During the closing moments of the 2012 legislative session, the Victims of Domestic Violence bill was enacted into law. This new statute affords victims of domestic violence certain protections in relation to their housing. While the statute, thanks in large part to the work of GBREB, is more limited than had been proposed, and those already provided by the Federal Violence Against Women’s Act, it still affords these victims reasonable protections. The purpose of this article is to review the requirements of this new law, and its effect on landlords in Massachusetts.
The statute contains three (3) primary protections for victims. The first provision allows victims of domestic violence to terminate their rental agreements and vacate the leased premises prior to the expiration of the lease term. In order to exercise this right, the household member who is such a victim must provide notice of their intention to terminate their lease within three (3) months of such an incident or be reasonably in fear of imminent serious physical harm. The victim must also vacate within three (3) months of providing such notice, or the notice to terminate the rental agreement shall be void. The owner does maintain the right to request proof that the person is the victim of domestic violence along with the name of the alleged perpetrator, if known. This proof may take the form of a copy of a restraining order issued by a court, a record from law enforcement of such an incident, or a written verification provided by certain qualified third parties as defined in the Statute (e.g. district attorney, victim-witness advocate, social worker, health care professional, etc.). The owner is required to maintain any such information confidential. Likewise, the victim still is responsible for the rent for the greater of thirty days or one full month from the date the tenant actually quits the premises. The quitting date is the date the tenant actually informs the landlord that they have left (in cases where the tenant has already vacated) or the date the tenant moves out after providing the required notice. Finally, this provision of the statute only releases the victim, and not the co-tenants, from the terms of the tenancy.
The second part of this statute allows a victim to have their locks changed in response to an incidence of domestic violence. Within two (2) business days of receiving such a request, the landlord is required to make a good faith attempt to either change the locks, or authorize the tenant to do so, and must provide the tenants with the keys. If the owner fails to do so, the tenant has the right to change the locks but is required to provide the owner with a key, so long as the lease so provides. The owner does have the right to request verification of the domestic violence, in the forms stated above, and to charge the tenant for the reasonable cost of the new locks. If the alleged perpetrator is a co-tenant or member of the household, the owner may refuse to provide the alleged perpetrator with a copy of the key if the victim provides the owner with a copy of a restraining order issued against such person or a copy of a record from law enforcement that the person poses an imminent threat against the other tenant. Once the locks are changed, the victim is prohibited from providing a key to the alleged perpetrator. An owner who fails to change the locks or allow same to be changed by the tenant, or who fails to provide the key to the tenant, may be subject to liability for three (3) month’s rent in addition to attorney fees. However, such damages may not be imposed if the Court finds that the landlord acted in good faith. Likewise, an owner who refuses to provide a key to a person that they believe to be the perpetrator of the domestic violence is not be liable for damages if the refusal was based on their good faith belief. Thus, if the owner excludes a tenant by changing the locks, which would normally be considered a self-help eviction, the owner may avoid liability by showing they had a good faith belief that the person was the perpetrator of the domestic violence.
The final protection afforded by this statute prohibits a landlord from refusing to rent to a person based on the person having terminated their rental agreement or requesting a lock change as provided above.
As a practical matter, it would appear that landlord should comply with this statute by erring on the side of caution when dealing with a potential victim of domestic violence. If a person alleges that they are such a victim and requests a lock change, the landlord should perform this service and charge the tenant for the cost thereof. If a co-tenant is alleged to be the perpetrator, the owner should request a copy of the restraining order or other verification and refuse to provide a key to such co-tenant. If an issue arises, the owner should inform the alleged perpetrator to seek an order from the District Court confirming that they are permitted to reside therein. However, pending such an order, the owner appears to have a legal basis to deny such access. Finally, in cases where a tenant asserts a right to terminate their lease based on domestic violence, the landlord should seek proper verification of this status from the required sources, but must allow this termination if the documentation and notice is provided.
The foregoing article is intended to provide an overview of this new law. It is strongly recommended that you seek the guidance of legal counsel in the event any issues of domestic violence arise. Feel free to contact Attorney Turk at 781-356-4200 or email to [email protected].