By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – In a judgment that could affect hundreds of Baltimore residents, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday the District Court for Baltimore City is responsible for hearing tenant requests for rent compensation and escrow claims together.
The Court of Appeals found the Baltimore City Circuit Court erred in denying Ethel Williams’ request for a new trial and should have heard her claim for receiving $4,416 in back rent dating from the time she filed the claim.
In the original case between Williams and her landlord, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Williams went to the Baltimore City District Court when no repairs were made by HABC to correct life-threatening conditions that existed in her home, according to the brief.
“It makes me feel great because it can help other tenants. It is a victory because I didn’t think that anything was going to happen,” said Williams. “They just had to do what’s right.”
The District Court ruled in 1999 that Williams was allowed to pay the court rent of $100-per-month in an escrow account while the landlord repaired the problems in her home. But the court refused to consider her claim that she was due $4,416 for the rent she paid between the time the complaint was filed and when the repairs were made.
Williams then took her claim to the Circuit Court, but it failed to notify her of the scheduled hearing date and the case was dismissed. It was later found the notice was not received because Williams’ address was incorrectly typed into the court’s computer.
The high court opinion by Judge Alan M. Wilner said, “There is no legal, factual, or practical basis for the District Court judge’s conclusion that a claim for breach of warranty of habitability . . . or of quiet enjoyment . . . cannot be joined and tried with a rent escrow action.”
Williams, a resident of North Bethel Street for more than 18 years, first noticed damage occurring in her apartment 10 years ago. By 1998, the problems were so severe that she wrote a letter to HABC that said her apartment was infested with vermin and rodents. She also said a leaky bathtub had caused sinkholes in floors along with mildew and water damage.
Lawyers for both sides said the ruling will keep the courts from being selective in the types of cases that they hear from tenants.
“I think it’s fantastic. It has been an on-going issue for tenants,” said Deborah M. Thompson, attorney for the Baltimore Public Justice Center, which represented Williams.
There are hundreds of similar complaints filed by tenants throughout the city each year that usually end up in trial with a settlement, Thompson said.
The appeals court did not determine whether Williams will actually receive the back rent money.
“It addresses squarely the jurisdiction of the District Court and its ability to hear certain claims. It does not affect us. It means that additional claims will be brought in a District Court,” said Jyoti Kumta, general counsel for HABC. “It is not a decision on the merits of the underlying claim.”
Williams still has a strong case in the new hearing ordered by the appeals court, Thompson said, because the damaged conditions in her house have been documented in court, which is primarily needed to file a valid breach of the warranty of habitability.