Dacey v. Burgess: Court-Appointed Mediation is Legally Binding

By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords, Inc.

Mediation for housing issues is considered a good alternative to court in many circumstances. Court can be costly and time-consuming. You can seek out a mediator on your own, of course, especially through the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration’s site Resolution Massachusetts. But once you have filed with a court, court-referred mediators are also available. There’s just one thing: Unlike MOPC agreements, the agreements you make in court-based mediation are binding. Very, very binding.

This is a close-up photograph of two people working side by side at a conference table. A laptop is open in front of each person, with some paper in between. We can see both sets of hands and writing on the paper.

Mediation can be a helpful tool that saves time and money, but it’s important to realize that the agreements that come out of court-appointed mediation are legally binding. [License: Unsplash]

Jump to

2020: Mediation and a Court Ruling for Possession

Consider the case of Dacey v. Burgess. In November 2019, landlord Sandy Burgess told tenant Jason Dacey that his rent would be going up $65 a month. Dacey didn’t accept this increase and continued to pay the original rent amount. In February 2020, Dacey took his landlord to housing court, alleging that his rental unit had bedbugs, a violation of the state sanitary code.

In March of 2020, the two parties agreed to enter into court-based mediation, and came out with the following agreement: Dacey would drop the charges against Burgess and would move out of the unit no later than Aug. 31, 2020. In exchange, Burgess would waive March’s rent to give Dacey a jumpstart on the costs associated with finding a new place to live.

Then Covid-19 came along and changed everything. With an eviction moratorium in place, Dacey could not be compelled to leave his apartment at the end of August. He continued to pay rent. When the state eviction moratorium expired in October 2020, Burgess took her tenant back to court to get the mediation agreement enforced. The courts agreed and told Dacey he had to move out.

December 2022: The SJC Weighs In, Upholds Ruling

Dacey appealed the ruling, and in December of 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court heard the case. Among other things, Dacey’s lawyer claimed that Dacey should not have been ordered to leave the rental because summary process is the only way a landlord can recover possession of a unit. He also said the courts failed to take into account Dacey’s disabilities, which were not made known until later in the process.

The SJC upheld the housing court’s decision, noting that the law does not state summary process action is the only way to recover possession. MGL Ch. 184 Section 18 states, “No person shall attempt to recover possession of land or tenements in any manner other than through an action brought pursuant to chapter two hundred and thirty-nine or such other proceedings authorized by law. The superior and district courts shall have jurisdiction in equity to enforce the provisions of this section.”

In other words, the phrase “or such other proceedings authorized by law” tells landlords that summary process is not the only way to recover possession. The SJC said the original judge had the authority to award possession of the rental unit back to Burgess.

Furthermore, the SJC pointed out, once a mediated agreement is reached, a summary process action isn’t something that would ordinarily be pursued. The tenant had already agreed to move out, so tying up the court to get a judge’s order to vacate the premises would be unusual and unnecessary. Because the tenant had agreed to move out in a legally binding court-based mediation, a summary process was not necessary after he later attempted to remain in the rental.

Regarding Dacey’s disability, the SJC wrote, “Although Dacey averred that he suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, the record does not support such a claim with any medical evidence, or any evidence suggesting a disability that would have interfered with his ability to negotiate a voluntary settlement with the assistance of a court mediator.”

In March 2023, the SJC officially ruled in favor of the housing court’s initial ruling.

Non-binding Mediation Wouldn’t Work

The specifics of this case aside, the SJC noted that if parties could go into court-based mediation and come out with a solution, only for one party to be able to back out later, court-based mediation would be ineffective. For court-based mediation to work, it has to be legally binding.

“[W]ere we to permit the parties subsequently to challenge their settlement agreement, which already has been approved by a judge, we would eviscerate the efficacy of the mediation process, as any agreement from such process would be worthless,” the SJC’s opinion read.

Imagine how few people would ever agree to mediation if one of the parties could change their mind and back out of the agreement. Court-based mediation would no longer be any different from non-court mediation. Judges would rather not waste their valuable time. They could just decide the matter finally themselves and be done with it. And without binding mediation, landlords would likewise prefer a judge to rule, because then at least the Band-Aid would be pulled off faster, even if not in our favor.

Renters have the most to lose in mediation. As our eviction data shows, the top reasons renters end up leaving their homes are either because of default (failure to show up) or agreeing to leave in mediation (or else, agreeing to an unsustainable payment plan). It makes sense why legal services should have argued that mediated agreements should be undone. But as the SJC wrote, “Once judgment is entered based on the parties' voluntary settlement, the judgment ‘conclusively determines the rights of the parties as to all matters within its scope.’” So be careful what you agree to.

A Concern: Murky Legal Language Can Drag Cases Out

The case of Dacey v. Burgess is one that hinges on legal language. Dacey’s counsel argued that the law specifies that only summary process can return possession to a landlord. The law, as worded, suggests otherwise. The phrase “or such other proceedings authorized by law” leaves the door open to interpretation, which in turn leads to more lengthy legal battles.

Contrast that with the case of Slavin v. Lewis, where the statute on trespassing is much more clear cut. The trespass law is clearly defined in MGL Ch. 266, Section 120. This definition, ratified through legislation, makes it clear that a person is not a trespasser if you have invited them to live in your home and, in such circumstances, possession may only be recovered through “appropriate civil proceedings.”

Having such statutes ratified by law in up-to-date, clear-cut, simple terms cuts down on how much time courts spend interpreting the law. If MGL Ch. 184 Section 18 was as clear as the trespassing statute, perhaps the courts wouldn’t have had to spend so much time on a disagreement that stemmed from a mere $65-a-month rent increase.

April 2023: A MassLandlords Event with Housing Court Reps

This is a case that holds special importance for housing providers and tenants. Mediation is a wonderful tool, but it’s important to understand that the agreements reached there are legally binding. This renter voluntarily agreed to leave the rental unit on a certain date. The fact that the word “voluntary” was used was not an invitation to back out of the agreement. Instead, it was meant to convey that the landlord was not going through the summary process to have the landlord removed.

When renters do end up being physically removed from a rental unit, our eviction data shows it is usually because either the renter failed to show up in court, or agreed to something in mediation that resulted in them leaving. Sometimes that’s because they agreed to leave, as Dacey did. Other times, it’s because they agreed to terms they ultimately could not meet, such as an overly ambitious payment plan. As a landlord, there’s a good chance you could find yourself needing to have a tenant removed. It’s important to understand your options.

To that end, housing court representatives will be speaking to the public at a MassLandlords event on Thursday, April 13, at 5:40 p.m. If you have questions about this case, or the mediation process as an alternative to eviction, please make time to attend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *