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Landlords who fail to fix unsafe conditions don’t have a right to evict tenants

The PJC argues case before Court of Appeals

September 1, 2016:  When landlords try to evict tenants for failure to pay rent, tenants often think they have a solid defense if the home is unsafe and the landlord has failed to make repairs, because they do! It says so in plain English right in the rent escrow statute.  Yet trial courts often reject these defenses. On September 1, Public Justice Center Murnaghan Fellow Tassity Johnson argued a case before the Court of Appeals of Maryland asserting tenants’ clear legal right to raise these concerns in rent court.  

How did an eviction case make it all the way to the Court of Appeals? Since tenants frequently encounter barriers like this in rent courts throughout the state, Matt Hill of the Public Justice Center’s Human Right to Housing Project asked the high court to review the case, Cane v. EZ Rentals, filing a petition for writ of certiorari last November. The following May, Murnaghan Fellow Tassity Johnson filed the opening brief, addressing the questions on which cert was granted. The brief argues that the Rent Escrow Law establishes that tenants have the right to defend against eviction by raising the existence of conditions on the leased property that threaten their health and safety. It also asserts that landlords in Maryland have a statutory obligation to maintain their properties and that case law makes clear that tenants can apply the alleged past-due rent to the costs they incur from their landlords’ breach of the statutory obligation to repair the property.

While the landlord is not participating in this appeal, the Maryland Multi-Housing Association filed an opposition amicus brief claiming that the appeal is moot but did not dispute the legal arguments made by the PJC. The PJC’s Tassity Johnson filed a reply on August 25 and presented oral argument on September 1, countering MMHA’s charge of mootness, because of the significant collateral consequences of rent court judgments: having such a judgment on one’s credit and rent history report makes it less likely that a potential landlords and employers will rent to or employ them. Tassity argued that the petition presents important issues for trial judges, tenants, and landlords that have evaded the high Court’s review for decades. We hope that this case will resolve, once and for all, that the rent escrow statute means exactly what it says: that tenants do indeed have the right to raise threats to health and safety and costs resulting from their landlords’ breach of the duty to repair as defenses in eviction cases.

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