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Court decision will help protect tenants from retaliation

February 22, 2016: Who would have thought that the definition of rent could be so important? But disagreement on what “rent” means landed Felicia A. Lockett’s case in the Maryland Court of Appeals. This February, the Court recognized a definition of rent that will help protect tenants from eviction and retaliation.

Ms. Lockett was a leader in her apartment building’s tenant association. After raising concerns about the building’s master meter utility billing system, she received a “non-renewal of lease” notice from her landlord. Then, a couple months later, the landlord filed a court case to evict her. The Public Justice Center represented her in housing court, arguing that the landlord, in refusing to renew her lease and in trying to evict her, had retaliated against Ms. Lockett twice for her advocacy on behalf of the tenant’s association. Ms. Lockett ultimately won her first retaliation claim on appeal, but was denied attorney’s fees without explanation from the court. She also lost her other claim because the landlord said she wasn’t current on the rent and therefore couldn’t say that the eviction was retaliatory. This is where the definition of rent becomes important. Ms. Lockett had paid the fixed, monthly amount she owed for occupying the apartment — what one would assume would be the “rent.” But the landlord wanted to lump into her “rent” other disputed charges—including disputed charges from the building’s master meter utility system, a system that, ironically, was the subject of much of Ms. Lockett’s activism for the tenant’s association.

The Public Justice Center’s Zafar Shah of the Human Right to Housing Project had represented Ms. Lockett in the lower courts. Murnaghan Fellows Anna Jagelewski and Tassity Johnson, represented her in the Court of Appeals of Maryland. At oral argument, Tassity pressed the court to construe “rent” within the state’s landlord/tenant anti-retaliation statute to mean only the fixed, periodic sum a tenant pays for occupancy, to ensure that landlords cannot retaliate against tenants and then block them from the law’s protections by claiming that tenants owe disputed and illegal non-rent charges. She also urged the court to encourage private attorneys to represent tenants who have been retaliated against by requiring that lower courts grant fee awards to tenants who prevail, unless the court can provide a compelling reason for not doing so in a particular case.

In February, the Court of Appeals issued a unanimous ruling, agreeing with us that rent under the retaliation statute is “the periodic sum owed by a residential tenant to a landlord for use or occupancy of the premises.” The Court also held that tenants should be allowed to request attorney’s fees when they win on an anti-retaliation claim, and that courts must explain their reasoning for granting or denying that request. Armed with a solid definition of rent, Ms. Lockett can now go back to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to hold her landlord fully accountable for retaliating against her. Beyond Ms. Lockett’s case, the Court of Appeals’ decision will help protect tenants throughout Maryland from retaliation when their landlords try to collect other charges as rent.