by Julia Devanthéry
The link between domestic abuse and housing instability is undeniable; survivors often face housing loss as a direct result of abuse or find themselves homeless after fleeing violence. In an all-too-common scenario, a survivor lives with her abuser, but is not on the lease because the abuser intentionally withholds housing stability as a method of abuse. In those cases, survivors may have to choose between their safety and their housing if they decide to separate from their abusers. Now, however, under the Supreme Judicial Court’s (“SJC”) recent decision in Beacon Residential v. R.P., survivors of domestic violence—including those who aren’t on the lease and are alleged to be “unauthorized occupants” by the landlord—are allowed to intervene as of right in summary process cases under Mass. R. Civ. P. 24 (a)(2) if they claim an interest relating to the apartment subject to the eviction proceedings. Beacon Residential Management, LP v. R.P., SJC-12265, slip op. (Sept. 14, 2017). As a result, thousands of survivors across the Commonwealth, formerly excluded from summary process cases, will have a right to their day in Housing Court.
In Beacon, the proposed intervener testified that she was a survivor of domestic violence who lived with her abuser, who was her husband, and their children in a federally subsidized apartment that was leased in the husband’s name. Although she lived at the apartment, she testified that her abusive partner prevented her from being added formally to the lease. The landlord’s witness testified that the landlord’s policy was to give an “add-on” application to all who inquired and that if the survivor in this case applied, she would have been added so long as she qualified and the husband approved. However, the survivor was not given an application when she asked for one; rather, she was told only her husband could add her to the lease. He, she testified, refused to do so as a means of controlling her. When the mother obtained a G.L c. 209A restraining order against her husband (which required him to leave the shared home and awarded custody of the two children to her), the landlord immediately initiated eviction proceedings against the family based on the mother’s “unauthorized” status at the unit.
The abuser failed to attend the summary process trial and was defaulted. The mother attended the hearing and filed a motion under Mass. R. Civ. P. 24 to intervene both as of right and permissively along with a proposed answer and jury claim. She argued that she had a defense to the eviction under the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), which prohibits evictions of qualified applicants for public housing based on the applicant being a victim of domestic violence, and G.L. c. 239, §2A, which prohibits retaliation against survivors who obtain restraining orders. The landlord opposed her intervention. The Housing Court judge denied her motion to intervene based on a finding that she would not be able to prevail on her defenses at trial. The mother then filed a new motion to intervene on behalf of her children, which was also denied.
The SJC’s decision in favor of the mother makes clear that at the intervention stage, a trial court’s inquiry should be limited to whether the proposed intervener has stated a plausible claim to the property, and that the judge should not reach the merits of the underlying claim until the trial. Beacon, slip op. at 7-11. In this case, the Court held that the proposed intervener stated a plausible claim to the apartment under VAWA and G.L. c. 239, §2A, and therefore she should have been allowed to intervene on behalf of herself and the children. Id. at 11-17. While the Court stressed that intervention does not guarantee success on the merits, it unambiguously held that the standard should be broadly applied to allow intervention when a litigant claims an interest in the property at issue in the eviction case. Id. at 17. In the wake of this groundbreaking decision, a greater number of survivors will now have access to justice in the Housing Court, and an opportunity to fight to save their homes.
Julia Devanthéry is a Lecturer on Law at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. This article is an update of her recent article, Early Lease Termination Under G.L. c. 186, § 24: An Essential Escape Route for Tenants Who Are Facing Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, or Stalking, 61 Boston Bar Journal (Summer 2017). In the case discussed here, Ms. Devanthéry filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Judicial Court in support of the survivor.