ImageOn January 3, 2013, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill designed to give survivors of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault the legal ability to break a lease agreement or tenancy when a survivor’s living situation is no longer safe.  Under the new law, a tenant or co-tenant (a person who has entered into an oral or written lease or rental agreement with the owner) may terminate a rental agreement or tenancy and move out of the residence after delivering written notice to the owner that a member of the household is experiencing domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking.  Notification must either be given within 3 months of the most recent act of violence or a member of the tenant’s household must be reasonably in fear of imminent serious physical harm.

A landlord will have the right to request proof of the status as a victim including the name of the perpetrator.  Any information given to the owner as proof must be kept confidential by the landlord.  Under the law, a tenant who is not a perpetrator will be discharged from liability for rent or use and occupancy 1 full rental period (and not less than 30 days) after the quitting date. The quitting date is the date that a tenant surrenders his or her interest in the premises.  If the tenant has vacated the premises, the quitting date is considered to be the date notice is given to the owner of the intent not to return to the premises.  If the tenant is still living on the premises, the quitting date is considered to be the date the tenant intends to vacate the premises or the actual date the tenant vacates after providing notice.

For purposes of this law, domestic violence is characterized as the occurrence of 1 or more of the following acts between family or members of a household:

  1. Attempting to cause or causing physical harm;
  2. Placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm;
  3. Causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress.

Rape, sexual assault, and stalking retain their legal definitions under the Massachusetts general laws.

If a tenant is experiencing an abusive living situation and submits written notice to the landlord that they wish to terminate their tenancy, they must move out within 3 months of the written notification.  After the three month period expires, the notice to terminate the rental agreement or tenancy is void and they continue to be responsible for all rental payments.  If they still wish to move, they must submit a new notice to the landlord and make sure to move out within the next three months.

As stated above, an owner may request proof from the tenant of the alleged violence. Proof of status as a victim can be satisfied by production of any 1 of the following documents:

  1. A copy of a valid protection order (commonly called a restraining order) under chapter 209A or 258E;
  2. A record from a federal, state or local court or law enforcement of an action of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking and the name of the perpetrator, if known; OR
  3. A written verification from any other qualified third party (such as a police officer, lawyer, victim witness advocate, DCF employee, etc) to whom the tenant, co-tenant or member of the tenant or co-tenant’s household reported the violence; provided, however, that the verification shall include the name of the organization and include the date of the violent act(s), and the name of the perpetrator if known; and provided further, that any adult victim who has the capacity to do so shall provide a statement, under the penalty of perjury, that the incident described in such verification is true and correct.

A valid restraining order or protection order is not a requirement to avail yourself of the protections of this new law; however it would act as sufficient proof to an owner in the event an owner demands proof.

The passage and signing of this law is a concrete and public declaration that domestic and sexual violence will not be tolerated in our communities.  This law allows survivors to be let out of their leases without fearing that landlords will take them to court and sue them for the remainder of the money owed on their lease.  Massachusetts, and Boston specifically, is home to a large number of renters due to the prevalence of colleges and graduate schools.  This law especially gives security to these younger student renters, often living on lower incomes, and in multiple-tenant living situations, by enabling them to escape dangerous and potentially life threatening abuse without the added financial and legal burdens of being sued by a landlord.  The reality is that, in the past, survivors may have remained trapped, risking their lives on a daily basis with an abusive household member, and being told by a landlord that they were legally and financially obligation to remain locked in their tenancy.

As a practical matter, the new law effectively provides tenants with a defense to suits by landlords for unpaid rent and for breaches of lease agreements.  In other words, tenants who are sued by their landlords for unpaid rent or breaches of their lease agreement may have a defense if they can demonstrate to a court that they have carefully followed the proscriptions of the new law.  A properly drafted lease agreement should still permit the landlord to pursue the perpetrator tenant for all rent owed under the lease while releasing the abused tenant.  While the contours of the new law are unknown and will certainly cause some amount of confusion among tenants, landlords, and courts, it will give survivors a choice they did not previously have available to them.

Aside from relieving certain people from rental obligations, the bill also prevents landlords from refusing to rent to someone because of his or her victimization and authorizes lock changes at a tenant’s expense.

The attorneys at Vaughn-Martel law specialize in issues of tenant-landlord law, domestic and sexual violence, and safety planning.  Whether you are a tenant who believes that this new law may apply to you, or you are a landlord who is unsure of how to comply with its terms, we invite you to schedule a consultation with our office.


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