The Misuse of MassCourts as a Free Tenant Screening Device

caramello_esmeduke_annetteby Esme Caramello and Annette Duke

Heads Up

“If I see that a prospective tenant has ever had a lawyer in any proceeding at http://www.masscourts.org as of this case forward I no longer take them as a tenant. This is a free country. They certainly have a right to hire a lawyer and I have a right to not take them as tenants because of that.” Massachusetts Landlords Blog, June 12, 2015.

The Trial Court’s Electronic Case Access system (MassCourts) was not intended to be a direct, online “free tool for tenant screening.” But that is how it is increasingly being promoted and used:

“After years of lobbying from rental housing groups, the Massachusetts Housing Court has finally announced a powerful new and free tool for tenant screening: public internet access to all Summary Process, Small Claims, Civil and Supplementary Process case types…. This new system will enable landlords to research whether a potential or current tenant has been a party to a previous eviction, small claims or related housing case.” The Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog, “ Massachusetts Housing Court and Tenant Eviction History Now Online,” April 24, 2013 (emphasis added).

While careful, conscientious tenant screening can help landlords avoid problems with new tenants, the automatic refusal to rent to anyone whose name appears in an online court database is a dangerous form of tenant blacklisting. Tenants are sometimes forced by absentee or unscrupulous landlords to access the courts to protect their families from unsafe conditions. For example, one tenant, 8½ months pregnant and shoveling the walkway in front of her unheated apartment, turned to the court to force an unresponsive bank that owned her building to pay its bills and maintain the property. Another faced a retaliatory eviction lawsuit after reporting a building-wide bedbug infestation affecting the health of her neighbors, families, and friends. Still another was brought into court after her landlord discovered she had a female partner. Blacklisting tenants like these merely because their names are online in MassCourts erects unfair barriers to finding an apartment for anyone who has ever been to court in a housing case – tens of thousands of people every year – and could place especially vulnerable people with limited housing options into a spiral towards homelessness.

While some landlords undoubtedly look beyond the mere fact of a tenant’s appearance in MassCourts to the actual “Disposition” or docket itself, even this increased level of scrutiny may not elicit an accurate picture of a tenant. MassCourts was not designed as a tenant-screening tool.  It is a case management database built to assist the court system in managing litigation, and it uses shorthand that suffices for that purpose. It does not tell the real story behind any landlord-tenant dispute. Most summary process dockets, for example, ultimately reflect a judgment for the landlord. This does not equate to a finding the tenant was at fault. The vast majority of tenants are unrepresented, and the few who are lucky enough to access legal assistance often do not agree to have a judgment enter against them, but instead secure dismissal of the case or a straight agreement (with no judgment of eviction) in which the parties make commitments to each other, such as payment of rent in exchange for repairs.

To make matters worse, there are inaccuracies in the MassCourts database. For example, a review of housing cases closed by the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau in 2013 showed that in nearly 10% of the cases, MassCourts incorrectly displayed a judgment of eviction against the tenant when there was none. In MassCourts, “no-fault” evictions are sometimes miscoded as “cause” cases. Cases that have been dismissed may appear as open, active cases or even judgments in favor of the landlord. Minor children may erroneously appear as parties in their parents’ eviction cases, potentially hurting their creditworthiness before they have a chance to enter the adult world. MassCourts remote access takes these errors and turns them into major barriers to housing, with no way for a tenant to even know that this information is being used by a landlord and no clear way to challenge its accuracy.

Other states have recognized the problems with court-enabled tenant screening and scaled back access. For example, in 2012, the Chief Administrative Judge of the New York State Office of Court Administration announced that the court would no longer include in the electronic data feed it sold to tenant screening companies the names of tenants involved in New York City Housing Court evictions. See Hon. Gerald Lebovits and Jennifer Addonizio, The Use of Tenant Screening Reports and Tenant Blacklisting, New York State Bar Association (2013). Applauding this action “to protect both New York’s tenants and the integrity of the court system,” one legislator explained: “When the fear of being ‘blacklisted’ causes many tenants to avoid the court and relinquish their legal rights, access to justice is fundamentally undermined.” Sen. Krueger Announces Courts to End Electronic Sale of Housing Court Data Used in “Tenant Blacklists (2012).

Massachusetts, through the Trial Court Public Access to Court Records Committee, can and should implement safeguards that protect tenants without impairing the public’s right to open courts. A very limited change to how party identification information is displayed online could counteract the misuse of MassCourts: tenant names should be replaced with numbers or initials in the online database. Parties and attorneys would still be able to access case information online with docket numbers. The official case record would still be public, would still include parties’ names, and could be accessed by going to court. This change would balance protecting tenants’ rights with keeping court records public.

With 40,925 eviction cases filed in Housing and District courts across the Commonwealth in FY 2014 alone, the easy, online use of MassCourts as a free tenant screening tool has become a serious access to justice issue. Without reform, tenants will increasingly fear that the consequences of coming to court will be that they won’t be able to find housing in the future, and they will not see courts as a place to seek justice.

Annette Duke is a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a statewide nonprofit poverty law and policy center. She specializes in public housing and landlord-tenant law and is currently working with the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and a broad coalition of organizations to expand housing courts statewide.

Esme Caramello is the Faculty Director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a century-old student-run legal services organization that represents low income clients in housing, family, wage and hour, and government benefits cases. She is also a Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School, where she teaches courses in housing law and policy and legal skills and ethics.

 


Expanding Lawyer for Day at Housing Court: One Piece of Homelessness Puzzle

By James D. Smeallie

President’s Page

In March of this year, the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) released a groundbreaking study assessing the practical impact of legal representation in eviction cases. The data indicated that without representation by counsel, many vulnerable tenants forfeit important rights, often lose possession of homes they could have retained, and sometimes forego substantial financial benefits. Conducted under the auspices of a Boston Bar Association (BBA) Task Force on Expanding Civil Right to Counsel, the study involved two different pilot projects, one in the Quincy District Court, and one in the Northeast Housing Court.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York found that “the unmet need for civil legal assistance in New York State is profoundly impacting vulnerable New Yorkers and costing taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence, and increasing poverty.”

This is not a new problem. In 1999, the BBA’s Real Estate Section partnered with the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association (VLP), Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, and the Boston Housing Court (BHC) to establish a Lawyer for the Day program. The goal was to prevent evictions resulting in homelessness. At the request of the BHC, the program has two different legal information tables, one for unrepresented tenants, and another for unrepresented landlords. The Herbert W. Vaughan Fund of the BBF helps support the operations of this program.

During the 13 year history of the Lawyer for the Day program at the BHC, 1,200 volunteers have donated their time to assist more than 14,732 individuals. In just the past year alone, 443 volunteers helped 991 tenants and 181 landlords.

About 95 per cent of tenants at the BHC are unrepresented. According to Chris Saccardi, a solo practitioner from Somerville and a frequent volunteer, tenants, the bulk of whom are low-income and frequently minorities, are usually opposed by a landlord represented by counsel. The issue before the court is typically whether the tenant can stay in his or her home. Were it not for the Lawyer for the Day program, the imbalance in power would be profound.

Chris reports that it is not uncommon to see families with young children, families with elderly parents sharing their home, as well as elderly people living alone — all of whom are facing eviction. But he also sees tenants who have slipped below middle class status because of job loss or illness.

For tenants living in subsidized housing or Boston Housing Authority developments, the stakes can be especially high. Take for example a grandmother raising grandchildren. Should one of those kids get in trouble, the entire family can face eviction. Should they be evicted “for cause,” the impact can be devastating — with the family being required to split up, move in with relatives, or live on the street. Collateral consequences may follow.

GBLS is well-known for having housing attorneys second to none. Yet the demand for their services by poor people overwhelms the supply.

The BHC, which hears anywhere between 200 and 225 evictions weekly, considers the Lawyer for the Day program a godsend. Thanks to Lawyer for the Day volunteers, some 80 per cent of the cases can be resolved successfully through mediation provided by BHC staff — without a judge having to get involved.

“The program has been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” says Robert Lewis, Chief Clerk Magistrate of the BMC.

A word about unrepresented landlords. . . they are frequently immigrants with limited English proficiency who depend on the rent to pay mortgages on owner occupied two or three family homes. Missed rental payments can put them at risk of foreclosure. Indeed, there are situations where landlord owners of small multi-family homes can be in a tighter financial situation than their tenants.

Often times this population of landlords need to be advised about what steps they must take to bring their property to the minimum state sanitary code, and assisted in determining the difference between a tenant complaint and what the law requires them to do.

This month, the Lawyer for the Day program will expand its services to low income landlords, starting with one Monday a month dedicated specifically to those cases. As Joanna Allison of the VLP points out, the mistakes that unrepresented landlords make on a procedural basis make it impossible for them to prevail in their cases — resulting in wasted filing fees for people who can least afford them and inefficiency for a busy court.

The Lawyer for the Day program is a model for legal services organizations to leverage the contributions of committed volunteers to preserve housing for a very vulnerable population and to conserve precious judicial resources. If we consider the fact that the cost of placing a family in a shelter is on average three times higher than the average government subsidy for families in Massachusetts, the program is also saving taxpayers money.

The program also illustrates the concept that lawyers can do well by doing good. Mary K.Y. Lee, a lawyer whose paid work involves both immigration and landlord/tenant matters, is another dedicated volunteer. She says that were it not for her volunteering for Lawyer for the Day at the BHA, she might not have gotten litigation experience so early in her career, and credits the program with helping her become “a better person and a better lawyer.”

We should all applaud all those involved for making the Lawyer for the Day program a continued success. That being said, we still confront the painful reality of overburdened courts and underrepresented litigants.

As the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York concluded, “private lawyers cannot fill the gap in services as the sheer numbers of needy and unrepresented litigants overwhelm the capacity of volunteer lawyers.” In response to that Task Force’s recommendations, the New York Legislature dramatically increased legal aid funding to provide for counsel in eviction and other cases involving basic human needs.

So while I say “keep up the good work” to all our volunteers, I look forward to the BBA expanding beyond its civil right to counsel study and pursuing new paths to assuring counsel to all those involved in cases involving basic human needs such as housing. Stay tuned.