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Landlords cannot evict tenants without fair warning, Court of Appeals rules

March 26, 2018: When landlords believe that tenants have violated their lease and want to evict them before the end of a lease term, Maryland law has rules they must follow. These rules exist to protect tenants, providing a notice period before the landlord can file a breach of lease complaint. But landlords frequently disregard the law, and some courts go along with it. The Public Justice Center took on this practice in Hunter v. Broadway Overlook, and on March 26, the Court of Appeals of Maryland upheld tenants’ rights, ruling that landlords seeking to evict tenants must comply with the notice period before filing a complaint.

After two lower courts allowed the landlord of a Public Justice Center client to short-circuit the notice period, PJC housing attorney Zafar Shah filed a petition for writ of certiorari, asking the Court of Appeals to take up the issue. The Court granted the request in November 2017, and the following month PJC Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow K’Shaani Smith filed a brief on behalf of the tenant. The brief argued that district and circuit court rulings often undermine tenant protections and provide an incentive for landlords to violate the law. Before filing a breach of lease complaint in District Court, the law requires the landlord to show three things: 1) that the tenant breached the lease, 2) that the landlord gave the tenant 30 or 14 days’ notice to vacate the premises (the time given depends on the nature of the alleged breach), and 3) that the tenant failed to comply with the notice. Despite clear language spelling out these requirements, lower courts have repeatedly determined that landlords do not need to meet the prerequisites before filing a complaint as long as they meet them sometime before trial.

The Court’s opinion adopted the majority of the PJC’s arguments, ruling that landlords must exhaust the notice period before filing a breach of lease complaint. Extending an important principle from its decision in Curtis v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n (another PJC case), it stated that “it is not appropriate to find a defective notice effective through the simple passage of time. The obligation to provide advance notice is a forward-looking requirement intended to allow the tenant to plan for the future.” The Court also found that the notice provided to the tenant was deficient because it did not include the important information required by the lease and that the subsequently filed complaint, which included the specific grounds for eviction, could not cure the defective notice. The Court’s ruling will help prevent landlords from persisting in issuing defective notices and filing premature complaints against tenants.