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SJC Clarifies when a Landlord Owes A Tenant Trebles Damages in a Security Deposit Case

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When a tenant vacates an apartment, the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law permits a landlord to deduct the price of repairs from the security deposit, as long as the landlord gives the tenant a statement of itemized damages along with repair quotes within 30 days of the tenant vacating the apartment.

Many landlords have a hard time complying with this requirement for one reason or another. Often, landlords have not been able to get quotes for repairs before the 30-day period has elapsed.

The failure of the landlord to provide the itemized list of repairs within 30 days often leads tenants to believe that their landlord now owes them three times the deposit as per the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law. However, the Supreme Judicial Court disagrees.

In Phillips v. Equity Residential Management LLC, the landlord deducted $968.08 in carpet and other cleaning fees from a tenant’s security deposit. While the landlord did give a list of repairs to the tenant, it wasn’t sworn to under pains and penalties of perjury, within 30 days of termination of occupancy. The statement listed charges totaling $968.08 and stated that Phillips owed a balance of $ 218.02. The tenant filed a class action lawsuit seeking the return of their deposit, triple damages, and attorneys’ fees under the statute.

A guarantor of the lease, Phillips’s father, notified Equity that it was in violation of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law.

On August 6, 2013, Phillips filed a class action complaint in the Superior Court, alleging that Equity had violated the law by

(1) The statement and attached document were not correctly signed and guaranteed to under the pains and penalties of perjury,

(2) Fund failed to offer adequate documentation to support the fees which were deducted from the deposition,

(3) Equity impermissibly deducted cleaning charges from the deposit, and

(4) Equity failed to return the deposit within 30 days after the conclusion of this tenancy.

The landlord removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, citing the Federal Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.

The Massachusetts Security Deposit Law requires that a landlord must provide the tenant with an itemized record, signed under the pains and penalties of perjury, in addition to written proof of the price of repairs. Violations of this second obligation, like violations of the first, also lead to forfeiture of the entire security deposit. There are a few violations of this statue, including the taking of deductions that are prohibited by the law that lead to a tenant being entitled to treble damages, interest, court costs, and attorney’s fees.

In this case, the landlord delivered an itemized list of damages to the tenant within 30 days, but the list was not signed under pains and penalties of perjury, wasn’t sufficiently comprehensive and was unsupported by written proof of the expenses of repairs.  All these failings lead to the forfeiture of its right to keep any part of Phillips’s safety deposit.

SJC held that the Legislature when drafting the Security Deposit Law, did not intend for the treble damages provision to apply to a landlord’s violation of the requirements for an itemized list. Further, it stated that the treble damages provision would only apply to deductions that were not the following:

(i) any unpaid rent or water charges which have not been validly withheld or deducted pursuant to any general or special law,

(ii) any unpaid increase in real estate taxes which the tenant is obligated to pay pursuant to a tax escalation clause; and,

(iii) a reasonable amount necessary to repair any damage caused to the dwelling unit by the tenant

It’s important to note that a landlord that does not deposit a security deposit into an escrow account would be liable for treble damages if the landlord fails to return the deposit after the tenant makes a demand.

Also, note that the law requires landlords to provide a “statement of condition” at the beginning of the tenancy. Failure to do so will require the landlord to return the deposit upon demand.

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday

Author Arthur Hardy-Doubleday

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday practices law in Cambridge and Martha's Vineyard Massachusetts. He works in the areas of Real Estate, Personal Injury, and Consumer Protection Law. When not practicing law, Arthur enjoys sailing, hanging out with friends on the beach, and waking his dog "Ridiculous."

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