Two Baltimore renters have filed a federal lawsuit alleging a city code that allowed a landlord to seize their property in an eviction with no notice is unconstitutional.
Marshall Todman and Tiffany Gattis claim their landlord “exploited two City laws that allow a landlord to declare a tenant’s belongings to be ‘abandoned’ and to do so without notice” on the date of eviction, even as the items were packed and waiting for movers to come the following day, according to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Friday.
The landlord, Brock Collins, invoked the code provision and had the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office evict the plaintiffs the day before they had voluntarily scheduled a move that Collins knew about, according to the complaint. Collins allegedly “seized all of Plaintiffs’ personal property and demanded exorbitant funds for the property’s return,” which the plaintiffs could not pay.
“It’s very much the case of a bad-faith, malicious compliance with the law,” attorney Joseph Mack said Monday.
Mack, a Baltimore solo practitioner, said Collins was aware of the provision in the code and “exploited” it. Mack said the provision has gone unchallenged, likely because not many tenants in the midst of an eviction are in a position to think about whether the process is constitutional.
“These are the most vulnerable people in society,” Mack said. “Going through eviction is a tremendously traumatic thing.”
The plaintiffs are also represented by Conor B. O’Croinin and Megan S. McKoy of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.
The plaintiffs claim they scheduled the move after deciding to sever their relationship with Collins, only to have him file a tenant holdover action against them, according to the complaint. A holdover tenant is a renter who remains in a property after the lease has expired. Though in general Baltimore’s code requires a landlord to give notice of a pending eviction date and to warn that property left will be considered abandoned, tenant holdover actions are exempted from these requirements.
“Tenants are never given an opportunity, either before or after their property is confiscated, to rebut the City’s forced presumption that they have abandoned their property,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs allege this provision violates the federal Constitution by depriving tenants of their property without due process and with no valid public purpose and seek an order declaring the code section invalid. They also allege Collins unlawfully took possession of their property and violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.
In court on Collins’ tenant holding-over action on July 2, all parties were present and the plaintiffs informed the judge that they had a new rental home and could move in by Aug. 2, according to the complaint. The parties appeared willing to agree to a two-week stay, which would allow Collins to start the process of eviction on July 17 by filing with the sheriff and to schedule the eviction for shortly after Aug. 2 if the plaintiffs did not leave.
The plaintiffs were not informed that, if the eviction were scheduled before their move date, they would not receive notice and would be at risk of having their property deemed abandoned, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs confirmed a move-in date for Aug. 1, packed their belongings and rented a truck for that date.
Despite saying he would wait until July 17 to schedule an eviction, Collins filed on July 15 and the court accepted it despite the stay, directing the sheriff to schedule an eviction, according to the complaint.
The eviction was scheduled for July 31 and Collins was aware it was earlier than the plaintiffs expected, the plaintiffs allege. While they were at work that day, Collins arrived at the property and the sheriff oversaw the eviction. Collins allegedly texted the plaintiffs that he owned all of their belongings, which had been packed for the move, and refused to return them unless he was paid thousands of dollars.
“It certainly shows why the ordinance is constitutionally flawed,” Mack said, adding, “(This) is just the clearest example (that) there was no intent to abandon these belongings.”
Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday. Collins does not have a listed phone number and is not yet represented by counsel.
The case is Marshall Todman et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al., 1:19-cv-03296.