Grounds for Filing a Civil Lawsuit

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Gary Allen

A civil lawsuit is any case that is not a criminal case. Most cases are civil lawsuits. If you want a judge to issue an order, you can file a civil suit asking for an injunction. You can file a lawsuit seeking money to compensate you for harm that you have suffered. If your case involves less than $7,000, you can file a small claims case. A small claims case is also a civil lawsuit.

If your case involves a lot of money or is complex, you will probably need the help of a lawyer to file a civil lawsuit. The purpose of this section is to explain the most common legal claims tenants have.

Bad Conditions and Breach of Warranty of Habitability

Under Massachusetts law, all landlords owe tenants what is called a “warranty of habitability.” This means that a landlord is obligated to keep your apartment in good condition from the time you first move in until you leave.

It is very important to understand that a landlord cannot get out of her obligation to provide a habitable apartment by claiming that the rent she charged you was discounted because of the bad conditions.

If your landlord does not keep your apartment in good condition, she has broken or "breached" her warranty of habitability. You then may have a claim that the value of your apartment has decreased and that it is not worth all of the rent that your landlord is charging you. You can make this claim in some eviction cases to reduce the amount of rent you owe or to win the right to stay in your apartment. You may also use it to sue the landlord for return of rent money. This warranty covers all tenancy agreements, whether in writing or not. Your landlord cannot ignore this requirement or require you to give up your right to live in a habitable apartment.

The landlord is in violation of the warranty of habitability from the moment she has actual knowledge of conditions that may endanger or impair your health, safety, or well-being.7 Under the law, the landlord is assumed to have actual knowledge of violations if they existed at the time you moved into your apartment. You do not need to tell her about them, although it's much better to do so, and always better to do so in writing.

If problems occur after you have moved in, the landlord has actual knowledge that they exist:

  • If she sees them,
  • When you tell her about them (either orally or in writing), or
  • When a Board of Health or Inspectional Services Department sends her a notice that problems exist.

Also, when one tenant gives notice of a defect that affects other tenants, the landlord has received notice upon which other tenants may rely.

Not every defect will be enough for a court to say that there has been a lessening of the value of your apartment. A court has broad power to decide what is a breach of the warranty and what is not. If you want to sue your landlord for breach of the warranty of habitability, you should get a report from the Board of Health documenting all code violations.

When the landlord violates the warranty of habitability, you have several options. You can ask a court to reduce your rent for the time period when you lived with bad conditions. Your right to reduced rent begins from the time that your landlord has actual knowledge of the bad condition in your apartment. If the court finds that the landlord has breached the warranty of habitability, a judge then calculates money damages that the landlord may owe you. The measure of damages for a tenant is the difference between the fair market value of the apartment in good condition (usually the amount of rent you originally agreed to pay) and the fair rental value, which is the value of the apartment with all of the problems. Even with numerous code violations, however, a judge may find that the fair rental value of your apartment with the defects is not significantly lower than your original rent.

If your landlord has seriously breached the warranty of habitability, you can choose to cancel your lease and move out or you can ask a court to cancel your lease and give a full or partial refund of rent money you have already paid. If you do this, the court will use several factors to decide if you will be allowed to break your lease:

  • The seriousness of the defective conditions and their effect on the habitability of the apartment.
  • How long you have had to live with the defects,
  • Whether the defects could be fixed within a reasonable amount of time and your apartment made livable again, and
  • Whether you are responsible for the defects.

If the court finds that the landlord has breached the warranty of habitability and allows you to end the lease, you may still be responsible for paying the fair rental value, if any, of the apartment during the time you lived there with bad conditions.


You don’t need to get a court to give you permission to move out because of bad conditions. But there is a chance, if you move out before your lease is over without a court’s permission, the landlord may sue you for the rent they lost until they could find another tenant. But, if you have a good reason for moving out, the court may not hold you responsible if the landlord does sue you.

You can also file a petition to enforce the state Sanitary Code, which is different from filing a civil lawsuit. With a petition, you would be asking the court to order the owner to make necessary repairs and reduce your rent (including rent already paid) until repairs are made. You can also ask for money damages. The cost to file this petition is set by law at $2 and is the quickest way to bring your request for repairs to a judge. For more information about other ways to deal with bad conditions and more information about this warranty, see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made. For a petition form, see Tenant Petition for Enforcement of the State Sanitary Code (Form 14).

Breach of Quiet Enjoyment

In Massachusetts, if a landlord interferes or fails to make repairs which result in your inability to
use and enjoy your apartment, this may be a breach of quiet enjoyment. You may sue her for money damages or court orders in the following situations:

  • If your landlord is required to furnish utilities or other services and she intentionally fails to provide them. Common situations include failure to provide hot water or heat, or failure to fix the furnace or boiler.
  • If your landlord is required to provide utilities or other services and she directly or indirectly interferes with the furnishing of them.
  • If your landlord transfers the responsibility for payment for the utility to you without your consent.
  • If your landlord attempts to lock you out or move you out of your apartment without first taking you to court.
  • If the landlord in any way intentionally interferes with your "quiet enjoyment" of your apartment.

It is very important to understand that the fact that you might owe rent does not prevent you from bringing this type of lawsuit.

The money damages the court awards you will be equal to either 3 months' rent or your actual loss, whichever is greater (minus any rent you may owe). Your actual loss might include the money you had to pay to eat in a restaurant while you were unable to get into your apartment, damage to your property from a leaky roof, or the difference in value between your apartment with a weathertight roof and your apartment with a leaky roof (in other words, your breach of warranty damages).

If you win your lawsuit, you are also entitled to the costs of filing the lawsuit and your lawyer's fees. A court may award you attorney's fees even if you are not paying the lawyer because she is a legal services lawyer. Some lawyers will take these kinds of cases even if you can’t pay them until the case is won or settled.

Some examples that violate your right to the quiet enjoyment of your apartment are:

  • Repeated flooding of your apartment because of a plumbing problem that is not adequately repaired.
  • The landlord's failure to provide adequate heat during the heating season even if she could not afford to buy heating oil.
  • The landlord’s failure or refusal to fix the furnace or boiler, even when the tenant is responsible for paying the fuel.
  • The landlord converts your private space into a common space, like a porch or basement that used to be accessible only to you.
  • Excessive noise from other tenants under the landlord's control.
  • Emotional distress caused by the landlord's miscalculation of rent and attempt to evict
    the tenant for non-payment.
  • A ringing fire alarm that continues for a 24- hour period.

If the landlord's actions have so interfered with your use of the apartment that you have to move
immediately, you may be able to do so without having to pay the rent you are obligated to pay. But the situation has to be extremely serious for you to be able to break your lease or rental agreement. If a court finds that the situation was not so serious that you had to leave, a court may order you to pay the rent after you move out.

For more about breaking your lease, see Chapter 11: Moving Out.


If your lease contains a clause that the owner will provide heat and hot water, but is not liable for damages if she fails to do so, this lease clause is illegal.


State law makes it illegal for the landlord or her agent to take action against you for doing the following things:

  • Notifying your landlord, in writing, of violations of the state Sanitary Code;
  • Reporting your landlord to health inspectors, local boards, or other officials for violations of law;
  • Withholding rent because of bad conditions;
  • Taking legal action against your landlord to enforce your rights; or
  • Organizing or joining a tenants organization.

If, within 6 months after you have engaged in any of the above activities, a landlord sends you a notice to quit, a notice of increase in rent, or a notice of any substantial change in the terms of your lease or tenancy, the law requires a judge to assume that the landlord's action was retaliatory. If challenged, the landlord must prove "by clear and convincing evidence" that her action would have occurred regardless of your involvement in these protected activities. If your landlord fails to prove this, you may be entitled to between 1-3 months rent or money damages for your actual loss, whichever is greater, plus the costs of your bringing the lawsuit and your attorney's fees.

Unfair or Deceptive Practices

The Massachusetts legislature has recognized that tenants are consumers of one of the most
significant consumer products—housing. Under the state Consumer Protection Act, called “Chapter 93A,” it is illegal for a landlord to threaten, attempt, or actually use any unfair or deceptive acts against you or anyone in your house.

For example, if your landlord intentionally shuts off your heat, this would be an unfair or deceptive act that violates the Consumer Protection Act. If your landlord acts in an unfair or deceptive way and this causes you to be "injured," can take her to court, and possibly get money damages or an injunction against her. An injury can include not only actual out of pocket loss, but other types of harm, such as emotional distress, and even loss of time at work. You may also be entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and the amount of your actual loss. If you can show that your landlord should have known her acts were unfair or deceptive, you can sometimes get double or triple the amount of your money damages.

Not all landlords, however, are covered by the Consumer Protection Act. If you live in a 2- or 3-family building and the landlord lives in the building with you, the Consumer Protection Act may not apply. If you live in a 2- or 3-family building and the landlord lives in the building and uses the rent money to pay the bills, then the Consumer Protection Act does not apply. 

Public housing tenants cannot recover damages under the Consumer Protection Act for a housing authority's breach of the warranty of habitability. If, however, you live in any other situation, you can use this law to enforce your rights.

a. What Is an Unfair or Deceptive Act

An unfair or deceptive act can be any action that violates existing laws or regulations that protect your health, safety, or welfare. This can include:

  • Violations of the local building codes, housing codes, and state Sanitary Code;
  • Violations of the Attorney General’s consumer protection regulations;
  • Retaliation;
  • Unfair debt collection practices;
  • Refusing to make repairs after the landlord has notice;
  • Violating your right to quiet enjoyment;
  • Breaching the warranty of habitability;
  • Not obeying the security deposit law;
  • Sending you documents that look like court papers, but are not;
  • Refusing to accept court papers from you;
  • Using illegal terms in your lease;
  • Omitting from your lease the name, address, or phone number of the landlord or manager for your building; or
  • Failure to give you a copy of your lease within 30 days after you signed it.

Many of the other claims listed in this chapter are also violations of the Consumer Protection Act. 

Finally, the law prohibits any other conduct by the landlord that you can convince a judge was unfair or deceptive. To make sure you claim all possible violations of the Consumer Protection Act (Chapter 93A), it is best to state at the end of your complaint: "All of my claims are also violations of Chapter 93A of the Massachusetts General Laws. This entitles me to double or triple all actual damages given to me."

b. You Must Send a Demand Letter

To recover damages under the Consumer Protection Act, the law requires that you first send your landlord a written demand letter at least 30 days before you file a law suit. The purpose of a demand letter is to tell your landlord how she has violated the law and what you want her to do. This letter must describe the landlord's deceptive act, how it is injuring you, what you want done, and a request for a reasonable settlement. See the sample demand letters (Forms 5, 6, 10, and 18) [internal files]. This letter is not required if your consumer protection claim is raised as a counterclaim in an eviction case. You should also refer to the information about demand letters on the Attorney General's website at:, then type in "demand letter" in the search box.

If the landlord does not respond to your letter in writing after 30 days, you can sue her. If the landlord does respond to your letter, but you do not think the offer is reasonable, you may still sue. But the court may not award damages greater than what the landlord already offered. If the landlord's refusal to settle was willful or in bad faith, you can collect as much as two or three times the amount you are demanding, plus reasonable attorney's fees and court costs. To bring a lawsuit under the Consumer Protection Act, you must sue the landlord within 4 years of when the landlord's unfair or deceptive act occurred.

If other tenants are also affected or injured by the landlord's unfair or deceptive acts, you can bring a class action lawsuit against her.

Security Deposits

If your landlord violates the security deposit law, you can sue her as described in Chapter 3: Security Deposits and Last Month's Rent. Any violation of the security deposit law by your landlord may also be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act.


As a general rule, a landlord must exercise reasonable care in the use and maintenance of her property so people are not injured. If a tenant or a tenant's guest is injured because of a landlord's negligence in keeping her property in good condition, that person may sue the landlord or the landlord's agent for money damages.


Personal injury or negligence cases are complex and may involve large money damages. This type of case may be best handled by a lawyer who specializes in "personal injury" law. In these types of cases, lawyers often take their fees from the final amount you win.

A person may sue for negligence for injuries caused by a dangerous condition that a landlord knew needed correction, but did not correct. The owner is liable to all lawful occupants and to all lawful visitors and, in some instances, to children who were not invited onto the property.

No matter what your lease says, your landlord is liable to you for injuries resulting from the following defective housing conditions:

  • Hidden Defects: A landlord is liable for injuries caused by hidden defects or bad conditions in your apartment that existed at the beginning of your tenancy.
  • Areas under the Landlord's Control: A landlord is liable for injuries caused by defects or problems she knew about in common areas, such as hallways, sidewalks, and stairways. Whether these defects existed at the beginning of your tenancy or occurred later, she is liable for any injury that happens to you. She is also liable for injuries caused in areas within her exclusive control if there were sanitary or building code violations.
  • Failure to Make Repairs:  There are three situations in which you can bring a lawsuit against your landlord if you are injured by a condition that she has failed to repair.
    • If your landlord has agreed in the lease to make repairs, she is liable to you for
      injuries caused by a hazardous condition that she knew about, but has failed to repair or has not repaired correctly.
    • Your landlord is liable to you for injuries caused by a defect that she, on her own initiative, has undertaken to repair, but has done in a grossly negligent manner.
    • A landlord is liable to you for an injury caused by any unsafe condition, not of your own making, of which she has been notified. This applies to all landlords except homeowners in 2- and 3-family
      owner-occupied homes.

A court may find your landlord negligent for any of the above injuries, even if you have violated a provision of your lease, such as you have sublet your apartment without consent or you have not paid all the rent. A landlord can reduce, but cannot avoid, her liability if your own negligence contributed to your injury.

Loss or Injury from Burglary or Other Criminal Acts

If you were the victim of a criminal act, such as a burglary, rape, or assault, in your building or apartment, and the landlord's negligence created an opportunity for the criminal to act, you may be able to sue the landlord for money damages. The landlord must have known, or should have known, that her act or failure to act created a situation that allowed someone else to commit a crime. In addition, the criminal act must be the type of act that must have been foreseeable. If you face the situation described above, you may also be able to claim damages for a breach of warranty of habitability.

Emotional Distress

There are a number of situations in which you may now recover money damages for emotional distress and any physical injuries caused by your landlord’s actions or failure to act. Emotional
distress is severe emotional or mental upset. Emotional distress is not found in every case. Your landlord may be liable for infliction of emotional distress in the following situations:

Emotional Harm That Results in Physical Harm

If a landlord causes you severe emotional distress that results in bodily harm (heart trouble, for example), you may recover for the physical and emotional injuries done to you, whether your landlord's actions were negligent, reckless, or intentional.

Emotional Harm by Itself

If a landlord causes you severe emotional distress that does not result in physical harm, you can recover for this purely emotional injury if your landlord's actions were reckless or intentional. The money damages may be doubled or tripled if you also claim that the action was an unfair or deceptive practice.

Physical or Emotional Harm to Another Person

In certain cases, the law in Massachusetts now makes your landlord liable to other people who are closely related to you and who themselves suffer by your distress. If a landlord causes you emotional and physical injuries, a third party whose physical health deteriorates due to her concern for you may recover for her own physical and emotional injuries, if your landlord's conduct was negligent, reckless, or intentional. A third party who suffers purely emotional injury can recover for this injury only if the owner's conduct was reckless or intentional. Where the landlord's conduct was simply negligent and the injury was purely emotional, damages cannot be recovered. If you have been hurt on the landlord’s property, you should contact a personal injury lawyer.

Invasion of Privacy

You are entitled to sue for an injunction and money damages in response to any "unreasonable, substantial, or serious interference" with your physical privacy. A landlord is not allowed to disturb your privacy in your apartment. Most likely, this right to privacy includes the right to have closed tenants' meetings. Certainly, the owner cannot secretly tape your private conversations, or "invade your space" in any similar way.

Paying for Utilities Without a Written Agreement

Under the state Sanitary Code, unless there is a written agreement that specifically states that you, the tenant, are required to pay for the heat, hot water, gas, or electricity, the landlord must pay for these utilities. Most tenants without leases will move into an apartment without signing any kind of rental agreement. At the same time, the landlord may tell them to put the utilities in their name. Under the state Sanitary Code, this is improper. If a landlord puts any utilities in your name without a written agreement, this is considered a breach of your right to quiet enjoyment.

If you have been paying for the utilities in your apartment without a written agreement, a court is limited to awarding you $25 for this violation. You also may still be able to get back everything you paid for the utilities, but courts have not been consistent about the amount of money that they award for this type of violation. In addition, you can ask the judge to have the utility bills put in your landlord's name. Even if you have not paid the bill yourself—for instance, if fuel assistance paid part of the bill—you may still get back the full amount of the bills you were sent. See Chapter 6: Utilities, for more information.

If you plan to file a claim against a landlord and you have already paid some of the bills yourself, or you have several bills that need to be paid, bring the bills and proof of what you have paid to court with you. If you do not have any utility bills or proof of what you have paid, go to the utility company. The company can give you a computer printout that states how much you have been billed and how much you have paid.


A landlord who knows about or participates in the creation of a condition that "materially interferes with the ordinary comfort of human existence" or that lowers the reasonable use or value of property may be found liable for injuries caused by that condition. This condition is known technically as a "nuisance." In Massachusetts, conditions involving noise, noxious odors, fumes, or vermin constitute a nuisance.

Lead paint

If you determine your apartment has lead paint, and children under 6 years old were living in the apartment, you may have a claim for the landlord’s failure to disclose or remove the lead paint. See Chapter 9: Lead Poisoning.

Failure to Give a Copy of the Lease

A landlord must give you a copy of the lease within 30 days of your signing it. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $300.


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