Published: 8/21/2020 11:42:24 AM
Modified: 8/21/2020 11:42:11 AM
Tenants facing eviction must be told in writing that they have options other than immediately moving out, the state Supreme Court said in a recent decision that underlines a 2018 state law.
“Until recently, a landlord could give their tenant an eviction notice which looked and sounded very much like a command to vacate the premises at the expiration date of the notice. In reality, this was just an initial step in the entire eviction process,” said Jeff Goodrich, staff attorney for Legal Advice and Referral Center, which provides free legal services to low-income people in the state.
Evictions can be contested in court, which isn’t always clear on an initial notice to vacate.
“Many tenants read an eviction notice stating they must leave by a certain day and think they must leave by that day, not realizing that once they leave, they give up their right to fight the eviction,” said New Hampshire Legal Assistant attorney Stephen Tower.
The wording on eviction notice forms was modified by the Legislature in 2018 to include a statement explaining that tenants can dispute an eviction at a hearing before a judge.
In an Aug. 11 ruling, in the case Horton v. Clemens, the state Supreme Court emphasized that this wording or its equivalent must be included on all eviction notices.
“The statute expressly provides that ‘a valid demand for rent or eviction notice shall include the same information.’ … The use of the word ‘shall’ evidences that this is a mandatory requirement,” wrote Justice Gary Hicks in the unanimous opinion.
Otherwise, the ruling stated, the situation “would, in effect, create two classes of tenants – those who are informed of their legal rights and those who are not informed of their legal rights, all at the landlord’s discretion. This was not the legislature’s intent.”
The ruling comes at a significant time since the number of evictions due to nonpayment of rent is expected to rise, fueled by COVID-related unemployment.
The case comes out of Grafton County and involves landlords Richard and Janice Horton’s order to evict tenants David Clemens and April Hanks for “nonpayment of rent.” On June 4, 2019, the Hortons served the tenants with a notice of eviction that said they could stay if they paid “all the arrearages plus fifteen dollars ($15.00) as liquidated damages.” It did not include the wording from the 2018 law, which begins. “This notice is not a court order requiring you to vacate the rental property.”
The landlords argued that their wording was sufficient but a Circuit Court disagreed, and the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or [email protected] or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)