By Justice Diana H. Horan
I am honored to have been appointed Chief Justice of the Housing Court Department of the Massachusetts Trial Court on March 27, 2023. It has been my true privilege to work alongside the most dedicated and persevering professionals in my more than 20 years with the Department. I am grateful to Chief Justice Jeffrey A. Locke for my appointment and to the Boston Bar Association for this opportunity to expound on the diligent efforts and virtues of the people who make up the Housing Court.
Deputy Court Administrator Benjamin Adeyinka and I believe strongly that the court can be of best service when it looks like the communities it serves. To that end, the diversity of the Housing Court’s incredible staff is a particular point of pride. In the Housing Court, more than 42% of all staff identifies as diverse and more than 73% are female. Under my leadership, the Housing Court will continue its efforts to promote and encourage diversity on all levels—including in leadership roles—by attending career fairs, speaking to high school and college students, and educating the public on the work of, and employment opportunities within, the Housing Court.
Speaking of “particular points of pride,” a unique and often underappreciated aspect of the Housing Court team is its housing specialists. Housing specialists are court employees who are trained mediators with professional expertise in Massachusetts residential housing law, including in the State’s sanitary, building, and fire codes. They are neutrals who provide helpful information regarding local resources that are available from the court or other government agencies, housing authorities, and non-profit agencies in the community. Housing specialists may, at a judge’s request, also conduct inspections of residential properties to determine if a premises meets code or to investigate an issue that is in dispute between parties in a case. Over the last several years, the Housing Specialist Departments’ role as the Housing Court’s “triage center” in each division has been crucial, and their overwhelmingly positive impact on the resolution of almost all cases that enter the Housing Court has been amplified.
The Housing Court Department has undergone a tremendous amount of growth and change over the last five years. From its humble beginnings as the Boston Housing Court in 1971, it expanded steadily to Springfield, Worcester, and beyond. Thanks to a forward-thinking Legislature, the Housing Court finally expanded to encompass the entire Commonwealth in 2017, adding an additional 84 municipalities and two million people to its geographic jurisdiction. The court’s expansion also created a new Metro South Division and added five new judges. To handle the growing caseload of the Housing Court, however, the Housing Court needs additional judges, which I plan to ask for when appropriate.
Since March 2020, housing issues and eviction cases were significantly impacted by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a brief review, on April 20, 2020, Chapter 65 of the Acts of 2020 (Chapter 65) was enacted, pausing eviction actions in the Commonwealth for non-essential tenancies. After the expiration of Chapter 65 on October 17, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium took effect in Massachusetts until the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated the CDC’s order.
In the interim, Massachusetts enacted Chapter 257 of the Acts of 2020 (Chapter 257) in late 2020, which was extended and amended multiple times. Chapter 257, as amended, required in part that landlords provide a residential tenant with an additional form in cases for non-payment of rent and for nonpayment cases be continued in certain defined situations.
As a result of this legislative attention, the Trial Court had to react quickly. The Executive Office of the Trial Court temporarily suspended the Uniform Summary Process Rules on October 18, 2020, and later repealed and replaced that order on June 15, 2021. As of this writing, the June 15, 2021 order continues to be in effect.
On October 5, 2020, then Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan signed Housing Court Standing Order 6-20 (Standing Order 6-20) effective October 19, 2020. Standing Order 6-20 allowed each division of the Housing Court to conduct court operations virtually and created a two-tier process for handling summary process evictions. The first-tier court event was a Housing Specialist Status Conference where the parties were able to discuss the status of the case and possibly resolve the matter in mediation. The second tier was trial. Under Standing Order 6-20, landlords also were required to include an affidavit of compliance with Chapter 257, as amended, with all entries of a summary process case for nonpayment of rent. The Chapter 257 protections expired on March 31, 2023, but in August 2023, were in large part codified into G.L. c. 239, s. 15. See St. 2023, c. 28, s. 64.
As summarized above, the pandemic caused many changes and disruptions to court processes, and adapting to the evolving and uncertain landscape often felt like shifting sand under our feet. Throughout the pandemic, however, the Housing Court has made significant efforts to digitize the Court’s resources and increase access to justice for our court users. In an effort to provide simple answers to questions regarding changes to Housing Court procedures due to the pandemic, including updates to the Housing Court’s standing order(s), the court developed a Frequently Asked Questions page.
For up-to-date resources, court users should visit the Housing Court Resources webpage, which provides information on Housing Court digitization initiatives, access to Housing Court forms, and has division-specific civil informational sheets that list resources that may be available to assist the parties in resolving their case, such as Lawyer for the Day Programs, a Tenancy Preservation Program, and free interpreter services.
Moreover, the Trial Court, including the Housing Court, has developed a courtesy text message reminder service for pending court dates. Parties are encouraged to sign up for eReminder (formerly known as Interactive Text Response), which is a text message reminder of upcoming court events in a specific case. Parties to a pending case in the Housing Court may sign up for eReminder online.
Parties in the Housing Court are also able to file documents with the court online. Electronic filing can be done by anyone who has access to a computer and the internet. Paper filing with the Housing Court is still available, but since January 27th, 2020, all attorneys are required to eFile (Summary Process and Small Claims Case Types) only, pursuant to Housing Court Standing Order 1-20.
The Housing Court is very excited to announce its eSummons initiative. The Housing Court’s eSummons is an electronic (or digital) version of the Summary Process Summons and Complaint. Users may electronically purchase, download, and print an eSummons from the Housing Court, rather than traveling to the courthouse or waiting for the Housing Court to process and mail requests for a paper Summary Process Summons and Complaint. The eSummons initiative makes it easier, quicker, and more convenient to obtain a Summary Process Summons and Complaint from the Housing Court. At this time, eSummons is available only from the Housing Court, and it may be filed only in a Housing Court Summary Process case. Housing Court’s eSummons is available here.
In conclusion, I look forward to contributing to the work of the Housing Court in my new role. My current goals are two-fold. First, I want to build on the initiatives already in place through digitization and to support the hard-working judges, clerks, housing specialists and staff as they continue to serve our court. Second, throughout my tenure, my plan is to continue building on both the Housing Court’s and the Trial Court’s initiatives supporting diversity in the judiciary. It is with absolute pride and pleasure that I continue serving the people and communities of this Commonwealth, and I am pleased to be able to do so along my dedicated judicial and Housing Court colleagues.
Hon. Diana H. Horan is Chief Justice of the Housing Court as of March 27, 2023, after stepping down as First Justice in the Central Division, a position she held for almost 20 years. She was appointed to the bench in 1999 after having served as a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, an Assistant City Solicitor with the City of Worcester, and a First Assistant Clerk Magistrate in the Housing Court. A graduate of the University of Connecticut (1982) and Western New England University School of Law (1985), she has taught Business Law and Conflict Resolution/ Mediation at Clark University and Judicial Administration at Anna Maria College. She has sat on the Board of Trustee at Western New England University and the Board of Trustees of the Flaschner Judicial Institute. Judge Horan was a J2J mentor and participated on committees that wrote the self-represented guidelines and revised the Judicial Code of Conduct