In Hosford v. Chateau Foghorn LP, 229 Md. App. 499 (2016), the Court of Special Appeals held that federal law does not preempt a Maryland landlord-tenant statute that permits eviction only if a tenant breaches a lease and “the breach was substantial and warrants an eviction.”
Wesley Hosford, who is disabled, has been a resident of Ruscombe Gardens apartments in Baltimore City since 1989. Chateau Foghorn LP (“Foghorn”), the landlord, hired an exterminator because of bedbug infestation. Exterminators observed a marijuana plant growing in Hosford’s bathtub and reported it to the police. The police confirmed that the plant was marijuana, and Hosford was charged with possession. The charge was not prosecuted.
Foghorn filed an eviction action under §8-402.1 of the Real Property Article of the Maryland Code. It contended that Hosford engaged in drug-related criminal activity, therefore violated a clause in his lease, and hence should be evicted forthwith. Hosford moved for a jury trial, and the case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Hosford contended that even if he breached the lease, he could not be evicted unless the court determined that the breach was “substantial” and “warrants eviction.”
Hosford claimed that the marijuana was for his personal medicinal use, but the circuit court pointed out that federal law makes possession of any quantity of marijuana a crime. The court then determined that the jury was not allowed to review the landlord’s exercise of discretion in bringing the eviction action.
On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision of the circuit court. The Court of Special Appeals held that the federal statutes and the applicable regulations and HUD guidelines do not preempt or displace state law in this area. Further, the court found that “a state court’s consideration of equitable and related factors in an eviction action does not stand as an obstacle to the federal goal of providing low-income housing that is decent, safe, and free from illegal drugs.”
Therefore, the Court of Special Appeals remanded the case for trial.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina recently rendered an opinion based on similar facts. In Eastern Carolina Regional Housing Authority v. Lofton, 789 S.E.2d 449 (2016), a public housing authority sought to summarily eject Sherbreda Lofton, a tenant from a federally subsidized apartment for violating a provision of her lease prohibiting drug-related activity. In Lofton, the babysitter was caught with marijuana in Ms. Lofton’s apartment and was charged with felony drug crimes. Ms. Lofton contended that she was not aware of the marijuana in her apartment and was not involved in any drug-related activities. The trial court and the intermediate appellate court denied eviction, with the appeals court holding that an eviction of Ms. Lofton was unconscionable. The North Carolina Supreme Court denied unconscionability as a factor in eviction proceedings. However, it held that before proceeding with an eviction action, under federal law the public housing authority must first exercise its discretion about its decision, which courts will not second-guess. Because the public housing authority had not known that it had a choice in whether to move to evict Ms. Lofton, it did not show that it had exercised its discretion. Therefore, the North Carolina Supreme Court denied the eviction.
These cases follow Department of Housing & Urban Development v. Rucker, 535 U.S. 125, 122 S.Ct. 1230, 152 L.Ed.2d 258 (2002), in which some tenants questioned the extent of agency officials’ authority to evict residents from public housing. The Supreme Court of the United States held that a housing authority could evict a tenant and her family as a result of a guest’s illegal activity even when the tenant was unaware of the activity and had no reason to suspect it. The Hosford and Lofton cases are examples of courts trying to provide a balance between the rights of innocent tenants and the consideration of the welfare of the entire tenant population.
For questions, please contact Ed Levin (410) 576-1900.