Over the past several years, Right to Housing Alliance Member Felicia A. Lockett has been fighting her landlord, Blue Ocean. As Liaison of the Bristol House Tenant Association, she has been advocating on behalf of herself and other renters against outrageous and allegedly erroneous gas utility charges. After disputes in early 2014, Blue Ocean decided to terminate her lease, and the only reason for the termination was retaliation. That’s right; retaliation for exercising her legal right to organize.
Felicia took action, and represented by the Public Justice Center, she countersued for retaliation.
The Circuit Court found in her favor on one retaliation claim, but denied the second one. In light of those disputed non-rent utility charges that Felicia refused to pay, the court found she was not current on rent at the time of the alleged retaliation.
But Felicia, knowing she was right, appealed the case to the Court of Appeals of Maryland, AND WON!
The Court of Appeals determined that “rent” has a narrow meaning that does not include varying “additional rent” charges and will now remand Felicia’s case back to the Circuit Court, which will then decide the second retaliation claim and damages. (As well as attorney’s fees.)
If you like long documents full of legal jargon, please see the attached Court of Appeals decision, if not so much, enjoy this blurb we pulled out (Felicia Lockett v. Blue Ocean Bristol, LLC., Opinion by McDonald, J., Filed February 22, 2016)
//The anti-retaliation statute, which applies only to residential tenancies, does not include a definition of “rent.” The ordinary meaning of “rent,” the statutory context, and the remedial purpose of the statute all lead to the conclusion that the term “rent” in RP §8-28 208.1 denotes the periodic charge for use or occupancy of the premises, but not the various other payments that the tenant may owe to the landlord from time to time, even if the lease characterizes them as “deemed rent” or “additional rent.”
Accordingly, the gas charges, late fees, and court filing fee that Ms. Lockett allegedly owed to Blue Ocean on the date (August 15, 2014) that Blue Ocean filed its tenant holding over action are not relevant to the question whether she was “current on the rent.” There is no dispute that Ms. Lockett was current in paying the fixed monthly amount designated in the lease as of that date. Thus, Ms. Lockett was not ineligible for relief as to the second alleged act of retaliation on the ground that she failed to satisfy the statutory condition of being “current on the rent.”//
So what does this mean? This ruling essentially sets a legal precedent (in the Real Property Code, specifically on retaliation issues) for “rent” being defined more narrowly as “the periodic charge for use or occupancy of the premises, but NOT the various other payments….” etc., you get the point. One of the ways that landlords take advantage of the previous ambiguity of the term is to collect non-rent charges through rent court and use them for evictions.
Felicia says of her victory,
//In this day and age is saddens me that we still need to challenge our own faith and strength to uncover injustices of landlords living well off of renters’ suffering. This victory in the Annapolis Appeals Court has shown that this one little case has tens of thousands of victors…all Maryland renters. This victory has indeed set a precedent showing why the Justice Diverted Report was necessary and we’re going to win rent court reform. The highest court has determined the definition of “Rent” as the campaign outlines, preventing the terminology of “deemed as rent” to no longer be a way to for landlord to legally steal from or harass renters, evict a renter on non-rent charges and tie-up the rent court system in the process.//
This is a MAJOR VICTORY for renters throughout Maryland, and though our Fairness and Integrity for Baltimore City Renters bill didn’t even make it to committee hearings, we didn’t stand down. Felicia didn’t stand down. And we’re fortified by her hard work and the resulting Court of Appeals decision to know that we’re on the right track to secure changes to Baltimore City’s rent court.//