The Housing Court in Massachusetts is an extremely busy court in which individuals often choose to represent themselves, instead of hiring an attorney. Unfortunately, those individuals are many times unfamiliar with the Uniform Rules of Summary Process. These rules include the right to a jury trial, and in a court with such a caseload, a jury demand can sometimes be overlooked. Such was the case in Tchad Cort v. Alver Majors, Docket No. 16-P-694, Housing Court, Boston Division.
Alver Majors lived in the basement unit of a building owned by landlord Tchad Cort for four years, until he ceased to pay his monthly rent. Six months later, the landlord filed a claim for possession of the apartment in the Housing Court. Mr. Majors filed an answer and counterclaims alleging failure by Mr. Cort to maintain a habitable residence, as well as failure to provide the tenant with quiet enjoyment of the premises. Moreover, the Answer filed by the Defendant included, in both the document title and the body, a request for a jury trial.
The case was set for trial, and both parties appeared without counsel. The Judge asked Mr. Majors if he was prepared to proceed with trial, to which he responded yes. However, the judge did not inform him that trial would begin immediately without a jury, nor did he ask Mr. Majors if he wished to waive his right to a jury. Therefore, without realizing at the time that trial was beginning, the Defendant allowed himself to be sworn in by the clerk, and the trial commenced.
The landlord took the stand and completed her testimony, then Mr. Majors was called. Midway through his own testimony, he realized that his jury request was being ignored, and stated to the judge, “I’d like a jury.” The judge replied that the trial had already begun, and the Defendant had waived that right. The Defendant responded with, “You didn’t tell me that,” to which the judge stated, “What else would you like to tell me, sir?” At that point, Mr. Majors went ahead and completed his testimony.
The judge awarded possession of the apartment to the landlord, along with $3,600 unpaid rent. He also awarded to Mr. Majors, the Defendant, $2,400 damages for the condition of the apartment in which he had to live. This still resulted in the Defendant owing the landlord an additional $1,200.
Upon receiving this decision, Mr. Majors filed a complaint in appeals court claiming that he was improperly denied his right to a jury trial. After consideration, the appeals court agreed with him, and the judgment issued by the Housing Court was vacated.
Rule 39(a) of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, as amended, 450 Mass. 1403 (2008) (rule 39) states that once demanded, a jury trial right may be waived only if the parties file a written stipulation or make an oral stipulation in open court, or where the court finds that a right to a jury trial “does not exist under the constitution or statues of the Commonwealth.”
In an eviction case in Housing Court, you always have the right to a jury trial. If a judge proceeds with your trial, and you have not (1) provided the court a written intention to waive a jury trial, or (2) waived that right on record in open court, an appeals court may vacate the decision in your case. This would allow your case to go back to the Housing Court, and be tried again with a jury panel.