord after requesting repairs or spending the money they’re withholding for rent. Savvy landlords will even want you to obstruct access – or even set up a charade to make it look like you obstructed access for repairs – so they can run to court and get an injunction seeking access and thereby framing the tenant as a problem tenant. This also can undercut any bad conditions claims the tenant may raise, as the landlord can point to tenant causation or impediment of access for repairs as a defense to a habitability or quiet enjoyment claim.
4. What Did You Sign (again)? Tenants commonly fail to get a copy of their signed lease or rental agreement. This leaves the tenant open to the unscrupulous landlord literally rewriting the contract or simply making it disappear in inconvenient circumstances. The law provides that you are entitled to a copy of whatever you signed with your landlord.
5. Lawyer Up. Tenants will find non-lawyers to give them incorrect advice that serves the tenants’ incorrect ideas and, sometimes, greediness, in cases against their landlord. One tenant was being offered $19,000.00 in compensation, insisted on more money in settlement, and ended up with zero after a bench trial and against the advice of counsel. There, some random person who also had a separate and completely unrelated case against their own landlord convinced the tenant to go against the advice of their lawyer, and the tenant ended up with nothing.
6. Bonus. Tenants also make the common mistake of spending the rent they have withheld, with the expectation they won’t have to pay later. A legal claim is neither a lottery ticket nor any guarantee of any kind – a lot depends on the facts of each specific case. In my experience at least one housing court judge will make sure you have the money to pay before proceeding with any counterclaims to offset alleged rental arrears.
There you have it – the 2019 Shivicklaw Top 5 Mistakes Tenants Make With Their Landlords.
-Michael J. Shivick, Esq.
Attorney Shivick has taken hundreds of cases against Massachusetts landlords over the last 10 years, and has a proven track record of collecting money judgments against small and large landlords in Suffolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Norfolk, Middlesex, Barnstable, Hampshire, Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester Counties. No nonsense. No frills. Great Results.