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Lockett v. Blue Ocean Bristol, LLC

Court of Appeals of Maryland

February 22, 2016

FELICIA LOCKETT
v.
BLUE OCEAN BRISTOL, LLC

         Argued November 6, 2015.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Case No. 24-C-14-006572.

         ARGUED BY Tassity Johnson (Anna Jagelewski, Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Public Justice Center of Baltimore, MD) on brief FOR PETITIONER.

         ARGUED BY Diane C. Bristow (Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber, P.A. of Baltimore, MD) on brief FOR RESPONDENT.

         Barbera, C.J., Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Harrell, Glenn T., Jr. (Retired, Specially Assigned), Wilner, Alan M. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ. Opinion by McDonald, J.

          OPINION

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          [446 Md. 403] McDonald, J.

          State law protects a residential tenant from retaliation by a landlord for certain specified activities, including participation in a tenants association. Proof of an act of retaliation may be a defense to eviction and may entitle the tenant to an award of damages, attorneys' fees, and court costs. But, even if a tenant proves an act of retaliation, the tenant is eligible for relief only if the tenant is " current on the rent." This case concerns what is meant by " rent" -- a term left undefined in the statute -- and how a court should handle a request for an award of attorneys' fees.

         Petitioner Felicia Lockett is a tenant in an apartment building known as Bristol House in Baltimore City. She has participated in the tenants association at Bristol House and advocated vigorously on behalf of the tenants there. This apparently resulted in a contentious relationship with the landlord, Respondent Blue Ocean Bristol, LLC (" Blue Ocean" ).

         In 2014, Blue Ocean decided not to renew Ms. Lockett's lease and, when she did not vacate the apartment, Blue Ocean filed a tenant holding over action. Ms. Lockett defended on the basis that the non-renewal and tenant holding over action were in retaliation for her advocacy on behalf of the tenants association.

         The Circuit Court ultimately ruled in Ms. Lockett's favor on the question of retaliation. However, it awarded her damages [446 Md. 404] for only one of two alleged acts of retaliation on the ground that she failed to prove that she was " current on the rent" at the time of the second alleged act and therefore was not eligible for relief as to that act. Although she had fully paid the fixed monthly amount specified as the " rent" in one part of her lease, she had an

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ongoing dispute with Blue Ocean over her liability for other charges, such as utility charges and other fees that varied from month-to-month and that the lease " deemed rent." We hold that Ms. Lockett's other debts to Blue Ocean -- even if she in fact owed them -- do not factor into whether she was " current on the rent" for the purposes of the anti-retaliation statute.

         With respect to Ms. Lockett's request for attorneys' fees,[1] the trial court declined to allow Ms. Lockett to provide evidence on that issue following the trial and denied the award simply by noting that an award of attorneys' fees is " discretionary." While it is true that the decision whether to award fees and the amount of any such fees is entrusted to the discretion of the trial court, we hold that the court must follow the procedure set forth in Maryland Rule 2-703 and give some explanation of its reasons for how it chose to exercise its discretion.

         I

         Background

         A. Landlord - Tenant Litigation

          Maryland law provides a variety of remedies for the many possible disputes that may arise between a landlord and a tenant who are parties to a residential lease. Most such disputes are refereed by the District Court, but on occasion, as here, the case may be adjudicated in a circuit court. We [446 Md. 405] begin with a brief review of the particular remedies pursued by the landlord and the tenant in this case, as they appear in the Real Property Article of the Maryland Code. Similar or superseding remedies are sometimes provided by local laws, such as those of Baltimore City. See Parkington Apts., Inc. v. Cordish, 296 Md. 143, 460 A.2d 52 (1983). While there are a few differences between the provisions of the Real Property Article and the Baltimore City provisions, none of those differences matter to our resolution of this case. In their arguments, the parties have focused on the provisions of the Real Property Article -- and so shall we.

         1. Landlord Remedies

          Summary ejectment and tenant holding over actions are remedies available to landlords in the context of both commercial and residential leases.

         Summary ejectment

          When a tenant does not pay rent that is owed, a landlord may bring an action for summary ejectment under Maryland Code, Real Property Article (" RP" ), § 8-401. " Summary ejectment proceedings empower the court to enter a money judgment for the amount of rent determined to be owing and also to issue an order for the tenant to yield possession of the premises when the jurisdiction over the tenant has been obtained." Schuman, Kane, Felts & Everngam, Chartered v. Aluisi, 341 Md. 115, 122, 668 A.2d 929 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). If judgment is for the landlord, the tenant ordinarily must vacate the premises within four days. RP § 8-401(c)(3). However, the tenant may satisfy the complaint at the trial by " tender[ing] to the landlord the rent and late fees determined by the court to be due and unpaid, together with the costs of the suit[.]" RP § 8-401(c)(5). Even after a judgment is rendered in favor of the landlord, except under circumstances not relevant here, the tenant may redeem the premises " by tendering in

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cash, certified check or money order to the landlord or the landlord's agent all past due amounts . . . plus all court awarded [446 Md. 406] costs and fees, at any time before actual execution of the eviction order." RP § 8-401(e)(1).

         Tenant holding over action

          When a lease expires or is terminated, but the tenant does not vacate the leased premises, the landlord may bring an action for damages against the tenant under RP § 8-402 -- known as a " tenant holding over" action. If judgment is awarded in favor of the landlord, the tenant is " liable to the landlord for the actual damages caused by the holding over." RP § 8-402(a)(1). The damages are at least " the apportioned rent for the period of holdover at the rate under the lease." RP § 8-402(a)(2). If the landlord gave the tenant at least one-month advance notice of the landlord's desire for the tenant to vacate the premises upon expiration of the lease and the tenant refused to comply, [2] the landlord can ask the court to issue a warrant of restitution to restore possession to the landlord. RP § 8-402(b).

         If the landlord assents to the tenant remaining in the property, the statute creates a periodic tenancy. Unless otherwise provided in the lease and initialed by the tenant, " when a landlord consents to a holdover tenant remaining on the premises, the holdover tenant becomes a periodic week-to-week tenant if the tenant was a week-to-week tenant before the tenant's holding over, and a periodic month-to-month tenant in all other cases." RP § 8-402(c).

         2. Residential Tenant Remedies

          Among the statutory remedies available specifically to residential tenants are rent escrow and anti-retaliation claims.

         Rent escrow

          There is " an obligation upon landlords to repair and eliminate conditions and defects which constitute, or if not promptly [446 Md. 407] corrected will constitute, a fire hazard or a serious and substantial threat to the life, health or safety of occupants." RP § 8-211(e). If the tenant notifies the landlord of such conditions and defects, and " [i]f the landlord refuses to make the repairs or correct the conditions, or if after a reasonable time the landlord has failed to do so, the tenant may bring an action of rent escrow to pay rent into court because of the asserted defects or conditions." RP § 8-211(i). The tenant also " may refuse to pay rent and raise the existence of the asserted defects or conditions as an affirmative defense" to an action brought by the landlord to obtain the rent or recover possession of the premises. Id. Moneys in the rent escrow account may ultimately be disbursed to the landlord, the tenant, or third parties, depending on the facts of the particular case. RP § 8-211(n). A public local law or ordinance containing similar provisions for rent escrow supersedes the State statute. RP § 8-211(o).

         Claim under anti-retaliation statute

          The law prohibits a landlord from taking certain adverse actions against a tenant for reasons that the law deems improper. RP § 8-208.1(a). If a landlord does so, the tenant may make a claim for " retaliatory action," either as a defense in an action for possession brought by the landlord or as an affirmative claim. RP § 8-208.1(b).

         In particular, a landlord may not do the following for improper reasons:

(i) Bring or threaten to bring an action for possession against a tenant;

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(ii) Arbitrarily increase the rent or decrease the services to which a tenant has been entitled; or
(iii) Terminate a periodic tenancy.

RP § 8-208.1(a)(1). The statute specifies the following as improper reasons for a landlord to take one of those actions against a tenant:

(i) Because the tenant or the tenant's agent has provided written or actual notice of a good faith complaint about an alleged violation of the lease, violation of law, or condition [446 Md. 408] on the leased premises that is a substantial threat to the health or safety of occupants to:
1. The landlord; or
2. Any public agency against the landlord;
(ii) Because the tenant or the tenant's agent has:
1. Filed a lawsuit against the landlord; or
2. Testified or participated in a lawsuit involving the landlord; or
(iii) Because the tenant has participated in any tenants' organization.

RP § 8-208(a)(2).

          If the court finds that a landlord committed a retaliatory action, the court may award the tenant damages against the landlord in an amount not to exceed the equivalent of three months' rent, reasonable attorneys' fees, and court costs. RP § 8-208.1(c)(1).[3] However, a tenant may obtain such relief only if the tenant is " current on the rent due and owing to the landlord at the time of the alleged retaliatory action," unless the tenant is withholding rent for various legal reasons. RP § 8-208.1(d).

         B. Facts

         The pertinent facts are undisputed. Ms. Lockett has been a tenant in an apartment building in Baltimore City known as Bristol House since 2010. She originally entered into the lease with the entity that managed the property in 2010 -- an annual lease that renews automatically at the end of every July. In December 2012, Blue Ocean took over ownership and management of Bristol House ...


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