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Defending the Housing Rights of Tenants with Disabilities

A block of row homes in Baltimore City

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued an opinion in Hosford v. Chateau Foghorn, LP holding that Maryland landlord-tenant law is not preempted by federal law and policy that requires federally subsidized landlords to include lease provisions that permit landlord to evict tenants for the use or possession of marijuana.

Under Maryland law, to evict a tenant, a landlord must prove that i) there was a breach; ii) the breach was material; and iii) the breach was so substantial that it warrants eviction. In Hosford v. Chateau Foghorn, LP a federally subsidized landlord argued that they need not produce evidence that the breach was substantial and warrants eviction because of federal law requiring certain lease terms that permit landlords to evict tenants for the use or possession of controlled substances on the premises.[1]

The Court of Special Appeals rejected the landlord’s argument and held, in part:  “To require a state court, as a matter of law, to evict a disabled member of that class [low-income persons] out of the home had had resided in for 24-25 years for having one marijuana plant in his bathtub, for his own medical use, with no evidence of distribution or attempted distribution, further no Congressional intent that we have been able to identify.”

This decision builds on an earlier success by Disability Rights Maryland in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City.  Similar to Hosford, the landlord in DRM’s case argued that a jury could not consider whether a breach was substantial and warranted eviction when a poor disabled tenant admitted to drug use, even though there was evidence of rehabilitation and treatment on the part of the tenant. DRM defeated the landlord’s legal argument in that case and later settled the matter.

Regardless, these decisions together are a very strong bulwark against the third-party policing policies that deprive and shut too many persons with disabilities from much needed assistance. As the Maryland courts and legislature have made evident, there is room for compassion in the context of federally subsidized landlords and the critical need for housing.

Protecting the Maryland landlord tenant law requiring a review of an individual’s circumstances to determine whether an eviction is substantial and warrants eviction is all the more critical as medical practitioners become more aware of the connection between disability, pain control, and substance abuse. While the decision in no way sanctions the use and abuse of controlled substances, it makes clear that a Court’s duty is not to rubber-stamp a landlord’s complaint for possession.

Perhaps a happier solution to complex problems for individuals is not reactionary, indiscriminate evictions in all cases, but a more nuanced approach that permit individuals who struggle with drug abuse to seek the help they need and continue to be successful in the community.

[1] IN October 2015, Maryland decriminalized the possession of Marijuana in small amounts.

Author: David Prater, Attorney 
September 12, 2016