Tenant Defenses to Evictions in Massachusetts

Facing an eviction in Massachusetts? Learn if you have legal grounds to fight it.

This article examines the most common grounds for eviction in Massachusetts, along with the defenses available to tenants.

Grounds for Eviction in Massachusetts

The General Laws of Massachusetts set forth all the rules and regulations landlords and tenants must follow when renting property, including when and how a landlord can evict a tenant. The most common reasons for evictions in Massachusetts are a tenant failing to pay rent or violating the lease or rental agreement. The procedures for evicting a tenant for failing to pay rent are slightly different from the procedures for evicting a tenant who has violated the lease.

Failure to Pay Rent

A landlord can evict a tenant for not paying rent, but the landlord must first give the tenant a 14-day notice, after rent is due but not paid. The notice must state that the tenant has 14 days to either pay rent or move out of the rental unit, or the lease will terminate. If the tenant does not pay the rent or move out within the 14-day time period, the landlord can file the eviction lawsuit with the court.

The landlord must file a summons and complaint with the court to start the eviction. The tenant will then receive a copy of the filed summons and complaint. The summons and complaint will have a date on it for when the tenant is required to file an answer with the court. This date is very important for the tenant, because if the tenant pays all the rent due and owing (plus interest and court costs) by the date required to file the answer, the landlord must not proceed with the eviction (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 186 § 11).

Lease Violations

A landlord must provide a tenant with a notice to quit before filing the eviction lawsuit (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 239 § 1). However, unlike evicting a tenant for not paying rent, the Massachusetts General Laws do not provide guidance on how long the notice to quit must be for a lease violation. The landlord and tenant must look to the lease, which will state the length of time required for a notice to quit because of a lease violation. Most leases will require the landlord to provide the tenant with at least a seven-day notice, according to chapter 13 of Legal Tactics, a book published by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Examples of lease violations include having a dog when no pets are allowing or having unauthorized people living in an apartment.

Eviction Process

After notice is given, a landlord must file a summons and complaint with the district court of the county in which the rental property is located. Filing the summons and complaint begins the eviction lawsuit, also called summary process. The tenant will receive a copy of the filed summons and complaint, along with dates stating when the tenant must file an answer and when a hearing will be held. If the tenant wishes to challenge the eviction, the tenant must file an answer and attend the hearing before the judge. At the hearing, the judge will listen to both the tenant and the landlord and make a final determination regarding the eviction.

For more information on the eviction process, see the Eviction Self-Help Center maintained by the Massachusetts Court System.

The tenant may find that challenging the eviction is not always the best option. The tenant might have to pay the landlord’s court and attorney’s fees if unsuccessful in court. The tenant could also receive a negative credit rating and could be turned down for future housing. The best option for the tenant might be to try to talk to the landlord and negotiate a deal outside the court system. Many communities have free or low-cost mediation services that handle landlord-tenant disputes; local resources are available through the website mediate.com and the American Arbitration Association. The mediation faqs on the Nolo site provide more information on the subject.

Eviction Defenses in Massachusetts

Below are some of the most common defenses a tenant may be able to use if faced with an eviction.

Landlord Evicts Tenant with a "Self-Help" Eviction

A landlord must receive a court order, called an execution, in order to evict a tenant. It is unlawful for a landlord to attempt to evict a tenant in any other way, such as changing the locks at the rental unit or shutting off the utilities. This is often referred to as a “self-help” eviction. If a landlord tries to evict a tenant using “self-help” means, the tenant can sue the landlord for damages and even for re-possession of the rental unit (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 186 § § 14 and 15F). For more information on the topic, see the Nolo article Illegal Eviction Procedures in Massachusetts.

Landlord Does Not Follow Proper Eviction Procedures

A tenant can challenge an eviction if the landlord did not carefully follow all the procedures set forth in either the Massachusetts General Laws or in the lease. For example, if trying to evict the tenant for not paying rent, the landlord must give the tenant at least a 14-day notice that states the lease will terminate if the tenant does not either pay rent or move out of the rental unit within 14 days. If the landlord files the eviction lawsuit without giving the tenant a 14-day notice, the tenant can use lack of proper notice as a defense against the eviction. The eviction would then stop and the landlord would be required to give the tenant a 14-day notice before filing a new eviction lawsuit.

It is important to remember that challenging an eviction on these grounds will not stop a justified eviction. It will merely delay the eviction. As soon as the landlord fixes the incorrect procedures, the eviction will proceed as normal.

Tenant Is Evicted for Failing to Pay Rent

A tenant facing eviction for failing to pay rent may have a defense available.

Tenant Paid Rent in Full

A tenant can stop an eviction for failure to pay rent by paying rent at any time before the tenant’s answer to the complaint is due. This means that the tenant can still stop the eviction even after the 14-day period has expired. An answer is due after the landlord files the complaint with the court to start the eviction lawsuit. The tenant has until the date the answer is due back to the court to pay rent in full to the landlord, along with any interest, late fees, and court costs that have accrued (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 186 § 11). The tenant should ask for a time-stamped receipt when paying rent. Then, if the landlord proceeds with the eviction anyway, the tenant can use the receipt as evidence that rent was paid during the appropriate time period.

Landlord Did Not Maintain the Rental Unit

In Massachusetts, a landlord is required to keep a rental unit fit and habitable. This means that the rental unit must comply with all sanitary and building codes within the state, and the rental unit must not negatively affect the health, safety, or well-being of the tenant.

If a rental unit requires maintenance because it is not up to code or has a defect affecting the health, safety, or well-being of the tenant, the tenant is required to give the landlord written notice of the necessary repair. The landlord has five days to arrange for the repair to be made and 14 days to actually complete the repairs. If the landlord does not complete the repairs within 14 days, the tenant can arrange for the repairs to be made and then deduct the amount of the repairs from the rent. The total amount of repairs, however, cannot exceed more than four months’ rent (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 111 § 127L).

If the landlord tries to evict the tenant for not paying rent, the tenant can use proof that the landlord did not make necessary repairs to the rental unit as a defense to the eviction (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 239 § 8A). For more information on this topic, see the Nolo article Massachusetts Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent or “Repair and Deduct.”

Landlord Evicts the Tenant Based on Discrimination

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a tenant based on race, religion, gender, national origin, familial status (including children under the age of 18 and pregnant women), and disability. In addition, Massachusetts has established the Massachusetts Antidiscrimination Law which also prohibits landlords from discriminating against a tenant based on creed, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, genetic information, ancestry, marital status, veteran or armed forces status, blindness, hearing loss, or any other disability. Massachusetts has also made it illegal for a landlord to refuse to rent a unit that does or may contain lead paint, even if the prospective tenant has children (see Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 111 § 199A). If a landlord tries to evict a tenant based on any of these characteristics, the tenant can use the discrimination as a defense to the eviction. See the Nolo article Housing Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law for more on laws prohibiting discrimination against tenants.

Additional Resources for Tenants in Massachusetts

Legal aid organizations, such as the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, can provide free legal assistance to those who qualify based on income. MassLegalHelp also has a vast online library with information on housing-related issues. Tenants who live in federally assisted housing should also check out the tenant resource page at HUD.gov.

Finding Your Local Courthouse

Eviction lawsuits are filed in the district court of the county in which the rental unit is located. The Massachusetts Court Systems maintains an online directory for you to look up your district court by county. In addition, the Massachusetts Court System also has very helpful information on evictions and related issues in its online self-help center and its online law library.

When to Hire an Experienced Lawyer

If you have more specific legal questions about your eviction case or the landlord has already retained a lawyer, you should probably also contact a lawyer. A lawyer can handle the whole case or give you advice on how to proceed. A lawyer can also let you know how likely you are to win your case. You may especially want to hire an attorney if you are confident of your case and your lease or rental agreement entitles you to attorney fees if you win in court.

For advice on finding a good lawyer, see the Nolo article How to Find an Excellent Lawyer.

Also check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory for Massachusetts lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law.

More Information on Evictions and Terminations

For more articles on the subject, see the Evictions and Terminations section of Nolo.com. If you want to learn about how tenant bankruptcy affects an eviction, see the Nolo article Bankrupt Tenants.

For more information on tenant rights, see Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).

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