June 29, 2012: When a bank buys a house at a foreclosure sale in Maryland and wants to eject a resident of the house, what tactics can the bank use to force that person out? Can someone working for the bank simply lie in wait for the resident to leave the house — perhaps to go to work or to look for somewhere else to live — then slip in and change the locks without a warrant or the Sheriff, so that the resident comes home to find that he or she has suddenly been made homeless? And can the bank and its agents then take or destroy all the personal property in the house, including things like computers, furniture and clothes? Sadly, questions like these have become increasingly important in the present economic crisis, as many thousands of Marylanders lose their homes to foreclosure.
A Baltimore man faced a lockout like this when a bank changed the locks on his Baltimore home of twelve years. On June 29, the Public Justice Center filed an opening brief on his behalf in the Maryland Court of Appeals in the case of Nickens v. Mount Vernon Realty Group et al. The PJC’s brief asks the Court of Appeals to hold that the common law of Maryland forbids this type of tactic by foreclosure purchasers.
Surprise lockouts are unnecessary because there is a speedy judicial process in place for banks to take possession of foreclosed homes without taking the law into their own hands. Such lockouts are extraordinarily harsh, suddenly depriving residents of basic needs like shelter, clothing, and food. They also run the risk of sparking confrontations and violence. And they undermine an important Baltimore City law which was intended to make sure that people living in foreclosed homes are not evicted without clear and specific advance notice and the presence of the Sheriff. Moreover, confiscating or destroying all the personal property in a house after a surreptitious lockout is illegal because a person does not abandon all his possessions by simply keeping them in the house where he is living. If the Court were to hold otherwise, residents of foreclosed homes would be in constant danger of losing not just their shelter but all their worldly possessions. The PJC’s brief was written by 2011-12 Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellow Tom Davies and continues the PJC’s representation of the tenant in the appellate courts. Maryland Legal Aid also filed an amicus brief urging the Court to consider international human rights principles on housing security in deciding how to interpret Maryland’s common law.