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Rent Court Gets New Lease

Baltimore’s beleaguered rent court will get an overhaul in January, following an agreement struck yesterday between the city’s district court and a public interest law firm that represents many of the mostly poor, black and female tenants who jam the downtown court.Changes negotiated in the deal include the addition of “at least” one more judge to the court and new procedures that will make the process fairer for tenants, according to the Public Justice Center. The non-profit public interest firm has been negotiating for changes in the way the court handles cases for about a year.“It’s fair to say we’re very excited,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the PJC. “We reached a handshake agreement with the court, and if it makes the changes promised, the rights of tenants will be significantly affected. It will make the process significantly fairer for litigants and much more in accord with Constitutional requirements..”<table width=”150″ border=”0″ align=”right” cellspacing=”5″ cellpadding=”0″

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Under the deal hammered out with Judge Keith E. Mathews, administrative judge of the city’s district court, the rent court will stagger its docket into three sessions a day and limit the total number of daily cases to 1,000 during the court’s busiest period each month.Currently, it’s not uncommon for a single judge to handle a 3,000-case daily docket in the third week of the month. Under the new arrangement, one judge will hear failure-to-pay-rent cases, and another judge will hear claims of inhabitability and rent-escrow cases. Mathews was not available for comment.The court, which handles nearly 180,000 cases a year on the city’s busiest docket, hears alleged failure-to-pay-rent cases filed by landlords and rent-escrow cases filed by tenants in an effort to force repairs. About half of the population in Baltimore lives in rental units.Other changes include daily reviews by the court of every case to determine whether the tenant was properly notified of a hearing and whether claims made by the landlord are accurate, clear and unambiguous. Furthermore, court clerks will make sure that failure-to-pay-rent complaints served on tenants are legible. “That will make a big difference,” Smith added.Another change will end the practice of court clerks handing over court files to rental agents, who then conduct a roll call of tenants in the hallway outside the courtroom. That function, which the PJC said should not be turned over to a party in a dispute, will be taken over by clerks.“That’s a significant and necessary change,” said Kenneth M. Walden, director of the PJC’s Tenant Advocacy Project, which assists renters who jam the court on its busiest days.Furthermore, a judge will review summonses mailed to tenants notifying them of hearings that are returned by the post office because of illegible or missing addresses. Until recently, the summonses pile up unread, prompting concerns that many tenants were not served.“The judge will determine if service was sufficient,” Walden said. “It’s another significant and necessary constitutional step.”One sticking point not addressed is the current practice by the sheriff’s department of posting summonses on the outside door of multi-family dwellings and not on individual apartment doors. That practice the PJC called “unconstitutional.”“We believe that the law is clear that the notice must be posted on the apartment door, not the entry,” Smith said. “We believe the sheriff has the responsibility to do it right and that the court should oversee it. So we’re considering our options.”While encouraged by the agreement, Walden said the PJC will continue to monitor the reforms and continue to challenge practices it feels are constitutionally deficient.