Where a Lawyer Makes All the Difference – And Only One Side Has One: Adjartey and the Urgent Need for Court Reform and a Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases

by Esme Caramello, Joel Feldman, and Geraldine Gruvis-Pizarro

The Profession

Each week, more than 750 tenants across Massachusetts face eviction in the courts of the Commonwealth. While the vast majority of landlords bringing eviction cases have counsel—almost 80% in the state’s Housing Courts last year—fewer than 9% of people faced with losing their homes have a lawyer to represent them. See Housing Court Department, Fiscal Year 2019 Statistics (2019). This disparity in access to counsel would create an unjust power imbalance in any legal setting. In the context of eviction cases, with their tight timelines and complicated procedural rules, the advantage that represented landlords enjoy over their unrepresented tenants is even more troubling.

In the summer of 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court took up this systemic inequality in Adjartey v. Central Division of the Housing Court Department, 481 Mass. 830 (2019). In a striking opinion on behalf of a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Gants reached far beyond the individual claims of the parties to describe an onerous summary process system and the barriers that pro se litigants face in trying to navigate it. In its breadth and detail, the opinion illustrates how “the complexity and speed of summary process cases can present formidable challenges to individuals facing eviction, particularly where those individuals are not represented by an attorney.” Id. at 831.

The decision makes a compelling case. Summary process is procedurally complex to begin with, id. at 834, and this complexity is “exacerbated by the web of applicable statutes and rules.” Id. at 837. The Uniform Summary Process Rules are just one part of the procedural maze. Id. at 836-37. The Rules of Civil Procedure also apply, but only sometimes, as do an array of statutes and standing orders. As the Court observed, “[d]eciding when to apply which of these rules—and how to resolve inconsistencies among them—is [a] formidable challenge for an unrepresented litigant seeking to comply with fast-moving deadlines, especially when that litigant is also facing the stress of a potential eviction.” Id. at 837.

Further complicating the task of the pro se litigant, the Court noted, is the speed at which a summary process case proceeds. Id. Once a case is filed, it is scheduled to go to trial on the first court date, just ten days later. Upon receipt of the Summons and Complaint, a tenant must figure out that an “answer” is required, and file and “serve” it, within a week after the case is filed. If she does not properly assert a “jury demand” in that answer, she waives her Constitutional right to trial by a jury of her peers. The tenant also must understand what “discovery requests” are and make sure her landlord receives them within that same short week. Overall, the time from service of process to judgment and execution can be as little as 19 days. Two business days later, a constable can remove the tenant from her home. As the Adjartey Court observed, “[t]he swiftness of this process … leaves little room for error.” Id. at 837.

As noted above, beyond the inherent complexity and speed of summary process, the vast majority of tenants are attempting to figure out the process on their own. In the words of the Court, “summary process cases are complex, fast-moving, and generally litigated by landlords who are represented by attorneys and tenants who are not.” Id. at 834. Because “in most cases, … the landlord has an attorney who understands how to navigate the eviction process and the tenant does not,” the system is not just out of reach for tenants, but also out of balance. Id. at 838. This imbalance presented an injustice the Adjartey Court could not ignore.

In an “Appendix” following the Adjartey decision, the Court attempted to gather, in one place, all the procedural laws governing summary process cases. Doing so took 35 slip opinion pages. While the Adjartey Appendix might be a useful primer on summary process for a lawyer or experienced advocate, it looks different from the perspective of a low-income mother with limited English proficiency and severe anxiety facing eviction. For her, and for most unrepresented tenants, the Appendix primarily highlights what the rest of the Adjartey decision implies: the eviction system is too hard to understand and navigate without the assistance of a lawyer. And where landlords generally have this assistance and tenants do not, the Appendix is an indictment of a system that aspires but fails to offer equal justice to all.

In a study of summary process judgments listed on masscourts.org from 2007-2015 in three out of the then-five divisions of the Housing Court (Boston, Central and Western), the Access to Attorneys Committee of the Access to Justice Commission found that landlords won judgment a shocking 98% of the time. See Shannon Barnes et al., Final Report of the Access to Attorneys Committee of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, 9 (May 2017). With Adjartey, the Supreme Judicial Court has shown us why.

Court Reform as a Necessary Step

Reforming the summary process system is an urgent need. To that end, the Trial Court has recently created a committee that has begun to work on simplifying court forms. Developing plain-language, accessible forms that the typical pro se litigant can understand and use is a necessary first step.  But forms alone will not level the playing field in a process that is too complicated and too fast to navigate without counsel.

There are many simple changes that would make summary process more accessible for pro se litigants. At a recent meeting convened by the Trial Court’s summary process reform committee, for example, most tenant lawyers and landlord lawyers agreed that the first court date in an eviction case should not be a trial. Instead, it can be an opportunity for the parties to explore settlement through mediation, and for unrepresented litigants to learn more about the process and seek help from a volunteer lawyer. It also can be a time for tenants to prepare the answers, jury demands, and discovery requests that they may be learning about for the first time when they arrive at court. We are hopeful that the court will soon implement this popular and sensible reform.

A range of other simple reforms are outlined in detail in a December 2017 report that Massachusetts submitted to the Public Welfare Foundation after a yearlong examination of “Justice for All” in the Commonwealth led by a team of judges and practitioners that included Chief Justice Ralph Gants. See The Massachusetts Justice for All Project, Massachusetts Justice for All Strategic Action Plan, 34-56 (Dec. 22, 2017). From rethinking cellphone bans that exclude unsuspecting tenants (and their evidence) from courthouses—a step the Trial Court has recently agreed to take—to promoting flexible scheduling that enables low-wage workers to avoid missing work, the Justice for All report is full of small and big ideas that would make the system fairer. The authors of this article sit on a committee of the Access to Justice Commission tasked with pursuing the report’s recommendations, but a much broader effort is needed for real change to happen.

If Landlords Have Lawyers, Tenants Need Lawyers, Too

In an ideal world, our housing dispute resolution system would be simple enough for people to use on their own, and the systemic power imbalances created by dramatic disparities in representation would be eliminated. But in a system designed for lawyers where only one side has one, access to substantive justice is not and cannot be equal. Tenants need lawyers to make the system work fairly.

Existing fee-shifting statutes should entice private attorneys to represent tenants in many eviction cases, and a few lawyers around the state have built financially successful practices representing tenants, but for reasons the Access to Justice Commission is still studying, fee-shifting statutes are underutilized. “Lawyer for a day” programs are meaningful and certainly help. But the problems Adjartey describes cannot be solved by last-minute limited assistance representation, even with experts doing the work. Too much has transpired by the time the lawyer-for-a-day steps in, when answers and jury trials and discovery have been waived by the unsuspecting tenant and the opportunity to investigate or gather admissible evidence has passed. As a 2012 Boston Bar Association study showed, only vigorous full representation enables tenants to fairly litigate their claims. See Boston Bar Association Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel, The Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homelessness Prevention (Mar. 2012) (summarizing research by Harvard Professor James Greiner and Harvard College Fellow Cassandra Pattanayak showing dramatic differences in outcomes for tenants receiving full representation by experienced litigators as opposed to advice through lawyer-for-a-day program).

New York City, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland have all recently implemented a right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases. Massachusetts is poised to follow suit with several bills under consideration on Beacon Hill. The active support of the bar for these bills is crucial to bring balance, and legitimacy, to our summary process system. Adjartey is our call to action.

 

Esme Caramello is a Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Faculty Director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.  She is a Trustee of the Boston Bar Foundation and a member of its Grants Committee, as well as a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and co-chair of its Housing Working Group.

Joel Feldman is a shareholder in the law firm of Heisler, Feldman & McCormick, P.C..  He serves on the Executive Committee of the Access to Justice Commission,and co-chairs the Commission’s Housing Working Group.

Geraldine Gruvis-Pizarro has been representing tenants in eviction cases for the past four years and is currently a staff attorney at Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) in the housing and family law units. She is also the VLP Chairperson at the statewide Language Access Coaliton. Attorney Gruvis represents VLP at the BBA Real Estate Public Service Committee working alongside private attorneys, the court and the Boston Bar Association to maintain high quality services to the public at the Eastern Division of the Housing Court in Boston.


ZBA’s Broad Powers under Chapter 40B Do Not Include Alteration of Property Rights

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by Kevin O’Flaherty, Alana Rusin, and David Zucker

Case Focus

 

The Decision

On November 13, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) held in 135 Wells Avenue, LLC v. Housing Appeals Committee, 478 Mass 346 (2017) (“135 Wells”), that, although a local zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”) has broad powers to grant “permits or approvals” under G.L. c. 40B, it does not have the authority to modify municipal property rights, including restrictive covenants.

Background

Sections 20 to 23 of G.L. c. 40B (“Chapter 40B”), the Anti-Snob Zoning Act, were enacted in 1969 to “ensure that the local municipalities did not make use of their zoning powers to ‘exclude low and moderate income groups.’” 135 Wells, supra, at 351. Chapter 40B allows developers of projects that contain at least 25% “affordable housing” (defined as housing for those earning 80% or less of the area median income) to apply for all local approvals in a single “comprehensive permit,” and gives the ZBA the “authority to . . . override local requirements or regulations, and to issue ‘permits or approvals’” for all aspects of the development. Id. The override provision empowers ZBAs to approve projects that are higher, denser, or larger than otherwise allowable under existing regulations, and even to allow residential uses in non-residential zones. See, e.g., Eisai, Inc. et al. v. Housing Appeals Committee & Hanover R.S. LP, 89 Mass. App. Ct. 604 (2016). When a town is below certain Chapter 40B thresholds (e.g., less than 10% of the town’s housing stock is affordable), it is very challenging for a town to deny a comprehensive permit. See G.L. c. 40B, § 20; 760 C.M.R. § 56.03(1); DHCD Guidelines (rev. Dec. 2014). Finally, an applicant for a comprehensive permit aggrieved by a ZBA’s decision may appeal to the Housing Appeals Committee (“HAC”) in the Department of Housing and Community Development. G.L. c. 40B, § 22.

In May 2014, 135 Wells Avenue, LLC applied for a comprehensive permit to construct a 334-unit 40B development on land in Newton. The site was zoned for limited manufacturing use and also was subject to restrictive covenants granted to Newton that, among other things, prohibited residential use and required a portion of the site to remain open space. The developer concurrently filed with Newton’s legislative body (“Aldermen”) a petition to amend the restrictive covenants to allow residential use and to permit construction in the open space area. The petition was denied in November 2014. The ZBA also denied the developer’s comprehensive permit application on the grounds that Chapter 40B does not allow the ZBA to amend or waive restrictive covenants that constitute city-owned interests in land which can be amended or released only by the Aldermen.

In December 2014, the developer appealed the ZBA’s decision to the HAC; a year later, the HAC affirmed the ZBA’s decision, holding that the restriction and requested amendments are not within the sort of “conditions or regulations” or “permit or approvals” that are subject to Chapter 40B. The developer then sought judicial review by the Land Court. In August 2016, the Land Court determined that Chapter 40B does not allow either the ZBA or the HAC to require the city to amend the deed restriction to allow for residential use. The Land Court also held that the fact that the site was never used for limited manufacturing as envisioned when the property interests were granted did not change the validity of those interests. The developer sought direct appellate review. The SJC affirmed the Land Court’s rulings and reasoning in full.

Analysis

The key to understanding 135 Wells is to recognize that, although Chapter 40B grants a ZBA broad authority to grant “permits or approvals,” it does not include “authority . . . to order the city to relinquish its property interest.” 135 Wells, supra, at 348. Also key is the fact that the SJC had previously decided that the deed restrictions at issue are property interests of Newton, id. at 353 (citing to Sylvania Elec. Prods. Inc. v. Newton, 344 Mass. 428, 430 (1962)), and that “both affirmative and negative easements [such as restrictive covenants] are to be treated equally” as property interests. Id. at 357.

In reaching this conclusion, the SJC rejected the developer-appellant’s attempt to distinguish this case from Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Groton v. Housing Appeals Committee, 451 Mass. 35 (2008) (“Groton”), in which the SJC reversed a decision that “order[ed Groton] to grant an easement over town land pursuant to the board’s power to grant permits or approvals under Chapter 40B” on the basis that there is a “fundamental distinction between the disposition or creation of a property right and the allowance of a permit or approval.” 135 Wells at 356 (citing Groton, supra, at 40-41). In 135 Wells, the SJC extended Groton’s logic, holding that the fundamental distinction between a property right and a permit or approval applies equally to affirmative easements (at issue in Groton) as it does to restrictive covenants (at issue in 135 Wells). In doing so, the SJC rejected the developer’s attempt to characterize the restrictive covenants at issue as the “functional equivalent of a ‘permit [ ] or approval[ ]’” that the ZBA or HAC could override under Chapter 40B. Id. at 353. The SJC distinguished the Aldermen’s allowance of prior amendments to the same restrictive covenant as acts of a legislative body instead of a local permit authority, and explained that Chapter 40B does not authorize a ZBA to modify restrictive covenants because these are interests in land, not land use permits or approvals. Id.

The Takeaway

135 Wells addressed a heretofore unsettled question under Chapter 40B: if a project is on land subject to a deed restriction held by a municipality, may a local ZBA modify or eliminate the restrictive covenant?  In 135 Wells, the SJC held that Chapter 40B does not give a ZBA this power. Accordingly, developers seeking relief from deed restrictions running in favor of a municipality must seek their removal or modification from the local municipal legislative body.

Kevin P. O’Flaherty is a Director at Goulston & Storrs PC and a member of the firm’s litigation group. The focus of his practice is real estate litigation of all types. Over the course of his 25-year career he has represented private developers, individuals, institutions and public agencies in zoning and permitting matters, eminent domain cases, commercial landlord/tenant disputes, purchase and sale cases and a wide array of other real estate related matters. Alana Rusin and David Zucker are Associates at Goulston & Storrs PC where they practice real estate litigation.