Every eviction action centers on one or both of the following issues: which party is entitled to possession and what amount of damages are appropriate. Recently, the Massachusetts Appeals Court faced a unique set of facts with regard to the right of possession in Fed. Nat. Mortgage Ass’n v. Heather Gordon, et al., 2015-P-0441, and reaffirmed the requirement for post-foreclosure owners to resort to summary process to remove holdover owners and tenants.
In Nat. Mortgage Ass’n, the occupants of a property in Roxbury appealed from a judgment in favor of Fannie Mae, the party obtaining title to the property after foreclosure, from the Boston Housing Court. The occupants argued Fannie Mae’s common-law trespass claim against them was barred by statute and that Fannie Mae failed to obtain actual possession of the property before filing its claim. The occupants previously entered into a 3-year residential lease with one of the former owners of the property who lost title at foreclosure. Interestingly, the lease was executed after the date of foreclosure and after Fannie Mae filed a summary process action against the former owner. The former owner moved out of the property several months after signing the lease and the occupants moved in. Once Fannie Mae learned the occupants had taken possession, it brought a separate action for common-law trespass against them. The Boston Housing Court entered judgment awarding possession to Fannie Mae.
The occupants argued on appeal that Section 18 of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 186 prohibits property owners from bringing common-law trespass actions against holdover former owners or tenants and requires resort to summary process to lawfully regain possession. The Appeals Court agreed with the occupants, reaffirming the Supreme Judicial Court’s holding in A.G. v. Dime Sav. Bank of N.Y., 413 Mass. 284 (1992). The Appeals Court held that the former owner occupied the property at the time of foreclosure and that the occupants became holdover tenants. The Court went on to hold that the occupants’ status in relation to the property could not be treated as different or lesser than that of a holdover tenant without attributing actual or constructive knowledge that the occupants knew the former owner did not have title when signing the lease or when they moved into the property. The Court declined to create an expectation that residential tenants would need to take steps to make sure their landlord has title to a property before entering into a tenancy. Under the ruling set forth in Fed. Nat. Mortgage Ass’n, post-foreclosure owners may not bring a trespass action against holdover tenants who remain in possession, even where that holdover tenant’s leasehold rights arose after the date of foreclosure, but before final judgment for possession in favor of the foreclosure purchaser.
The Appeals Court also held in favor of the occupants’ argument that Fannie Mae never took actual possession of the property. Actual possession is one of the elements claimants must prove in order to succeed on a common-law trespass claim. In holding for the occupants, the Court reaffirmed the ruling in Dime Savings that actual or constructive possession by an owner asserting a trespass action cannot be maintained when the property is actually possessed by another. The Appeals Court clarified that “actual” possession does not terminate the minute the former owner vacates the property and that the facts presented in Nat. Mortgage Ass’n showed that the execution of the lease and surrender of possession to the occupants did not “indicate [the former owner]’s surrender of possession in relation to others [namely, Fannie Mae] who might claim title.” To the contrary, the facts suggest the opposite and that a gap in time between when the former owner vacated and the occupants took possession cannot signify surrender of actual possession by the former owner. The Court determined that surrender of possession is a factual dispute “to be determined by the intent as expressed by words and acts of all the parties in the light of the circumstances” and the facts presented suggested that the former owner intended to remain in possession after she moved out, regardless of the pending summary process action against her by Fannie Mae.
The outcome of Fed. Nat. Mortgage Ass’n further emphasizes the strict conformity Massachusetts require in connection within regaining possession and the necessity for landlords and residential property owners to undertake summary process to protect and enforce those rights. Evicting holdover tenants and former owners can be a complicated and fact-specific process. As such, you should contact an experienced attorney to ensure the proper timelines and steps are taken to evict a tenant.