More than just a house…The Housing Court is often the “court of last resort” for landlords and tenants wishing to resolve long-simmering disputes: months of unpaid rent; neglected or bungled repairs; discriminatory housing practices. By the time a case reaches the Housing Court, the parties are often deadlocked and can’t envision a way forward.
Problem solvers. Thursday is summary process (eviction) day, the busiest day at the Housing Court’s five main locations. To improve case processing and alleviate congestion in Lawrence, First Justice Timothy Sullivan created a check-in station, located at the entrance of the Clerk’s office. It’s there that Clerk-Magistrate Susan Trippi and her staff oversee the morning influx of people coming to the busy courthouse looking for justice.
The clerks greet each person, assess their file and quickly troubleshoot issues. “We help people get to the right courtroom on time, find forms and complete missing paperwork, assign interpreters, and arrange for mediation,” says Ms. Trippi. “The work we do during these morning check-ins helps ensure our judges have the most accurate and complete picture possible of each case.”
“This morning check-in system is a portable or ‘pop-up’ court service center of sorts,” says Judge Sullivan. “But one tailored for the Housing Court.”
Once the “call of the list” is complete, the clerk marks which cases are defaults or no-shows. Some parties elect to do mediation, and wait for their turn with a housing specialist. The crowd in the courtroom gets smaller, and then the court session begins.
The morning session. A woman seated at the counsel table stands up slowly, using a cane, and holds up several 4”x6” photos of her apartment. Judge Sullivan, seeing her struggle, asks her to sit while the clerk hands him the photos. The woman says she’s waited for months for the landlord to finish several major repairs. The property manager stands and disagrees. “You will have your turn to speak in a minute,” says Judge Sullivan. Navigating self represented litigants through courtroom procedures with civility and efficiency can be a challenge, especially when tensions run high.
"I’ve lived here for eight years. My husband and I are both disabled. We can’t afford to move or live anywhere else,” the tenant explains. “We just want these problems fixed. I had surgery yesterday – I’m not even supposed to be here today, but I didn’t want to miss my court date.”
“It appears that property management has tried to come to your apartment a few times over the past couple of weeks but you didn’t let them in to make the repairs,” Judge Sullivan says as he looks through the case file. The property manager nods.
“I haven’t been feeling too well, and they want to come very early in the morning, or when I’m not expecting them,” the tenant says.
Judge Sullivan quickly arranges for a date and time the following week that works for both parties. “I will be there to inspect the property myself to make sure the repairs are done per court order – next Thursday at 11 o’clock if that works?” Both parties agree; the property manager opens the gate and helps the tenant with her bag as they leave the courtroom.
The Housing Specialist role. Assistant Chief Housing Specialist Martha Buckley opens the folder at the top of a large pile on her otherwise spotless desk and points to the address. She’s familiar with the neighborhood.
“The summons tells me quite a bit about a case,” Ms. Buckley says. “This is the first time I’ve seen the name of this management company. They must be fairly new.” She notes that the tenant owes three months’ rent, plus court costs. The parties file into her small office: the tenant and her son, along with the landlord and his attorney.
“I need an interpreter,” the tenant says as she sits down.
“That’s ok, I can translate for you,” replies Ms. Buckley. "If that's okay with both of you?" A Trial Court employee for 38 years and a native of Ecuador, Ms. Buckley is a skilled bilingual housing specialist. Housing specialists are trained mediators with extensive knowledge of Massachusetts housing laws and resources.
Ms. Buckley gives a brief overview of the mediation process in both English and Spanish, then turns to the landlord and asks him to start. He explains that the tenant has had issues paying her rent since she moved in two years ago, and now owes him nearly $2,400. He’s tried to work out a payment schedule with her, and is sympathetic about her financial troubles, but isn’t convinced the tenant will be able to pay her rent over the long run.
Ms. Buckley turns to the tenant, translates the landlord's explanation, and asks in Spanish and then in English: “Are you thinking of moving out?”
“No. I want to stay.”
“Then how are you thinking of paying your rent?”
The landlord’s attorney explains how the tenant owed four months of rent last year, which she was only able to pay with the help of a tax refund. The landlord says he’s willing to forgive her all of the money she now owes if she moves out in 30 days. “I’ve been putting up with this for two years,” he says.
The tenant argues that 30 days won’t give her enough time to find a place while her children get ready to return to school. With guidance from Ms. Buckley, the parties ultimately agree on a November 1st move out date. The landlord also agrees to waive the $2,400 amount owed in past rent in exchange for payment of one month’s rent, due no later than October 1st. Both parties sign and date the summary process agreement for judgment form, and another Housing Court case is resolved without involving judge or jury.
Learn more: the Housing Court in detail. Ten judges serve the Housing Court’s five divisions: Boston, Northeast, Southeast, Western and Worcester. The Housing Court also conducts satellite sessions so that it sits in 18 locations around the state weekly.
The legislature is considering an expansion of the Court's geographic jurisdiction (see the June 2015 Court Bulletin) to ensure access to nearly one-third of the state’s residents who are not presently covered by the Court's current jurisdiction.
You can read more about the Housing Court’s jurisdiction and services on its mass.gov/courts webpage.
Chief Justice Steven Pierce to Retire
Chief Justice Pierce announced his retirement in July. On September 8th, Chief Justice Carey named the Northeast Division's First Justice Timothy Sullivan as the Housing Court's new Chief Justice.
Leaving a legacy. “My 12 years at the Trial Court have gone by quickly – incredibly fast,” says Chief Justice Steven Pierce, who will retire on September 30th.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve in this role," says Chief Justice Pierce. "The people who work for the Housing Court are extremely knowledgeable and skilled at what they do, and they really care about the communities we serve. Together we’ve helped thousands of people resolve their housing issues, issues that are universally vital to the quality of daily life. We’ve also made important strides to support the Trial Court’s ongoing efforts to expand access to justice.”
In announcing Chief Justice Pierce's retirement, Chief Justice Paula Carey said, “The Trial Court has benefited greatly from the able leadership of Chief Justice Pierce. He was an early proponent of management reforms that increased accountability and transparency across the court system. His leadership of the Trial Court’s Fiscal Task Force was key to our efforts to avoid layoffs through the fiscal crisis. We will miss his thoughtful perspective and we extend best wishes as he begins a new chapter.”
A multi-faceted career. Set to retire at the end of September, Chief Justice Pierce has dedicated most of his working life to public service. He has served in all three branches of state government. “As a youngster, I was fascinated with government, so I am very fortunate as to how my career has unfolded,” he says.
Chief Justice Pierce began his career as an attorney, specializing in labor relations and pension law, and later in general practice. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1978, where he later served as House Minority Leader. After leaving the legislature in 1991, Chief Justice Pierce was appointed by Governor William Weld as Secretary of Communities and Development. He also served in the Weld administration as a senior advisor to the governor. From 1995 to 2001, Chief Justice Pierce was Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, later known as MassHousing, where he oversaw $4 billion in assets, a $250 million annual budget, and 400 employees. He later served as Chief Legal Counsel to Governor Jane Swift before being appointed to a Housing Court judgeship in 2003; he became Chief Justice in 2006.