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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Fourth Circuit sides with tenants in Baltimore eviction dispute

The appellant court found a Baltimore ordinance failed to give tenants a fair chance at removing their belongings after being evicted.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The Fourth Circuit sided with tenants Monday in a due process challenge to a Baltimore ordinance that gives landlords ownership of evicted tenants' property. 

"The Todmans were not lawyers, and even an attorney might find it time-consuming to wade through the many provisions of the warrant of restitution before coming to the arguably inapplicable section on abandonment," U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote. "The notice here was not sufficient."

The opinion affirms a lower court award of $186,000 in damages to Marshall and Tiffany Todman over Baltimore's mayor and City Council. The Todmans lost their belongings by operation of the abandonment ordinance when they were evicted earlier than expected.

To establish a procedural due process violation, plaintiffs must show that they were deprived of a cognizable liberty or property interest through some form of state action with constitutionally inadequate procedures. 

"Here, the Todmans needed to be notified of the threat of abandonment should their personal possessions be left in the leased premises at eviction," Wilkinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee wrote. "None of the pre-hearing notices given to the Todmans as part of the state-law eviction procedures even mentioned the possibility of personal-property abandonment."

Baltimore's Clean Street Bill gives landlords possession of tenants' property at the moment of eviction. The mayor and City Council enacted the ordinance to curb the chattel of the city's nearly 7,000 evictions a year. 

Before the 2007 ordinance — and still — in most of the state, a landlord-tenant court would grant a landlord's request for a warrant of restitution if tenants had received notice but refused to move out. The sheriff executing the warrant places the previous tenant's property on the street at the tenant's risk. 

The public, including tenants' rights groups, initially supported the measure, which included three days for tenants to reclaim their property and three forms of notice. After consulting with the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, the city gutted the ordinance of the notices and three-day period requirements. 

The ordinance shifted responsibility for the property from the city to landlords, who can do what they please with the possessions so long as they don't dispose of them on public property. The landlord is free to keep the property, pawn it, take it to a landfill, or, in Todman's case, attempt to sell it back to the tenants.  

The law applies not only to those who refuse to pay rent but also to tenants like the Todmans, who wanted to move and had found another place to live but needed to remain in the leased property until they could move into their new place.

All tenants, even holdover tenants like the Todmans, receive various forms of notice relating to their eviction proceedings under Maryland state law. However, neither state law nor the local ordinance in Baltimore requires that they be provided any notice that upon eviction, their property would be deemed abandoned and that ownership of that property would pass to the landlord.  

The ordinance had different requirements for providing notices based on the type of eviction. 

"The complexity of the whole scheme, however, was magnified by the fact that not all groups of evictees were entitled to receive the aforementioned notice of abandonment," Wilkinson wrote in the opinion. 

The Fourth Circuit heard oral argument for the case in March and appeared baffled by the city's defense. Rather than defending the ordinance, attorney Michael Redmond, representing Baltimore, attempted to deflect blame away from the Charm City.

He claimed the ordinance doesn't violate due process and argued the problem lies with the actions of the state and the sheriff's office, which carried out the eviction. Wilkinson did not appreciate the city's tactics. 

"The city has not suggested to us any way in which its interest in keeping eviction chattels off the streets would be harmed by these additional procedures," Wilkinson said. "It resorted instead to a shell game."

Wilkinson emphasized that the presence of notice and a short reclamation period would not mean more property would end up on the streets.

"In fact, giving notice of the date of eviction and the threat and consequences of abandonment might well encourage tenants to take pre-eviction measures to safeguard their property," Wilkinson wrote. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker, a Barack Obama appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd, another Obama appointee, concurred with the opinion. Attorneys representing the city did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.   

"We are hopeful that today’s opinion prompts the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore to repeal the Abandonment Ordinance," Attorney Conor O'Croinin of Zuckerman Spaeder, representing the Todmans, said in an email. "The City’s ordinance can cause devastating and unnecessary consequences for City tenants, as shown by the Todmans’ case.

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Regional

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