A Baltimore ordinance that declares all personal property left behind after an eviction abandoned violates the rights of tenants, who have no way to get their belongings back and in some cases don’t even receive notice of when their eviction will take place, a federal judge found in a new opinion.
The 2007 law at the center of the case prohibited landlords from putting evicted tenants’ belongings on the sidewalk — but it also gave landlords the immediate right to take possession of any belongings that were left behind and dispose of them, sell them or keep them. Tenants have no way to reclaim their property under the ordinance.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Marshall Todman and Tiffany Gattis, lost a number of belongings when they were evicted from their Baltimore home in 2019. The items they never got back included family photos and cremated remains, according to U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman’s opinion in the case.
Boardman found that the city ordinance violated the tenants’ due process rights because they did not receive formal notice of the date of their eviction or adequate warning that their personal belongings were at risk.
“The City, in its effort to keep evicted tenants’ property off public streets and to restore unencumbered possession of real property to landlords quickly, increased the risk that tenants would be erroneously deprived of their personal property,” the judge wrote. “Yet it did not implement any procedures that would reduce that risk.”
Joseph Mack, one of the lawyers for Todman and Gattis, said the ruling means tenants who lose their possessions will be able to bring legal action against the city.
“It holds the city accountable for this really pretty vicious law,” Mack said. “(Tenants) will be able to move forward with a claim for damages for that injury against Baltimore City.”
Mack was co-counsel with Conor B. O’Croinin, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, which took on the case pro bono.
Boardman’s decision only applies to certain types of evictions because different eviction actions carry different notice requirements.
Tenants facing eviction because they owe rent are notified of the date of their eviction because they can stay in the property and pay off what they owe up until that date. In tenant-holding-over cases, when tenants stay in a property past the end of their lease, tenants aren’t given formal notice of the date their eviction will take place.
That is a problem, Boardman wrote, because tenants who don’t know their eviction date also have no way of knowing when their personal belongings will be deemed abandoned under the Baltimore ordinance.
“The City has offered no reason why holdover tenants, like failure-to-pay-rent tenants, cannot be advised of the date of eviction —for example, by their landlords, who receive advance notice of the eviction date in all cases,” Boardman wrote.
The notice that holding-over tenants receive is also inadequate because it is confusingly written, Boardman wrote. The warrant of restitution mailed to tenants warns that personal property will be deemed abandoned if it is left behind, but tenants might conclude that part of the notice only applies in failure-to-pay rent cases because of the way the document is worded.
Tenants who lose their property under the law also have no way to get it back, creating another procedural flaw with the ordinance, Boardman wrote.
“The ordinance itself does not provide any safeguards against an erroneous deprivation,” she wrote. “It provides no legal mechanism by which tenants may reclaim possessions deemed abandoned or otherwise challenge its operation. It simply declares by fiat that, upon eviction, tenants’ personal property found on the premises is irrevocably abandoned.”
The city argued in court filings that Todman and Gattis received notice several times, including when they learned their landlord was seeking to reclaim the property, when they showed up in court for an eviction proceeding and when they were mailed a warrant of restitution.
The ordinance is intended to ensure landlords can take immediate possession of their rental units without having to keep storing tenants’ belongings.
“Tenants, like Plaintiffs, who receive notice about the laws governing this process and ignore them should not be allowed to upend this goal,” the city’s lawyers wrote.
But Boardman disagreed that the plaintiffs got adequate notice their belongings were at risk. The eviction hearing in district court did not address the abandonment ordinance and the tenants had no clear way to protect their belongings through legal action, the judge wrote.
A city spokesperson did not return a request for comment on the decision. The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which filed an amicus curae brief in support of the city’s position, declined to comment.