Tenant Defenses to Evictions in Massachusetts

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

By , Attorney University of Idaho College of Law
Updated by Ann O’Connell, Attorney UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 6/05/2024

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 most of 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.

Before filing for eviction, the landlord must terminate the tenancy by giving the tenant a written notice (tenants who haven't paid rent might be given another chance to pay the rent before the tenancy terminates). The notice that landlords must give in Massachusetts varies depending on the reason the tenant is being evicted.

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. Mass Legal Help also offers detailed information on evictions.

The tenant might find that challenging the eviction is not always the best option. The tenant might have to pay the landlord's court and attorneys' 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. Massachusetts also offers a housing mediation program.

Eviction Defenses in Massachusetts

Below are some of the most common defenses a tenant might 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. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 186, §§ 14, 15F.)

Landlord Does Not Follow Proper Eviction Procedures

A tenant can challenge an eviction if the landlord didn't 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 doesn't either pay rent or move out of the rental unit within 14 days. The notice must also be accompanied by an additional form required by law. If the landlord files the eviction lawsuit without giving the accompanying form, the tenant can use the omission as a defense. The eviction would then stop and the landlord would be required to give the tenant a proper 14-day notice before filing a new eviction lawsuit. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 186, § 31.)

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 a Victim of Domestic Violence

Massachusetts law also allows special protections for tenants who have experienced domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking. Some of these protections might provide a tenant with a right to leave the rental early and a defense against eviction. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 186, § 24 (2024).) Mass Legal Help's website has more information.

Tenant Is Evicted for Failing to Pay Rent

A tenant facing eviction for failing to pay rent might 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. (Mass. Gen. Laws 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 isn't 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 5 days to arrange for the repair to be made and 14 days to actually complete the repairs. If the landlord doesn't 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 4 months' rent in any 12-month period. (Mass. Gen. Laws 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. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 239 § 8A.)

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 to a tenant with children in an effort to avoid Massachusetts' lead paint laws. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 111 §§ 189A, 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.

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. Mass Legal Help also has a vast online library with information on housing-related issues. Tenants who live in federally assisted housing should also check out HUD's tenant resource page.

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 might especially want to hire an attorney if you are confident of your case and your lease or rental agreement entitles you to attorneys' fees if you win in court.

More Information on Evictions and Terminations

For more articles on the subject, see the Evictions and Terminations section of Nolo.com.

For more information on tenant rights, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide (Nolo).

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