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Landlord's Remedies for a Tenant's Failure to Pay Rent Under Maryland Law


June 16, 2010

The most common default under a lease necessitating legal action is a tenant's failure to pay rent. Other common defaults include tenants abandoning premises before the end of the lease term, tenants "holding over" by refusing to vacate at the end of the lease term, non-tenants occupying the premises, and tenants breaching material, non-economic lease provisions. When a tenant fails to pay rent, the tenant is liable for breach of contract. One of the landlord's most important remedies when a tenant fails to pay rent or commits another serious default is to evict the tenant. Maryland law has special statutory provisions that allow for expedited eviction proceedings and, in some instances, the expedited entry of a money judgment. (While the actual time period will vary based on the facts of the case and the jurisdiction in which the premises are located, normally an eviction can occur within 4-8 weeks of the landlord's initial filing of a "rent court" complaint.) This article discusses these procedures and a landlord's other litigation options upon a breach of the lease for failure to pay rent.

Filing a "Rent Court Action"
If the tenant remains in the leased premises and has failed to pay the rent and the landlord wants to evict the tenant, the landlord can institute a "rent court" action. The landlord need only file a form "Failure to Pay Rent" complaint, setting forth basic information, such as the location of the premises, monthly rental amount, and the amount of rent and late fees that are outstanding. The complaint must be filed in the jurisdiction in which the premises are located. Upon filing, the sheriff will post the complaint and summons on the premises. At trial, the court will determine the amount of rent which is owed and award possession of the premises to the landlord (assuming the tenant does not have a defense to the obligation to pay rent). (Note, if the tenant has vacated the leased premises and the landlord has already regained possession, the Rent Court no longer has jurisdiction and the landlord can only file a collection action to collect the unpaid rent, as described below.)

Eviction
After trial, the losing party has four days to note an appeal. If neither party appeals, the landlord may request the sheriff to evict the tenant by filing a Petition for Warrant of Restitution within 60 days of obtaining the judgment. In most jurisdictions, the actual eviction will generally occur around 2-4 weeks after trial. (In some jurisdictions, however, the eviction can take up to three months following trial.) After the court processes the warrant and sends it to the sheriff's office, the procedures vary by jurisdiction, but normally the sheriff's office will contact the landlord's agent to pick an eviction date (although in practice the landlord often needs to contact the sheriff's office directly). On the actual eviction date, the landlord is ordinarily obligated to have movers on hand to remove all of the tenant's possessions to the street, and then to dispose of them if the tenant does not retrieve them from the street.

The Right to Redemption
At any time prior to execution of the eviction order, the tenant may redeem the premises by tendering payment, in cash or certified funds, of the amount found to be due by the court. This right to redeem can be revoked if the landlord has obtained three judgments (four in Baltimore City) against the tenant in the previous year.

Money Judgments
Eviction is not the only remedy available to the landlord when a tenant defaults. The landlord may want to get a money judgment against the tenant and/or any guarantor of the lease, either as part of a Rent Court Action or in a separate collection proceeding.

The landlord may be able to obtain a money judgment for unpaid rent currently due, late fees and, if the lease allows, attorneys' fees, against a commercial tenant in a Rent Court Action. There are virtually no other judicial proceedings that allow a plaintiff to obtain a final money judgment in as little as two weeks after filing a complaint. In order to obtain a money judgment, the landlord must follow certain procedural rules. Most importantly, in order to obtain in a money judgment, the landlord must obtain valid service of process before the trial date. Given the swiftness of Rent Court Actions, service must be accomplished quickly. While Maryland law allows the court to award a money judgment if proper service is obtained, such award is not mandatory. Some judges are hesitant to enter a money judgment for a substantial amount of money, especially when the tenant has only had a few days' notice of the litigation or if the tenant raises defenses.

The ability to obtain a money judgment in a Rent Court Action is limited, however. First, the Rent Court will only award a money judgment for the rent due through the date of trial; a landlord cannot obtain "future rent" or liquidated damages for rent coming due past the trial date. If the landlord wants to collect "future rent," it will have to file a separate collection action. Second, guarantors cannot be sued in Rent Court; thus, if the landlord wishes to pursue collection against a guarantor, the landlord will need to file a separate collection action in either District Court or Circuit Court, depending on the amount of rent sought by the landlord (such an action is normally joined with an action against the tenant for "future rent"). A landlord may also choose to file a collection action if the landlord does not wish to evict the tenant for business reasons but rather simply wants to get a judgment for the amount of rent that is owed. Unlike Rent Court Actions, collection actions are not subject to the expedited trial schedule available for eviction actions, so it takes substantially longer to obtain a judgment (typically 3-6 months in the District Court and a year or more in the Circuit Court).

This article addresses the basics of filing a Rent Court Action in Maryland. Each landlord/tenant dispute often involves complications, and readers are encouraged to seek advice of counsel for complicated matters.