Articles/Publications

Landlord’s Security Deposit Violation Does Not Warrant Triple Damages

By on October 26, 2017

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently addressed the scope and interpretation of the Massachusetts Security Deposit Act, MGL c. 186, § 15B, in Phillips v. Equity Residential Management, LLCStrang Scott previously discussed the implications of landlords’ failure to comply with MGL c. 186 (“the Act”).  

The dispute centered around four different provisions of the Act.

  • First, Section 15B(4)(iii) requires landlords seeking to retain all or a portion of a security deposit to submit a written itemized list of damages to the rental unit, including precise detail of the nature of the damage and the necessary repairs and copies of estimates, bills, invoices, receipts, or other evidence to validate the amount deducted, sworn to by the landlord under the pains and penalties of perjury.  Failure to comply with the requirements of Section 15B(4)(iii) forfeits the landlord’s right to deduct any amount from the security deposit for damage or repairs.
  • Second, Section 15B(6)(b) states that a landlord loses its right to retain any portion of the deposit for any reason, if the landlord fails to furnish the itemized list of damages in compliance with the requirements of the Act. 
  • Third, Section 15B(6)(e) states that a landlord cannot retain any portion of the deposit for any reason if the landlord fails to return the deposit, or any balance after deductions, within 30 days after termination of the tenancy. 
  • Finally, Section 15B(7) provides triple damages, interest, court costs, and attorneys’ fees to successful tenants where their landlord violated Section 15B(6)(a), (d), or (e).

The Federal District Court of Massachusetts awarded the tenant damages in the amount of his security deposit under Sections 15B(4)(iii) and 15B(6)(b), but denied an award of triple damages. On appeal, the First Circuit Court of Appeals submitted a certified question to the SJC, requesting clarification on the treble damages provision under Section 15B and whether a landlord’s violation of the itemized list requirement, which forfeits the landlord’s right to retain any portion of the deposit for any reason, also constitutes a violation of the Act.

The SJC answered “no” to the Circuit Court’s question. In its decision, the SJC ruled that the triple damages provision under Section 15B(7) does not apply to claims for violation of the itemized list requirement of Section 15B(4)(iii) or to forfeiture of the deposit under Section 15B(6)(b). The SJC did find, however, that improper deductions under the first sentence of Section 15B(4), or the failure to return a deposit or account for any portion within 30 days, would constitute violations entitling a tenant to an award of triple damages and attorneys’ fees.

If you have questions regarding whether your security deposit practices comply with Massachusetts law, contact experienced landlord counsel to evaluate your practices and to limit your exposure.

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