February 8, 2013:
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today ruled in favor of Joshua N. Garick’s client Elizabeth Rivas in the Rivas v. Chelsea Housing Authority case that was heard last October. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Robert J. Cordy, the SJC ruled that Ms. Rivas’ participation in the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program – a state funded rental assistance program similar to the federal Section 8 program – was improperly terminated by the Chelsea Housing Authority. The Court made two important findings: (1) that the program requirements limiting the duration of household guests was unconstitutionally vague as applied to Ms. Rivas; and (2) that the housing authority could not terminate Ms. Rivas’ voucher without first conducting a mandatory informal settlement conference. The SJC reversed the housing authority’s decision, which will allow Ms. Rivas’ participation in the program to be reinstated.
Background: Ms. Rivas was evicted when her housing subsidy was terminated by the Chelsea Housing Authority for failing to report a change in household income when her mother temporarily resided with her during a period of transition. The housing authority could not articulate how many days a guest could reside at Ms. Rivas’ apartment, but ruled that she exceeded the allowable time nonetheless. When Ms. Rivas appealed the decision to terminate her subsidy, the housing authority failed to conduct a mandatory informal settlement conference – as required by the applicable program rules and regulations. The SJC unanimously agreed that the housing authority should have conducted an informal settlement conference.
The informal settlement conference is designed to give the tenant an opportunity to resolve the dispute before it becomes a formal grievance. It is focused on resolving the problem, not adjudicating the allegation . . . as long as the settlement conference requirement remains in effect, the authority may not arbitrarily disregard it to the prejudice of an individual’s rights.
Ultimately, however, the Court reversed the housing authority’s decision because of the regulation’s ambiguity. Because there was no rule that clearly articulated a point in time when Ms. Rivas’ mother became a household member, the Court held that Ms. Rivas was not required to report her presence to the housing authority, and did not violate any program regulations.
Impact: This case will have a lasting impact on public housing law, and will ensure housing authorities comply with their own procedural rules. Given the important public policy interests at issue, the Court held that prejudice could be inferred if a housing authority failed to conduct a required settlement conference. Moreover, the Court limited the breadth of a housing authority’s power to adjudicate grievances. Previously, like other administrative agencies, a court reviewing a decision could defer to the technical competence and specialized knowledge of the agency. This meant that a court could defer to an agency’s interpretation of rules, regulations and factual findings and could overturn a housing authority decision only in limited circumstances. Here, however, the Court ruled that housing authorities are not entitled to any deference. This will protect tenants to ensure that they are given due process before their much needed housing subsidies are revoked.
Video of the oral arguments (courtesy of Suffolk University Law School and the Supreme Judicial Court) is available here:
Briefs and other case information is available here:
Joshua N. Garick is an experienced appellate advocate with an extensive Appellate Litigation practice. He has experience before the Supreme Judicial Court, the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Appellate Division of the District Court.