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Boosted by high court ruling, advocates seek justice for tenants

Months after a landmark Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that landlords cannot file suit against tenants for back rent beyond the three-year statute of limitations, lawyers are still working to ensure that tenants are treated fairly in rent court.

The February 2019 high court ruling stipulated that a landlord cannot extend the period in which a tenant may be sued for back rent even if the contract is under seal.

But the fight to secure justice for renters – pursued by pro bono legal agencies such as the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Maryland Legal Aid and the Public Justice Center — is far from over.

“Our legal system … is set up to protect property owners,” said Amy Hennen, consumer and housing law managing attorney at MVLS. “The needs of tenants hold less sway than what landlords potentially want.”

Landlords have gotten around the three-year limit on suing tenants for back rent by putting contracts under seal. In a 2001 case, Tipton v. Partner’s Management Co., the Court of Appeals clarified that a contract under seal did not waive the three-year statute of limitations – but the court did not determine if a waiver violated landlord-tenant law.

The question was finally decided earlier this year, when the Court of Appeals ruled on Smith v. Wakefield, a case in which a landlord filed suit against Baltimore city resident Gregory Smith seven years after Smith moved out of his rental property. The suit stated that since the contract was under seal, the landlord could file for back rent up to 12 years after Smith left.

The Court of Appeals determined that Maryland’s three-year statute of limitations on seeking back rent was not subject to waiver and emphasized that the statute applied to all contracts, including those under seal.

Smith was represented pro bono by the Holland Firm PC. MVLS, Maryland Legal Aid and the Public Justice Center contributed an amicus brief.

The Court of Appeals decision was “momentous,” said Hennen, who added that, in pro bono work, “it often feels like there’s so few wins.”

The ruling particularly affects low-income renters and those experiencing “rent burden.” According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, a tenant must spend more than 30 percent of his or her household income on rent to experience rent burden. In Baltimore city, 57 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent and 33 percent pay more than half of their income, according to a 2016 study by the Abell Foundation.

The state has been slow to pay attention to tenants’ needs, Hennen said.

In just the last legislative session, six bills on landlord-tenant affairs never advanced beyond the hearing stage.

“There’s been a fight that’s been happening in the legislature for several years now that hasn’t really gotten anywhere,” Hennen said.

While larger, systemic changes must come from the legislature, legal aid organizations have relied on the courts for shorter-term solutions.

Debra Gardner, legal director for the Public Justice Center, says that recent landlord-tenant rulings have been helpful for tenants, as the Court of Appeals continues to hear these cases and clarify laws that the lower courts and landlords have ignored.

“Advocates are getting cases in front of the Court of Appeals on landlord-tenant issues in a more successful way,” Gardner said.

Typically, landlord-tenant cases do not make it to the Court of Appeals, mostly due to tenants’ lack of counsel at the district court level. In many landlord-tenant cases, tenants either represent themselves, which results in a weak defense and a failed case, or do not show up to their initial hearing at all, which ends the case, says Ellyn Riedl, a consumer and housing law staff attorney for MVLS.

And even when tenants do retain counsel, they may not be able to pay the appeals bond, advocates pointed out.

Gardner said she believes all tenants should have the right to counsel in eviction proceedings, saying it would make a “tremendous amount of difference in the lower courts.”

Said Hennen: “We’re all going to continue to work on these issues … but we’re also going to work with the legislature for more lasting improvements.”