Starting From Scratch: Evicted Tenants Take On Baltimore

Marshall Todman and Tiffany Gattis at their new dining room table. (Photo by EDWARD ERICSON JR./Courthouse News Service)

BALTIMORE (CN) — From kitchen appliances to the ashes of his tenant’s great-grandfather, a Baltimore landlord got it all with the help of the sheriff’s office.

Their heirlooms may be irreplaceable, but Tiffany Gattis and Marshall Todman are fighting in court now for relief, telling a federal judge that Baltimore City’s eviction law unconstitutionally strips tenants of their property without prior notice.

Alleging conversion and violation of Maryland consumer-protection law, Gattis and Todman take issue principally with a 12-year-old ordinance on chattels that they has no match in any other jurisdiction in the state. The Baltimore law requires landlords evicting tenants who are behind on their rent to give two weeks’ notice before locking them out, at which time he can take their household goods as “abandoned property.” But Gattis and Todman were paying rent under a verbal lease, which the landlord simply declared an end to. As “tenants holding over,” the law requires no notice to them. 

“The way Baltimore City handles these cases is simply unjust,” Joseph Mack, an attorney for the couple, said in an interview. “An eviction is already a horrible event for someone who is losing their home. To further marginalize tenants by allowing all their personal belongings to be taken without warning is inhumane.”  

In Gattis and Todman’s case, they say they lost “all of their worldly possessions.” They say they were packed and ready to move out on Aug. 1. On July 31, they went to work as usual, Todman at Jiffy Lube and Gattis at a bank where she works as a fraud analyst. Soon thereafter, Gattis got a call from her mother that their landlord had arrived with a sheriff’s deputy in tow.

She got home to find the locks changed and Todman’s motorcycle, a Yamaha R6 that he’d bought himself as an early birthday present, chained to a tree. It had allegedly been pushed into the yard from the street to be deemed abandoned “in or about” the property. All the boxes the couple had neatly packed were gone.

Frantically, they dialed their landlord, Brock Collins

“You owe me money,” Todman says Collins told him. At first, he would not say how much. By nightfall he texted the figure: $5,600.

The couple couldn’t pay.

Baltimore City’s top lawyer says the city isn’t to blame.

“My view from the complaint is that city law aside, if the allegations are true, then the landlord seems to me to have simply ‘stolen’ the tenant’s belongings,” City Solicitor Andre Davis said in an email. “The city law’s tangential connection to the ‘theft’ is not likely to persuade a court that it was the law, rather than the plainly extortionate behavior of the landlord, that caused the tenant’s loss.”

Courthouse News could not reach Collins for comment. Gattis and Todman say they first took up residence at another of the landlord’s properties after moving to Baltimore almost two years ago from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. While paying $1,250 month-to-month on a verbal lease, the couple says they decided to relocate because Collins had trying to have them move again to a less desirable unit.

Dated Nov. 15, Gattis and Todman’s complaint says Collins began eviction proceedings when they informed him, but that the judge got Collins to promise not to file for possession of the property until July 17. Collins allegedly filed on July 15, despite that understanding, prompting the sheriff to show up one day before the tenants were going to leave.

The couple lost their television, clothes, appliances, pots and pans, furniture, family photographs, and an American flag that was presented to Gattis at her grandfather’s funeral. “It’s hard to tell you what was lost,” Gattis said, sitting in their unfurnished apartment 20 miles from their old place. “After 10 years together you amass a lot.”

Two days after Collins changed the locks, a neighbor sent Todman a video of Collins carting away his bike. Todman says he called the police but was informed that their case was a civil matter. 

Baltimore’s law, which was changed in 2007 to prevent people seeing their stuff dumped on the curb, differs from those of other jurisdictions. 

“Even though they are not given the warning that their belongings are in jeopardy or even notice of the eviction date, the Baltimore City Code still provides that the belongings of tenants holding over who are evicted are deemed ‘abandoned,’ and that the landlord may dispose of them at will and without liability to the tenant,” their complaint says. 

Todman and Gattis say nothing like this could have happened on the Eastern Shore.

It shouldn’t have happened in Baltimore either, a tenant advocate says.

“In a case like this, the tenant should only have had to go to a court commissioner and swear out a warrant,” said Carol Ott, an expert and landlord-tenant law who operates a city-based nonprofit called Housing Policy Watch. “The landlord, instead of sticking to an agreement that they had before the judge, he circumvented the court.”

Ott added that she doesn’t think the city itself will be liable in this case. 

Ken Harris, the city councilman who shepherded the chattels bill through the council in 2007, was shot to death in a botched robbery outside a jazz club in 2008. Several other city council members did not return phone calls seeking comment. 

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young declined to comment, saying Davis’ statement is the city’s response. 

“Notice of a ‘case’ is what matters,’ Davis wrote to Courthouse News, “and obviously the tenants had notice of the proceeding, i.e., tenant holding over. I am not aware of a separate constitutional requirement that notice of the date of the execution of a judgment is required. In other words, if a litigant obtains a judgment (after proper service of process, etc.) against a person for, say $500, that person is not constitutionally entitled to advance notice of the date on which the judgment holder will seize the debtor’s bank account. This happens all the time, and people end up bouncing checks and so on because their funds have been frozen as a result of the execution of a levy on bank accounts.”

Ott says the red flag here was the lack of a written lease, which city law requires. 

“One of the biggest things that kinda frustrates me when I get complaints like this is I really really wish tenants would educate themselves about their rights, and I wish they would educate themselves about the person from whom they’re about to rent the property,” Ott said. “The more information you have at the beginning of the landlord tenant relationship, the better.” 

Gattis agrees. “As tenants we all need to know our rights,” she said. “We did what we thought we were supposed to do.” 

Mack represents the tenants with help from the firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

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