Court of Appeals rules that tenants have the right to seek a reduction in the rent and withhold rent if the landlord fails to fix unsafe conditions and that the Court may not unilaterally issue a consent judgment when no agreement has been reached between the parties
March 27, 2020
Between her job, raising her kids, and working on her bachelor’s degree, Latashia Pettiford’s days were full. So she didn’t need the aggravation of having to remind her landlord repeatedly that the house was falling apart.
No one would listen. She had told the landlord, Next Generation Trust Service, about the leaking ceiling and the mold. She told them about the faulty electrical wiring. She told them that the heat didn’t work, leaving her family cold that winter. But the landlord wouldn’t do anything.
Through it all, the landlord’s inaction continued to take a toll on the Pettiford family. They spent a significant amount of money on maintaining heat in a house without a working furnace, replacing clothing lost to the mold, and generally trying to get things fixed themselves. The faulty electrical wiring sparked a fire, and the family had to replace most of their food and belongings. With stress piling up, the kids became depressed, and their schoolwork suffered. Ms. Pettiford found herself needing therapy and lost a lot of weight from the strain.
Fed up, Ms. Pettiford stopped paying rent. That got the landlord’s attention, but instead of fixing anything, the management company sued her in Baltimore’s eviction court. Ms. Pettiford met Public Justice Center attorney Charisse Lue at our office in the court building. Unfortunately, the District Court refused to listen to Ms. Pettiford and the PJC, ignoring her defense that the landlord had not addressed the unsafe conditions. The judge at the case’s second hearing also dismissed Ms. Pettiford’s arguments, and even threatened to order the family out of their home by midnight if they thought the conditions were so dire. The judge then issued a “consent” judgment for the unpaid rent without Ms. Pettiford’s consent, while still not requiring the landlord to make any repairs.
When a judge issues a consent judgment, it should be based on an agreement or a meeting of the minds that settles the issues. The result should be a judgment that both parties agree to and seek the court’s final review and issuance. None of that happened in Ms. Pettiford’s case. In fact, Ms. Pettiford made it clear that she did not consent to the landlord’s accusation that she owed the alleged amount.
Ms. Pettiford and the PJC appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals of Maryland. In oral argument, Charisse Lue called on the Court to confirm that tenants may withhold rent and obtain a reduction in the rent if the landlord fails to fix unsafe conditions and that tenants have the statutory right to assert defenses based on the landlord’s failure to maintain the property in habitable condition. Finally, she argued that the District Court cannot impose consent judgements upon tenants when the parties have not actually consented or proposed an agreement to the court to end the dispute.
This April, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Ms. Pettiford, holding that the District Court’s judgment was not by consent “at all.” Ms. Pettiford’s acknowledgement of unpaid rent was not an agreement between the parties that would trigger a consent judgment. This should have a significant impact on the District Court, where judges frequently issue consent judgments based on the tenant’s admission to not having paid certain amounts of rent, even when the landlord is not providing a safe place to live.
The Court of Appeals agreed that tenants may withhold rent if the landlord refuses to fix threats to health and safety and may seek a reduction in the rent. The ruling stated that the District Court erred when it “consistently declined to accept evidence or hear argument from the tenant” concerning serious defects in the house, such as lack of heat. The Court of Appeals also held that tenants have the right to raise defenses based on the landlord’s failure to maintain a habitable property, and that when the District Court threatened Ms. Pettiford with immediate eviction, it denied her that right.
Ms. Pettiford is thrilled with the victory. Averting the eviction provided her the stability to finish her bachelor’s degree in psychology and start a master’s program. Ms. Pettiford has moved into a new home, and secure in their new place, her kids are feeling better and doing well with their studies.
Ms. Pettiford’s victory is not only good news for her family, but also for the many Marylanders who rent their homes. In a legal system that frequently allows landlords to ignore the law while demanding rent and fees from tenants, her case is one step toward changing the balance of power. With this Court of Appeals ruling, judges and landlords will have a strong reminder that they must listen and take action when tenants raise concerns about housing conditions.