A federal jury awarded $186,000 to a Baltimore couple who lost their belongings under a city ordinance that gives landlords the immediate right to take possession of items left behind when an eviction takes place.
The couple, Marshall and Tiffany Todman, won a total of $36,000 in damages for lost or destroyed property and another $150,000 for emotional distress.
“We are very pleased with the jury’s verdict,” said Joseph Mack, one of the Todmans’ lawyers. “The way Baltimore City handles these evictions is simply unjust. An eviction is already a horrible event for someone who is losing their home. To further marginalize tenants by allowing all their personal belongings to be taken without warning is inhumane.”
A federal judge ruled previously that the city’s ordinance violates the constitutional rights of tenants, who have no way to get their belongings back and in some cases don’t receive notice of when their eviction will take place.
The 2007 law was intended to stop landlords from leaving evicted tenants’ belongings on the sidewalk, but it also gave landlords the immediate right to take possession of anything left behind after the eviction took place. Tenants have no way to reclaim their property and the landlords can sell or throw away the belongings.
The Todmans argued in court that they did not receive adequate notice of when their eviction would take place, which allowed their landlord to take their belongings while they were at work on July 29, 2019. The couple lost “priceless family heirlooms and the ashes of Mrs. Todman’s great-grandfather,” Mack said.
The earlier ruling from U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman meant that tenants like the Todmans who lost their belongings because of the ordinance could bring legal action against the city.
Boardman’s decision applied only 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.
Without notice, those tenants have no way of knowing when their personal belongings will be deemed permanently abandoned, Boardman wrote.
“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 city has not changed the ordinance to give tenants more notice since the Todmans filed their lawsuit in 2019, according to Mack, meaning hundreds of other renters who lost their belongings may have a legal claim.
A city spokesperson did not return an email requesting comment.
Lawyers for the city argued in court filings that the Todmans received notice they faced eviction several times, including when they were mailed a warrant of restitution.
(Warrants of restitution warn that tenants may lose their personal property if it is left behind, but Boardman found that the city’s notice is confusingly written and might lead holding-over tenants to conclude the warning does not apply to them.)
The ordinance was intended to ensure landlords could 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.