A tenant’s right to abate rent for premises defects can thwart eviction

If a Maryland tenant stops paying rent, the landlord can bring a summary ejectment action and have the tenant expelled from the premises.

To a commercial landlord, the right to receive rent in a timely fashion is obviously the cornerstone of the landlord-tenant relationship. Unfortunately, tenants do not always make timely rental payments. Worse, there are instances where some tenants decide to stop making rent payments altogether. Sometimes the failure to make rental payments on time could be because the tenant is experiencing momentary cash flow problems. Often, a problem like this can be worked out between the landlord and the tenant and the relationship can profitably continue for both.

If a tenant under a commercial lease simply stops making rental payments altogether, and the landlord has no idea whether such payments will resume, the landlord often desires to proceed with an eviction. Maryland affords a landlord the right to bring a summary ejectment action in order to evict a tenant who fails to pay rent. Occasionally, a tenant who fails to pay rent may have a good defense to an eviction attempt.

The decision rendered by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Law Offices of Taiwo Agbaje, P.C. v. JLH Properties, II, LLC. illustrates a situation where an attempt to evict the tenant did not work out as planned due to a defense raised by the tenant. The lease contained two key provisions. First, there was a duty by the landlord to make repairs in the event of a premises defect. Second, the lease provided that rent could be abated in proportion to the amount of space rendered unusable.

The JLH Properties tenant stopped paying rent and the landlord brought an action to evict the tenant. The tenant countered that raw wastewater was seeping into the commercial space making it totally unusable thanks to the landlord's failure to make repairs. The court found that, if a lease provides for an abatement of rent for premises rendered unusable because of a defective condition, this is a defense to an action for ejectment brought by the landlord. Therefore, in the matter before it, if the tenant did in fact notify the landlord of the raw sewage seeping onto the premises, the tenant had the right to withhold rent and, consequently, the landlord had no right to attempt to evict the tenant.

Avoiding rent withholding

Forbes Magazine offers some good advice for landlords in order to avoid "rent-withholding hassles." First, make sure that the lease spells out clearly and precisely the respective duties of the landlord and the tenant with regard to repairs and maintenance. Second, if the landlord has certain duties of repair and maintenance, put specific requirements in the lease as to how the tenant is to alert the landlord to the defective or dangerous condition of the rented space. Third, the lease needs to contain specific details as to the procedures the landlord will use in handling the repair notification. Obviously, once receiving notice of a defect that it has the duty to repair, the landlord should take prompt steps to remedy the defective condition in order to avoid giving the tenant the tempting idea to withhold rent.

Seeking legal assistance

If you are a commercial landlord facing a situation where your tenant has ceased paying rent, you should immediately contact an attorney experienced in handling landlord and tenant matters. In many cases, the exact language of the particular lease at issue will have a dispositive bearing on how to handle the matter. An attorney can examine the language of the lease and then offer you advice on your options under Maryland law.

Keywords: Maryland, commercial lease, landlord, tenant, rent