Parties to a summary process (eviction) proceeding in Massachusetts are afforded the right to a trial by jury. Article 15 of the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts declares that “parties have a right to a trial by jury; and this method of procedure shall be held sacred,” which applies to court rules and procedures for summary process governed by Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 8 of the Uniform Summary Process Rules, and Section 21 of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 185C.
Recently, the Massachusetts Appeals Court overturned a ruling from the Housing Court and reemphasized the “sacred” right to a jury trial. In Tchad Cort v. Alver Majors, a residential tenant appealed from judgment awarding possession and money damages to the landlord. The landlord filed a summary process action, to which the tenant responded with an answer, counterclaims, and a jury trial demand. At trial, the judge asked both parties if they were prepared for trial and the tenant acknowledged that he was prepared to proceed. After the landlord presented her case, the tenant provided testimony and stated that he would “like a jury.” The judge determined that trial was already underway and thus the tenant waived his right to trial. The tenant and the judge debated the tenant’s misunderstanding regarding waiver and the tenant presented his case. Thereafter, judgment entered against the tenant.
On appeal, the Appeals Court reversed the judgment, holding that a passive waiver of a jury demand, by proceeding with trial without a jury after demanding a jury, is not sufficient to waive a prior plead jury demand. Instead, an effective waiver of a jury demand requires at least an oral stipulation waiving the demand. The Appeals Court emphasized the responsibility assigned to trial court judges to affirmatively investigate, prior to commencement of trial, whether to proceed with or without a jury, rather than starting trial and waiting for a party to object to the absence of a jury.
Self-represented litigants in all courts are held to the same standards as attorneys. As a result, it’s crucial to understand and apply the rules of court and constitutional protections relevant to each action. More often than not, self-represented litigants are ill prepared to do so. In order to navigate litigation efficiently and effectively, engaging an experienced attorney to guide litigation prevents costly errors resulting from the failure to understand available rights and remedies. If you are involved in, or are considering filing a summary process claim, you’re well-advised to contact an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to achieve the best outcome.