A federal jury this week awarded $186,000 to a Baltimore couple who lost their belongings thanks to a city ordinance that gives landlords the immediate right to take possession of items left behind during an eviction.
The plaintiffs, Marshall Todman and Tiffany Gattis, were evicted from their Baltimore home in 2019. The couple filed a complaint against both the city and their landlord, Brock Collins, testifying that they were left “with only the clothes on their backs” after they were evicted, which they said occurred while they were at work and without advance notice.
In September, a federal judge ruled in their favor, stating in an opinion that the city’s ordinance allowing landlords to take immediate possession of any belongings left behind violates tenants’ rights under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which provides for equal protection under the law.
U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman also questioned the city’s lack of a requirement to provide notice of the date of an eviction to tenants in certain circumstances. Because Todman and Gattis were being evicted for something called “tenant holding over,” when a renter stays in their unit beyond the terms of their lease, they were not entitled to certain notices that the city must provide to people evicted for “failure to pay rent” These include notices of the date of their eviction or a warning that their landlord would be entitled to any possessions in the property at that time.
“The City has offered no reason why holdover tenants, like failure-to-pay-rent tenants, cannot be advised of the date of eviction,” the judge wrote.
In response to the jury’s verdict this week, Sheriff Sam Cogen, a Democrat who was elected last fall on a pledge to “humanize” the eviction process, told The Baltimore Banner that his office would immediately pause tenant-holding-over evictions until his office could receive guidance from the Maryland attorney general on how to proceed with them in light of the court’s ruling.
The filing rate for these types of evictions has steadily increased since 2020, when failure-to-pay-rent cases were restricted by federal and state eviction moratoriums. By the time the courts began processing those cases again, some landlords had realized that pursuing tenant-holding-over evictions was a quicker legal process. The filing rate for these types of evictions is now about three times higher than before the pandemic.
“The Federal court has spoken that the landlord notification requirements of Tenant Holding Over evictions are flawed,” wrote Cogen. “Evictions as a whole can be traumatic and the last thing in the world that we want to see is any family additionally harmed by an unconstitutional practice.”
He said that deputy sheriffs are prepared to take on extra duties associated with any potential enhanced notification requirements that may stem from the ruling.
The city’s ordinance allowing landlords to take immediate possession of any belongings left behind was introduced in 2007 in an effort to keep public sidewalks free of evicted tenants’ belongings.
But Boardman wrote that the ordinance “increased the risk that tenants would be erroneously deprived of their personal property” and “provides no legal mechanism by which tenants may reclaim possessions deemed abandoned.”
The plaintiffs in the 2019 case lost valuable jewelry, clothing, furniture, and priceless items such as Gattis’ grandfather’s ashes and Todman’s birth certificate, according to Conor O’Croinin, an attorney with the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, who served as co-counsel in the case.
Gattis’ mother, who was in the house at the time of the eviction, testified that she grabbed only her medication, telephone and phone charger before leaving.
According to the September opinion, Collins was aware when he went ahead with the eviction on July 31 that the couple had boxed their belongings, found another place to live and would be able to move in on Aug. 2. On July 30, Todman reserved a moving truck for Aug. 1.
“[The ordinance] started out with, ‘How are we going to deal with the problem of keeping streets clean?’ It drifted toward so pro-landlord that it became kind of absurd,” O’Croinin said. “It’s bringing a bazooka to deal with a problem that requires a fly trap.”
Collins could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
O’Croinin said the ruling could serve as a tool for other tenants who’ve lost belongings during an eviction to seek compensation. “It’s hard to know how many people have property that they’ve left in the rental unit, but you can imagine it’s a lot,” said O’Croinin. The plaintiffs were awarded damages for their property and for emotional distress, at the city’s expense.
“The Law Department is aware of the Court’s decision in this matter and will consider its options through the appropriate judicial process,” wrote Jack French, the mayor’s spokesman, in an email to The Banner.
In nearby jurisdictions, sheriff’s deputies are permitted to put tenants’ belongings on the street during an eviction. In one recent eviction covered by The Banner, a woman came home to find the entire contents of her apartment lying in a heap on the curb outside the Tall Pines Apartments in Glen Burnie, despite having paid her $300 rent balance hours earlier. When the landlord was told of the mistake, movers hauled the remaining belongings back into the apartment.
More than 2,500 evictions were carried out in Baltimore City in 2020 and over 1,700 in 2021, according to data from the Maryland Judiciary. In 2019, before eviction prevention measures were instituted in response to the pandemic, more than 6,000 evictions were conducted, according to an analysis of Maryland Judiciary records by the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. And an analysis by The Banner last month showed that eviction rates are ticking back up toward pre-pandemic numbers, especially as rental assistance funds dry up.
Data reporter Ryan Little contributed to this report.