A decision that Maryland’s highest appellate court handed down in late November 2016 clarifies the remedies available to residential tenants when confronted with serious health or safety deficiencies in their rental units. Maryland residential tenants that suffer under serious conditions or defects are protected by what is commonly known as the rent escrow statute, which obligates landlords to repair and eliminate fire hazards or conditions that constitute a serious and substantial threat to the life, health, or safety of occupants. The law not only provides a tenant with a cause of action to gain correction of the condition, but also provides an affirmative defense that may be asserted by the tenant. If the tenant can show that the landlord was aware of the defect but failed to correct the defect, the tenant may be entitled to an abatement or reduction of the rent, among other relief.
In its recent decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals reviewed a situation in which a landlord filed an ejectment action against a residential tenant for failure to pay rent, and sought possession of the rental unit. At trial, the tenant attempted to raise, as a defense, claims that there were serious defects in the rental property, including a leak that resulted in a threat to shut off water service to the property. The trial court refused to accept the tenant’s evidence of a serious conduction at the property, holding that such a defense may only be raised in a rent escrow action filed separate from the landlord’s action for ejectment. The trial court then entered a monetary judgment in favor of the landlord for unpaid rent, and awarded possession of the property to the landlord. The tenant appealed.
In ruling on the tenant’s appeal, the Court of Appeals held that a residential tenant is not required to bring a separate rent escrow action to raise health and safety deficiencies as a defense. Instead, residential tenants may raise such a defense in a suit brought by a landlord for unpaid rent and possession. This establishes a clear avenue for residential tenants to fight against loss of possession when serious safety conditions can be shown through evidence at trial. The court’s decision may be reviewed here.