MANCHESTER — It's 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and with 29 cases on the docket, Courtroom 202 in the 9th Circuit Court, Manchester District, is full.
Tenants, all of them behind on their rent, and the landlords trying to evict them are here to plead their respective cases.
Under New Hampshire law, a landlord has to have “good cause” to evict someone, and the state Supreme Court has ruled that the mere termination of a lease doesn't meet that standard.
A bill that would have changed that made it through the House, but was tabled in the Senate last month. Its sponsor, Rep. Brandon Giuda, R-Canterbury, says he'll most likely bring it up again next session, provided he's reelected.
Meanwhile, landlords still have to prove there's “good cause” to evict someone. And it's up to circuit court judges to decide who's right.
In the Manchester court, the clerk is busy with case files, scheduling parties that have worked out agreements first, those needing hearings later.
Finally: “Please rise,” the bailiff announces, and Judge Norman Champagne enters and calls the first case.
A young pregnant woman comes forward, two small children at her side. “You're moving out July 5th, but in the meantime you've agreed to pay rent at $202 a week?” the judge asks. She says yes.
In the 16 cases that follow, the details differ, but the situation is the same: The tenant is behind on the rent, sometimes by thousands of dollars, but has agreed to pay what's owed and move out by a certain date.
The judge quizzes each tenant: Do you understand that if the payments aren't made, the court will issue a writ of possession? Do you understand that that can be turned over to the sheriff, and he can lock you out of your apartment if you haven't moved?
Yes, your honor, each replies.
“You want me to approve this?” he asks, every time.
Yes, your honor, they say.
Debbie Fuente, president of New Hampshire Property Owners Association, contends there should be an easier way to end the relationship between a landlord and tenant. She supported House Bill 1263
, which would have added the expiration of a lease to the list of legal reasons property owners could terminate a tenancy.
Passed in 1985, RSA 540:2
sets out those legal grounds, including failure to pay rent, substantial damage, behavior that adversely affects health or safety and failure to comply with a “material term of the lease.” Someone also can be evicted if he or she refuses to pay higher rent or for “other good cause,” including “any legitimate business or economic reason.”
Otherwise, when a lease ends, the tenant can stay on under existing law.
Fuente said changing the law makes “common sense.” She blames a 2005 ruling by the Supreme Court for making it too difficult for landlords.
The proposal that stalled in the Senate would have let both parties part amicably at the end of a lease if one didn't want to renew, without having to go through eviction, Valente said.
But Elliott Berry of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, who argued that 2005 Supreme Court case for the tenant, said the court's ruling was not judicial activism. “They interpreted a significant legislative change to protect tenants from arbitrary eviction, and it was a classic example of the court applying the law,” he said.
In fact, the majority opinion by Justice Linda Dalianis referred specifically to legislative intent. Letting a landlord evict someone when a lease expires “would eviscerate the protections (the law) was designed to afford,” she wrote.
Justice Joseph Nadeau disagreed, writing that the end of a lease could be a legitimate business reason to terminate a tenancy. But he joined the other justices in overturning the trial court based on a procedural error.
In Champagne's courtroom, some cases take less than a minute. Others take longer.
One landlord protests his tenant's motion to continue the case so she can take her husband to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston. It's news to him, he says.
“I believe this is a ploy to just buy her some extra time,” he tells the judge. “She's trying to make my life more miserable than she already made it the past few years.”
When the bailiff tells the judge a defendant is hearing-impaired, he moves the hearing upstairs to a room that's wired for enhanced sound.
Before the hearing starts, the landlord puts a hand on his tenant's shoulder and says, “You need to get into some senior housing.”
“Right now, sleeping in a van is starting to look good,” the man replies.
The man tells the judge he paints houses for a living, but the rain has prevented him from finishing his current job and getting paid. “I've been his tenant for eight years,” he says.
The landlord calls the man as a witness, pressing him to admit that this is the third time he's fallen behind in his rent since last July.
But the man insists he's always caught up in the past. “What has changed? All of a sudden my word's no good?”
The judge cautions them both to stick to questions and answers: “I don't want any arguments or fights to break out.”
Manchester attorney Brian Shaughnessy has seen both sides of landlord-tenant disputes. He represents landlords in eviction cases, but he also is president of the board for The Way Home, a nonprofit agency that assists low-income households with housing issues.
Shaughnessy said the state has decided it's good public policy to have “safe, affordable and stable housing,” and that's why housing is a regulated industry.
If lawmakers made expiration of a lease sufficient cause for an eviction, Shaughnessy warned, “many of the poorer tenants will be evicted just because the landlord is not pleased that they've been complaining about some deficiencies in the apartment.”
Shaughnessy said one problem is that many landlords don't understand the legal system well enough to prevail in eviction cases. And that was evident in one case that came before Champagne.
The judge sternly advised the landlord several times that she needed to prove her case by questioning witnesses, not by making statements. “You've been here all morning,” he told her. “You know how it works.”
“I wish I were a lawyer,” she sighed.
“Nothing prevents you from hiring a lawyer,” the judge replied. “You chose not to.”
It's the final hearing of the day. The judge has gotten through all 29 cases by noon.
- - - - - - - -Shawne Wickham may be reached at email@example.com.