The Massachusetts Landlord/Tenant Law Blog

The Massachusetts Landlord/Tenant Law Blog: March 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

Aviksis v. Murray: Payment of Attorney Fees in Landlord/Tenant Cases

The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision today on the right of parties to collect attorney fees in landlord/tenant cases.  In Aviksis v. Murray, the Court held that "guarantors" of a landlord/tenant lease could not rely on laws that allow tenants to collect attorney fees for cases brought against landlords for failure to comply with any "covenant or term of the lease" or in the defense of a lawsuit brought by the landlord. A gurantor of a lease, simply enough, is someone who assumes liability if rent is not paid or damages occur to the rental property. This is often required for tenants with limited credit history or no references.

A little background on attorney fees in civil cases.  Under what is called the American Rule, each side in a civil case pays their own attorney fees.  Even if you win the case and a judgment against the other side, you are still on the hook for your legal costs.  The exception to this rule is when a law allows one side to recover legal costs against the other or, as is common in leases, a contract provision allowing a party to obtain attorney fees if they ever need to go to Court.  

In these situations where the lease allows the landlord to collect attorney fees against tenants, Massachusetts law provides an important safeguard for tenants:  tenants, in such cases, can likewise obtain legal fees against landlords for a landlord's failure to comply with any "covenant or term of the lease" or in the defense of a lawsuit brought by the landlord. . . even if the lease does not explicitly allow attorney fees for the tenant.  

In Aviksis, several tenants brought suit against their landlord for damages arising from water in the apartment.  A father of one of the tenants was a guarantor on the lease and accordingly, was countersued by the landlord for these damages.  The father won his case and attempted to recover his legal fees under the law discussed above:  G.L. c. 186, § 20.  The question for the Court was whether a 
guarantor of a lease was entitled to attorney fees under this law.

The Court relied on the plain meaning of the statute and held that tenants, and tenants alone, are entitled to the provisions of G.L. c. 186, § 20.  Even though the guarantor may have been in the tenants "shoes" for the purposes of this case, the guarantor does not have the same rights as the tenants under this law.

What are the take home points of Aviksis v. Murray?

  • Under Massachusetts landlord/tenant law, guarantors of leases are not treated the same as tenants.  In short, if you assume liability for a lease, do not expect to get the same protections afforded to tenants under the law.
  • Obtaining attorney fees continues to be the exception, rather than the rule, in civil litigation . . . something to always consider in deciding whether to pursue litigation.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Breaking a Landlord/Tenant Lease

Image result for contract

What's a lease?  A lease, simply enough, is a contract for the rental of property.  As such, a lease is enforceable at law.  If a tenant signs a lease (which is usually for a one-year term), the tenant is liable for rental payments during that period of time.

A few scenarios exist where a tenant can lawfully break a lease: active service in the military, health, safety or privacy violations by the landlord, or domestic violence abuse.  Besides those scenarios, a tenant cannot simply walk away from a lease because they choose to.  If they do, a landlord has a right to sue the tenant for the outstanding rent.

If a landlord is in a situation where the tenant breaks the lease, the landlord should try to lessen their damages by finding a new tenant.  Even if it is possible for the landlord to sue the tenant for the full amount of owed rent, collecting a judgment against a tenant is difficult.  The landlord is best off trying to recoup their losses by finding a new tenant as soon as possible.  If the landlord does end up pursuing a case against a tenant, the landlord will have a stronger argument by showing that he or she made an effort to lessen the damages from the breach of the lease, rather than just sitting idle as the rent went unpaid.  With this in mind, landlords should keep detailed records of all efforts to find a replacement tenant.

What's a tenant to do if they need to break a lease?  Work out a deal with the landlord.  For example, a tenant could offer to assist the landlord in finding a new replacement tenant, by helping to advertise and show the apartment.  Both sides are best off trying to find an amicable solution to the problem in lieu of taking the matter to court. 

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