by Esme Caramello, Joel Feldman, and Geraldine Gruvis-Pizarro
Each week, more than 750 tenants across Massachusetts face eviction in the courts of the Commonwealth. While the vast majority of landlords bringing eviction cases have counsel—almost 80% in the state’s Housing Courts last year—fewer than 9% of people faced with losing their homes have a lawyer to represent them. See Housing Court Department, Fiscal Year 2019 Statistics (2019). This disparity in access to counsel would create an unjust power imbalance in any legal setting. In the context of eviction cases, with their tight timelines and complicated procedural rules, the advantage that represented landlords enjoy over their unrepresented tenants is even more troubling.
In the summer of 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court took up this systemic inequality in Adjartey v. Central Division of the Housing Court Department, 481 Mass. 830 (2019). In a striking opinion on behalf of a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Gants reached far beyond the individual claims of the parties to describe an onerous summary process system and the barriers that pro se litigants face in trying to navigate it. In its breadth and detail, the opinion illustrates how “the complexity and speed of summary process cases can present formidable challenges to individuals facing eviction, particularly where those individuals are not represented by an attorney.” Id. at 831.
The decision makes a compelling case. Summary process is procedurally complex to begin with, id. at 834, and this complexity is “exacerbated by the web of applicable statutes and rules.” Id. at 837. The Uniform Summary Process Rules are just one part of the procedural maze. Id. at 836-37. The Rules of Civil Procedure also apply, but only sometimes, as do an array of statutes and standing orders. As the Court observed, “[d]eciding when to apply which of these rules—and how to resolve inconsistencies among them—is [a] formidable challenge for an unrepresented litigant seeking to comply with fast-moving deadlines, especially when that litigant is also facing the stress of a potential eviction.” Id. at 837.
Further complicating the task of the pro se litigant, the Court noted, is the speed at which a summary process case proceeds. Id. Once a case is filed, it is scheduled to go to trial on the first court date, just ten days later. Upon receipt of the Summons and Complaint, a tenant must figure out that an “answer” is required, and file and “serve” it, within a week after the case is filed. If she does not properly assert a “jury demand” in that answer, she waives her Constitutional right to trial by a jury of her peers. The tenant also must understand what “discovery requests” are and make sure her landlord receives them within that same short week. Overall, the time from service of process to judgment and execution can be as little as 19 days. Two business days later, a constable can remove the tenant from her home. As the Adjartey Court observed, “[t]he swiftness of this process … leaves little room for error.” Id. at 837.
As noted above, beyond the inherent complexity and speed of summary process, the vast majority of tenants are attempting to figure out the process on their own. In the words of the Court, “summary process cases are complex, fast-moving, and generally litigated by landlords who are represented by attorneys and tenants who are not.” Id. at 834. Because “in most cases, … the landlord has an attorney who understands how to navigate the eviction process and the tenant does not,” the system is not just out of reach for tenants, but also out of balance. Id. at 838. This imbalance presented an injustice the Adjartey Court could not ignore.
In an “Appendix” following the Adjartey decision, the Court attempted to gather, in one place, all the procedural laws governing summary process cases. Doing so took 35 slip opinion pages. While the Adjartey Appendix might be a useful primer on summary process for a lawyer or experienced advocate, it looks different from the perspective of a low-income mother with limited English proficiency and severe anxiety facing eviction. For her, and for most unrepresented tenants, the Appendix primarily highlights what the rest of the Adjartey decision implies: the eviction system is too hard to understand and navigate without the assistance of a lawyer. And where landlords generally have this assistance and tenants do not, the Appendix is an indictment of a system that aspires but fails to offer equal justice to all.
In a study of summary process judgments listed on masscourts.org from 2007-2015 in three out of the then-five divisions of the Housing Court (Boston, Central and Western), the Access to Attorneys Committee of the Access to Justice Commission found that landlords won judgment a shocking 98% of the time. See Shannon Barnes et al., Final Report of the Access to Attorneys Committee of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, 9 (May 2017). With Adjartey, the Supreme Judicial Court has shown us why.
Court Reform as a Necessary Step
Reforming the summary process system is an urgent need. To that end, the Trial Court has recently created a committee that has begun to work on simplifying court forms. Developing plain-language, accessible forms that the typical pro se litigant can understand and use is a necessary first step. But forms alone will not level the playing field in a process that is too complicated and too fast to navigate without counsel.
There are many simple changes that would make summary process more accessible for pro se litigants. At a recent meeting convened by the Trial Court’s summary process reform committee, for example, most tenant lawyers and landlord lawyers agreed that the first court date in an eviction case should not be a trial. Instead, it can be an opportunity for the parties to explore settlement through mediation, and for unrepresented litigants to learn more about the process and seek help from a volunteer lawyer. It also can be a time for tenants to prepare the answers, jury demands, and discovery requests that they may be learning about for the first time when they arrive at court. We are hopeful that the court will soon implement this popular and sensible reform.
A range of other simple reforms are outlined in detail in a December 2017 report that Massachusetts submitted to the Public Welfare Foundation after a yearlong examination of “Justice for All” in the Commonwealth led by a team of judges and practitioners that included Chief Justice Ralph Gants. See The Massachusetts Justice for All Project, Massachusetts Justice for All Strategic Action Plan, 34-56 (Dec. 22, 2017). From rethinking cellphone bans that exclude unsuspecting tenants (and their evidence) from courthouses—a step the Trial Court has recently agreed to take—to promoting flexible scheduling that enables low-wage workers to avoid missing work, the Justice for All report is full of small and big ideas that would make the system fairer. The authors of this article sit on a committee of the Access to Justice Commission tasked with pursuing the report’s recommendations, but a much broader effort is needed for real change to happen.
If Landlords Have Lawyers, Tenants Need Lawyers, Too
In an ideal world, our housing dispute resolution system would be simple enough for people to use on their own, and the systemic power imbalances created by dramatic disparities in representation would be eliminated. But in a system designed for lawyers where only one side has one, access to substantive justice is not and cannot be equal. Tenants need lawyers to make the system work fairly.
Existing fee-shifting statutes should entice private attorneys to represent tenants in many eviction cases, and a few lawyers around the state have built financially successful practices representing tenants, but for reasons the Access to Justice Commission is still studying, fee-shifting statutes are underutilized. “Lawyer for a day” programs are meaningful and certainly help. But the problems Adjartey describes cannot be solved by last-minute limited assistance representation, even with experts doing the work. Too much has transpired by the time the lawyer-for-a-day steps in, when answers and jury trials and discovery have been waived by the unsuspecting tenant and the opportunity to investigate or gather admissible evidence has passed. As a 2012 Boston Bar Association study showed, only vigorous full representation enables tenants to fairly litigate their claims. See Boston Bar Association Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel, The Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homelessness Prevention (Mar. 2012) (summarizing research by Harvard Professor James Greiner and Harvard College Fellow Cassandra Pattanayak showing dramatic differences in outcomes for tenants receiving full representation by experienced litigators as opposed to advice through lawyer-for-a-day program).
New York City, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland have all recently implemented a right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases. Massachusetts is poised to follow suit with several bills under consideration on Beacon Hill. The active support of the bar for these bills is crucial to bring balance, and legitimacy, to our summary process system. Adjartey is our call to action.
Esme Caramello is a Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Faculty Director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. She is a Trustee of the Boston Bar Foundation and a member of its Grants Committee, as well as a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and co-chair of its Housing Working Group.
Joel Feldman is a shareholder in the law firm of Heisler, Feldman & McCormick, P.C.. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Access to Justice Commission,and co-chairs the Commission’s Housing Working Group.
Geraldine Gruvis-Pizarro has been representing tenants in eviction cases for the past four years and is currently a staff attorney at Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) in the housing and family law units. She is also the VLP Chairperson at the statewide Language Access Coaliton. Attorney Gruvis represents VLP at the BBA Real Estate Public Service Committee working alongside private attorneys, the court and the Boston Bar Association to maintain high quality services to the public at the Eastern Division of the Housing Court in Boston.