Rent disputes keep civil courts busy


February 06, 1994|By George B. Laurent

Probably more actions are filed against a tenant behind on rent than any other civil court action. Yet most tenants, and many landlords, know little about what happens when a tenant is taken to court.

The landlord cannot lock out a tenant or evict a tenant because rent is owed. He must take the tenant to court. The court process involving late rent is speedy and simple.

If the lease does not call for a grace period, and most leases have no grace period, then the landlord can file for late rent the day after the rent is due no matter the reason the rent is late.

The court will summon the tenant to trial in "a summary ejectment proceeding," normally within five court days after the complaint was filed -- court days are weekdays except legal holidays.

If the tenant is seeking to put rent in escrow and has the rent money to give to the court if rent escrow is granted, or to the landlord if rent escrow is denied, then the tenant does not face eviction.

If, however, the rent is due and the tenant either does not have the money or fails to show, then the court will decide in favor of the landlord. The tenant then has 48 hours to pay or leave. If neither happens, then the landlord can seek a "warrant of restitution," which allows the landlord to make arrangements with the constable or sheriff to recover possession of the premises and evict the tenant.

The landlord cannot evict the tenant until the constable or sheriff is present to allow him to do so. Since the landlord must make arrangements for the tenant's property to be put on the street, it is a practical and decent thing for the landlord to make sure that the tenant knows the exact time of the eviction and has the opportunity to remove his or her property.

At the time the landlord files for the warrant of restitution, a copy is sent to the tenant, warning that the tenant may be evicted any time after the date of application, but since the landlord cannot schedule the eviction until the sheriff or constable is available, it is not known at the time of mailing when the eviction will take place.

The tenant can call the constable or sheriff's office with the case number to ask when the eviction will take place. But if it is $H scheduled for a Friday and there is an opening because of cancellations, then it can take place on Thursday without any necessity for the constable or sheriff or landlord to inform the tenant of the change.

A tenant or landlord may appeal the court order within two days after it has been issued. If a tenant appeals, he will be required to post bond.

The judge may grant an extension for the surrender of the premises, up to 15 days after the trial if an earlier eviction would endanger the health or life of the tenant (Baltimore City law puts no limitation on the extension time). In extreme weather conditions, the court may postpone scheduled evictions on a day-by-day basis.

At any time before the eviction occurs, the tenant has the right to remain in the leased premises by giving cash, a certified check, or money order to the landlord or the landlord's agent to cover all past due rent and late fees, plus court awarded costs and fees.

But the tenant may be denied the right if three or more judgments for rent were entered against the tenant in the 12 months prior to the beginning of the pending eviction action (Baltimore City requires 4 or more judgments).

If a tenant knows he won't be able to pay the rent, he should make every attempt to remove at least the best of his property ahead of time and seek to store it with friends, neighbors, family, a church or other safe place.

George B. Laurent is executive director of BNI, or Baltimor Neighborhoods Inc., a private nonprofit group that works to resolve tenant-landlord problems and to eliminate housing discrimination.

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