March 24, 2016
Lopsided laws are annoying. But here in Massachusetts we have the right to require that our legislators observe the principles of justice and moderation in formulating our laws. It says so in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights (article 18, to be precise). So immoderate, unjust laws do more than annoy; they flout some fundamental constitutional principles.
Which prompts me to ask, Why do we put up with the dramatically different burdens that the law places on landlords who hold security deposits vis-à-vis tenants who withhold rent?
If you are a Massachusetts landlord you are free to ask for a security deposit to insure against the tenants damaging your property. But if you do, you had better comply with every jot and tittle of the security-deposit law, M.G.L. c. 186, §15B. The amount of the security deposit must not exceed one month’s rent (not by so much as a dollar), you have to place the deposit it in a separate, interest-bearing account in a Massachusetts bank — not a New Hampshire bank or a Connecticut bank — and give the tenant (1) a detailed receipt within 30 days, and (2) annual statements showing the interest that the deposit has earned. The law goes into great detail about what you must and must not do with the security deposit at the end of the tenancy. Innocent mistakes can prove as costly as deliberate violations. Landlords who are curious about the kind of oversights that could trigger multiple damages and attorney’s fees should watch this short slide-show video by tenants’ lawyer Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, Esq. If pushed for time start watching at the 3:45-minute mark.
In contrast, if you are a Massachusetts tenant and you wish to withhold rent from the landlord (i.e. go on rent strike) the list of legal formalities you have to comply with is considerably shorter. Here is a short video on the subject.
Rent withholding has a reasonable purpose. Tenants are allowed to withhold rent if the conditions in the dwelling are unsanitary, which encourages landlords to make repairs promptly upon request. Fair enough. Mind you, just try that rationale in the realm of workplace relations.
Employer: “Your performance is inadequate.”
Employee: “Are you going to fire me?”
Employer: “No, and you can’t quit either. You have to keep working for us. But we’re going to stop paying you.”
Any employers desiring an insightful predictive analysis of the likely outcome of such an interaction should click here.
If tenants withhold rent, do they have to set the money aside? After all, if — many months, or even years, after the rent strike started — the Housing Court judge decides that the landlord is entitled to some or all of the bank-rent, it could be difficult for the tenants to come up with money. It takes above-average self discipline to save the money rather than spend it on all the other pressing day-to-day demands, especially in a culture that actively discourages thrift (have you looked at interest rates lately?).
But no, the law does not require that tenants place the withheld rent in escrow, so nor do tenants have to provide the landlord with documentary evidence stating the name of the bank and the number of the account.
To recap, landlords holding security deposits have to comply with a long list of legal requirements whereas tenants withholding rent have to comply with none. Landlords who fail to give tenants a detailed statement within 30 days face the prospect of paying treble damages and the tenants’ legal fees. Tenants who withhold rent even if a judge concludes that the withholding was not justified do not have to pay a penalty of any kind.
If you think of tenants as wards of the state and your image of landlords conforms to popular Dickensian stereotypes, or this, or this, this imbalance in the law may not bother you much. If so, I urge to watch a real landlord, Garth Meikle, argue a real case in front of the Supreme Judicial Court. To see and hear Mr. Meikle click here, and start at minute 18:38. Mr. Meikle simply wanted his apartment back so that one of his children could move in, but the tenant alleged that Mr. Meikle had made a mistake with the security deposit. By the way, the tenant received pro bono representation from a Harvard Law School clinic; the landlord had to represent himself.
On the other hand, if you think that the provision of affordable homes is a social good that we should encourage or at least not discourage, and that it might be time to restore some balance to landlord-tenant law, there is hope. Recently I went to the State House to listen to testimony about a proposal to amend the rent-withholding law by requiring tenants to deposit the withheld rent into escrow. Will it pass? I shall keep you posted.
Now for the quiz that I promised in the headline.
If I had to choose one word to describe the current security-deposit law it would be persnickety, an adjective (possibly related to the Scottish pernickety or pernicky) that boasts the highest jurisprudential imprimatur available on this side of the Atlantic, namely a 2011 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Question: Which justice penned the opinion?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word persnickety in the subject line. There will be a prize for the first correct answer.* But, please, no pre-quiz use of Google, LexisNexis, etc. We use the honor system around here.
* A warm glow.**
** Subject to availability, satisfaction not guaranteed, and no warranties as to fitness for general or particular purpose. Some glow-feelers may experience side effects so before winning this quiz talk to your primary care physician, pharmacist, and faith-community leader.