November 6, 2015.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Case No. 24-C-14-006572.
BY Tassity Johnson (Anna Jagelewski, Murnaghan Appellate
Advocacy Fellow Public Justice Center of Baltimore, MD)
on brief FOR PETITIONER.
BY Diane C. Bristow (Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin &
Gibber, P.A. of Baltimore, MD) on brief FOR RESPONDENT.
C.J., Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Harrell, Glenn T.,
Jr. (Retired, Specially Assigned), Wilner, Alan M. (Retired,
Specially Assigned), JJ. Opinion by McDonald, J.
Md. 403] McDonald, J.
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.
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" ).
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
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
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.
respect to Ms. Lockett's request for attorneys'
fees, 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.
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.
Summary ejectment and tenant holding over actions are
remedies available to landlords in the context of both
commercial and residential leases.
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
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
holding over action
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,  the landlord can ask the court to
issue a warrant of restitution to restore possession to the
landlord. RP § 8-402(b).
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).
Residential Tenant Remedies
the statutory remedies available specifically to residential
tenants are rent escrow and anti-retaliation claims.
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).
under anti-retaliation statute
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).
particular, a landlord may not do the following for improper
(i) Bring or threaten to bring an action for possession
against a tenant;
(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
(iii) Because the tenant has participated in any tenants'
RP § 8-208(a)(2).
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). 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 §
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 ...