In order to save money or get tenants out quickly, some landlords try to intimidate tenants or force them out of their apartments without going to court first. Others try to take shortcuts and hope that tenants do not know their rights. This section will tell you some of the most common ways that landlords illegally try to evict tenants.
1. Lockouts and Utility Shut-offs
It is illegal for a landlord to take away your apartment through "self-help" tactics. Your landlord has used self-help tactics and violated the law if she does any of the following things without a court's permission:
- Moves your belongings out of your apartment;
- Changes your locks (which is called a "lockout");
- Shuts off your utilities (which is called a "utility shut-off"); or
- Interferes in any other way with your use of the apartment.
If your landlord attempts to take away your apartment in any of these ways, she may be violating both civil and criminal laws.5
a. What You Can Do
Write a Demand Letter
If your landlord threatens to lock you out or shut off any of your utilities, you may be able to prevent the landlord from taking this illegal action by sending her a demand letter. This letter informs her that she will be committing an illegal act and that you will take legal action to enforce your rights if she breaks the law. See the sample demand letter (Form 18). Save a copy of this letter so that if your landlord does not act properly, you have proof that the landlord knew she was violating the law.
Go to Court
If a landlord locks you out of your apartment or shuts off your utilities, you should immediately go to court to get what is called a temporary restraining order, or “TRO.” A TRO tells your landlord to stop doing something illegal and orders her to put you and your belongings back into your apartment and restore any utilities she may have shut off. A TRO is usually the quickest way to get your apartment back. You may also be entitled to money damages of at least 3 months' rent, plus any court costs and attorney's fees.6 For more about lawsuits for money damages see Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court - Breach of Quiet Enjoyment. See a sample Temporary Restraining Order (Form 15).
Call the Police and File a Criminal Complaint
If your landlord locks you out of your apartment or shuts off your utilities and you cannot resolve the problem by dealing directly with the landlord, you can call the police and report the incident. Lockouts and utility shut-offs are crimes. As a practical matter, a few words from a police officer may be enough to convince the landlord to stop the illegal activity. Sometimes, however, the police do not know the law or they are reluctant to get involved in disputes between landlords and tenants. A police officer may tell you that such disputes are "civil," not criminal, matters. This is not true. Lockouts and utility shut-offs are crimes and are punishable by a fine of $25 to $300 or imprisonment of up to 6 months.7 Unfortunately, filing a criminal complaint does not usually lead to a quick solution because it may take a court several weeks to schedule a criminal case for a hearing. For more about how to file a criminal complaint, see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made - Criminal Complaint.
2. Retaliatory Evictions
It is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you because you have engaged in certain activities protected by the law.8 You cannot be evicted for:
- Notifying your landlord in writing of violations of the state Sanitary Code;9
- Reporting your landlord to health inspectors or other officials for violations of law;
- Withholding rent because of bad conditions;10
- Taking legal action against your landlord to enforce your rights;
- Organizing or joining a tenants organization; or
- Taking action under laws that protect individuals from domestic abuse or harassment by:
- seeking a restraining order against an abuser, someone who has harassed you, or someone who has sexually assaulted you;
- asking your landlord to change your locks for safety reasons;
- reporting to a police officer or law enforcement an incident of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking; or
- reporting a violation of an abuse prevention or anti-harassment order.11
If a landlord tries to evict you or sends you an eviction notice, a rent increase notice, or a notice of any substantial changes in the terms of your lease or tenancy within 6 months of your having engaged in any of the activities listed above, a court must "presume" that the landlord is retaliating against you.12 If a court decides that the landlord was retaliating, you cannot be evicted.
If you have to fight an eviction in court, see Defenses That May Prevent Eviction for information about how to raise the issue of retaliation.
It is illegal for your landlord to evict you on the basis of your race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, genetic information, ancestry, marital status, disability, or status as a veteran. It is also illegal for a landlord to evict you because you get a rent subsidy or receive public assistance.13
Your landlord is also discriminating against you if she subjects you to unwanted sexual attention or harassment.14
If you feel that your landlord is evicting you based on any of these factors, read Chapter 7: Discrimination for more information about what constitutes illegal discrimination.
5 . Lockouts are prohibited by G.L. c. 186, §§14 and 15F and G.L. c. 184, §18. They are also prohibited by the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Regulations, 940 C.M.R. §3.17(5). Under G.L. c. 186, §§14 and 15F, a landlord may be liable for triple damages or 3 months' rent (whichever is greater) plus costs and attorney's fees for a lockout. Lockouts are also a criminal offense under G.L. c. 186, §14. However, if a co-tenant has sought a lock change from the landlord for safety reasons under G.L. c. 186, §27, or if someone in your home has obtained a restraining order under G.L. c 209A which vacates you from the home, you could be legally barred from returning even if you landlord hasn’t evicted you yet.
9 . Manzaro v. McCann, 401 Mass. 880 (1988). The owner's retaliatory actions are not the basis for a lawsuit or counterclaim unless the tenant's complaints are in writing. Therefore, oral complaints to the owner cannot be the basis for retaliation.
An Act Relative to Housing Rights For Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking:
- Allows Victims to Break a lease for safety reasons: G.L. c. 186, §24 allows a tenant or co-tenant to terminate a rental agreement and quit the premises upon written notification to the owner if a member of the household is a victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking. Notification must be made within 3 months of the most recent violence or the tenant can terminate the rental agreement if a member of a tenant's household is reasonably in fear of imminent serious physical harm.
- Bars discrimination against prospective tenants because they have sought the protection of this law: G.L. c. 186, §25 provides that an owner shall not refuse to enter into a rental agreement, nor shall a housing provider deny assistance, based upon an applicant having terminated a tenancy under G.L. c. 186, §24 or requested a lock change under G.L. c. 186, §26.
- Requires landlords to change the locks when required for safety reasons: G.L. c. 186, §26 provides that an owner shall, upon the request of a tenant, co-tenant, or household member, change the locks if the tenant, co-tenant, or household member reasonably believes that such individual is under an imminent threat of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking.
- Prohibits retaliation against tenants who seek protection against their abusers: The statute also explicitly amends G.L. c. 239, §2A to include, in “activity protected from reprisal,” taking action under G.L. c. 209A or G.L. c. 258E, seeking relief under the new act, reporting to a police officer or law enforcement an incident of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or stalking, or reporting a violation of an abuse prevention or anti-harassment order.
12 . To convince a court that a landlord is not retaliating against you, your landlord will have to show that she would have brought this eviction case against you at the same time and for the same reasons, whether or not you engaged in the protected activities. See G.L. c. 186, §18 and G.L. c. 239, §2A. But see Xiaobing Xin v. King, 87 Mass. App. Ct. 1126 (2015) (Rule 1:28 decision) (where the court found that there is no presumption built in to the counterclaim for retaliation under G.L. c. 186, §18 where the tenancy has been terminated for nonpayment of rent.).
14 . Gnerre v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, 402 Mass. 502 (1988)(tenants may establish discrimination in housing by demonstrating that a landlord subjected her to unsolicited sexual harassment which made the tenancy significantly less desirable to a reasonable person in the tenant’s position.)