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Judge rules tenants’ lawsuit against Westminster Management can move forward

July 18, 2018

The landlord tried to squash the tenants’ lawsuit, but the Court said “no.”

After five Maryland tenants filed a class action lawsuit against Westminster Management for allegedly charging excessive, illegal fees, the company sought to have the case dismissed. But the Circuit Court for Baltimore City rejected most of their arguments, and on July 18, allowed the case to move forward. The tenants are represented by the Public Justice Center, Brown, Goldstein & Levy and Santoni, Vocci & Ortega.

Judge Barry Williams’ decision is good news for the tenants as they seek to clean up Westminster’s alleged practice of fee churning. The complaint states that Westminster charges tenants a 5% late fee as well as an “agent fee” and “summons fee” before the court has even heard an eviction action. Westminster then applies rent payments to the fees and other non-rent charges, making it difficult for any tenant to catch up. And every time that happens, more fees are added. At times Westminster refuses to accept tenants’ payments if the illegal fees are not paid, and then threatens its tenants with additional eviction actions, court fees, agent fees, and late fees if those fees are not paid.

“I would pay my rent, and if I was late, I would pay a 5% late fee, but the fees kept adding up,” said plaintiff Tenae Smith, who resides at Dutch Village apartments with her partner and two children. “One time I paid the rent, and they sent back my check telling me that I needed to pay an additional $150 in fees or they wouldn’t take my rent. I work full-time and made regular payments, but they kept taking me to court for eviction and piling on the fees. I just want to keep my family safe and stable.”

Fee-churning schemes are a source of additional profit for landlords in Maryland’s increasingly expensive rental housing market. Recent data reveal that nearly 53% of Baltimore City tenants are renting homes that are unaffordable, i.e., paying more than 30% of their income in rent, because there are so few affordable options. In Baltimore City alone, landlords file over 155,000 lawsuits annually for non-payment of rent, resulting in roughly 7,000 evictions. Fee-churning schemes keep renting families constantly guessing at what they owe in any given month, constantly falling farther “behind” on the landlord’s ledger, and constantly facing eviction.

“With every additional fee and eviction attempt, landlords destabilize families and communities,” said Matt Hill, a Public Justice Center attorney who represents the tenants. “We’re glad to be moving forward with the case to get justice for the many tenants facing these predatory practices.”

For press coverage of the case, check out articles by ProPublica and the Daily Record.

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