Agreements for Judgment

what has changed?

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11—The Housing Authority (CHA) does not like to evict tenants. But if you violate your lease—by not paying the rent, for example—your manager will send you a notice asking you to come to her office. If there is a serious lease violation you may be asked to sign a document called Agreement for Judgment. Up until this month tenants signed agreements like this right in the manager’s office.

What does it mean when you sign an Agreement for Judgment? Basically you pledge to fix your lease violation—pay the back rent, and pay on time from now on, for example—and CHA pledges not to evict you as long as you keep your side of the agreement. The CHA lawyer takes the signed Agreement to court and a judge approves it.

But at the end of September CHA heard that a judge could no longer accept an Agreement for Judgment without seeing both landlord and tenant in court. It seemed that you had to be physically present in the courtroom to make the Agreement official.

This would be a big change. The Cambridge District Court isn’t in Cambridge anymore. It’s not easy to get there, especially if you are disabled in any way.

If you have a lawyer you don’t have to show up

But actually the rule doesn’t require you to be physically present. If your lawyer is present, that is enough—the judge will still accept an Agreement for Judgment if both parties are represented by lawyers. Of course, CHA is always represented by a lawyer. It would be pretty hard for the Housing Authority itself to be physically present in court!

If you don’t have a lawyer you definitely will need to show up in person and have a chat with the CHA’s attorney and the judge. You should be able to get one though—if you live in CHA housing or have a voucher you probably qualify for free legal service. Legal aid attorneys are always in court on Thursdays (when evictions cases are heard).

How and why did the rule change? According to Clerk-Magistrate Brian V. Sullivan the rule hasn’t actually changed. 

The courts had just been letting the rule slide. And apparently it didn’t matter to anyone. Tenant advocates have not raised problems with agreements brought in by CHA lawyers. Both tenants and managers have found it convenient to sign these agreements at informal conferences in management offices. 

Again—a typical Agreement for Judgment comes about when the Housing Authority (CHA) moves to evict. CHA seldom really wants to evict anyone, so first they arrange an “informal conference” of the tenant with the site manager.  The manager will urge the tenant to sign an Agreement to avoid an actual eviction. The tenant pledges to pay back rent in instalments or stop violating the lease in some other way. CHA pledges that there won’t be an eviction as long as the tenant's pledge is carried out. A judge then turns this Agreement into a court order. The eviction is granted but is “stayed” as long as the tenant complies with the terms of the Agreement; if the tenant doesn’t comply, the eviction can go forward. These Agreements usually run for a year—after which the tenancy is “back to normal.” 

All this confusion is the result of a legal challenge to possible abuse of Agreements for Judgment in Small Claims court. No one has said the process was abused in eviction cases. Nevertheless, the challenge affects any court that uses Agreements for Judgment. Court staff people are working on possible rules changes for the future.

CHA hopes to get clarification soon. For the time being though, managers and tenants won’t be signing Agreements for Judgment in CHA offices.

Oh and about Housing Court...

You may have heard that there is a new court in town—the Housing Court. The District Court has held “summary process” eviction sessions on Thursdays for many years. Housing Court is different. Boston has had one for more than 40 years.

But until this summer the county that includes Cambridge and Somerville did not have a special housing court. Now everyone in the state has one. “Our” Housing Court happens to be in the same Medford building as our District Court. Both courts can hear landlord-tenant cases but the rules and procedures are quite different.                                               

Now, if there is a housing case in District Court, either party can ask to move it to Housing Court. So far, CHA lawyers are still filing eviction cases in District Court as they always have. Legal aid lawyers are also generally OK with staying in District Court. So for most of us, so far, the new Housing Court hasn’t made any difference. We'll let you know if this changes.

—bill cunningham