On November 5 a case was heard at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) to decide whether a security deposit violation amounting to $3.26 could undo a lawful eviction.
Meikle v Nurse was argued by the landlord Garth Meikle (MEEK-ul) representing himself against an attorney from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. We live-tweeted the event, which lasted for less than half an hour. A decision won't be announced for a couple of months. Here are some highlights from the testimony:
- The landlord gave the tenant notice in April 2014 that he would not be renewing their rental agreement. He wanted the apartment for his son.
- The tenant stopped paying rent while she continued to overstay her rental agreement.
- At some point, Harvard Legal Aid got involved and pointed out that the landlord hadn't given the tenant a receipt for her security deposit, and also, that she hadn't been paid three dollars and twenty-six cents in interest.
- The tenant started to pay rent again after a three month "rent vacation" as the case was appealed and retried.
- 18 months later, the total interest owed to the tenant is $4.61.
- The landlord owes the tenant the security deposit plus interest, $1,304.61.
- The tenant owes the landlord $3,900 (three months' rent) and no doubt feels crushing guilt about overstaying her welcome by almost two years.
A lower court, Lawrence appeals, has already decided that a security deposit violation can undo an eviction. There are good and valid reasons why this is a misinterpretation of the applicable statute. MassLandlords signed onto an amicus briefing written by attorney Peter Vickery of Springfield to explain this point.
For now, we advise that all landlords should read and understand the security deposit statute.
If you aren't 100% sure that you are in compliance, seriously consider operating without a security deposit. You have always been liable for triple damages. If you were landlord Garth Meikle, you would now be embroiled in a two year eviction battle. Similar disastrous outcomes have been thrust upon other small landlords operating with good intentions. So it doesn't matter that you're a good landlord. Technicalities in this law might bury you.
It could be better to advertise "No security deposit required!" and charge 8% more rent each month. If you use this strategy, let us know.