A Woodbine couple's failure to obtain a rental permit does not entitle their former tenants to a $15,000 refund of rent payments, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has ruled.
The decision ends an unusual landlord-tenant dispute, which began two years ago when Tammy and Michael Citaramanis sued for the return of 18 months of rental payments upon learning that their landlords had no rental permit for their Columbia town house.
Circuit Court Judge James B. Dudley found that the landlords, Eustace and Portia Hallowell, had violated the Consumer Protection Act, and awarded the Citaramanises their rent in full.
Daniel Scherr, the Hallowells' attorney, said the appeals court decision reflects thefact that the Citaramanises abused the intent of the Consumer Protection Act in their lawsuit.
"It was supposed to be a shield for people so they wouldn't be taken advantage of," Scherr said. "Instead, in this case, it was used as a sword and our clients had to bear the brunt.
"The Hallowells have gone through a lot of expense and aggravation and a lot of unnecessary emotional grief because of this suit," Scherr said.
"Justice prevailed," said Eustace Hallowell, although he now faces a bill of about $10,000 in legal fees.
He said he still rents the property that was the subject of the lawsuit, but it is now licensed with the county.
The appeals court decision will allow similar pending cases, filed after the Citaramanis' victory, to go forward, Scherr said.
Many landlords, like the Hallowells, who own just one or two rental properties, were unaware of the permit requirement. Following Dudley's ruling for the Citaramanises, landlords flooded the county permit office with applications for rental property permits.
In their lawsuit, the Citaramanises claimed that the Hallowells had engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by renting them an unlicensed property.
However, the appeals court ruling found that the Citaramanises failed to show "that they suffered actual damages solely because they paid rent for an unlicensed premises."
On the county books since 1964, the license law requires landlords to obtain a two-year permit for all rental dwellings. Once the permit application is filed, a county housing inspector visits the property to assure that basic housing standards are met.
The Hallowells have said they were not aware of the requirement and that the Citaramanises asked about the license only when they moved out.