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When to Take Your Landlord to Court

Produced by Gary Allen
Reviewed May 2017


If you tried to resolve a problem with your landlord but they refuse to obey the law, you may decide the only way to fix the problem is to take them to court.

Fix Problems Outside of Court

Try to solve the problem outside of court:

  • If your landlord refuses to make repairs, ask your local housing inspector to inspect your apartment or building and send the landlord a repair order.
  • If your landlord owes you your security deposit, send them a Consumer Protection Law demand letter.
  • If you are having a dispute with your landlord, community mediation programs can help solve the problem.
  • If other tenants have the same problem, organize together for a solution.

What a Court Can Do

If you have a good case and you can prove your landlord broke a law, the judge may order your landlord to do things like:

  • Quickly address emergencies, like no heat.
  • Make a necessary repair, like fix the plumbing.
  • Let you back into your apartment, if your landlord they locked you out.
  • Pay you money to compensate you for harm you suffered.
  • Order a temporary landlord called a “receiver” to make repairs and manage the property.
  • Pay a fine or go to jail, but only if your landlord broke a criminal law.

Protect Yourself - Deciding to Go to Court

Going to court is stressful, and you may not win. Before you go to court, ask yourself:

Can I fix the problem outside of court?

What do I want the court to do?

Do I have a case I can prove?

Do I need legal help and can I get it?

What Kind of Case Do You Have

Criminal Cases

If your landlord commits a crime, contact the police right away. Crimes include entering your apartment without your permission, cutting off your utilities, locking you out, or attacking you. Ask the police to file a criminal complaint.

Civil Cases

Most cases against landlords are civil. The most common types of civil cases are:

Small Claims

If you have a case for less than $7,000, you can file a Small Claims case in Housing Court, District Court or the Boston Municipal Court. If your case is for more than $7,000, talk to a lawyer.

Tenant Petition

A Tenant Petition to Enforce the Sanitary Code is a quick way to ask the court to order your landlord to make repairs, especially emergency repairs. You can also use it to ask a court to lower your rent to reflect the value of your apartment with all its problems. It cost $2 to file a petition.

Bad or Unsanitary Conditions

Landlords must provide “habitable” or decent living conditions. You can ask the court to order them to make repairs and return part of your rent.

Interference with “Quiet Enjoyment”

Sometimes landlords are responsible for conditions that interfere with you using your apartment. This is called a “breach of quiet enjoyment.” For example, cutting off your utilities if your landlord is supposed to pay them is a violation of this law.


It is illegal for a landlord to punish you by trying to evict you, raising your rent, or making a major change in your rental agreement because you:

  • Ask for needed repairs,
  • Report bad conditions in your apartment or building to the Board of Health or other local officials,
  • Join a tenants’ organization, or
  • Withhold rent because of bad conditions.

Unfair or Deceptive Practices

It is illegal for landlords to use unfair or deceptive practices. This law does not protect tenants in public housing or tenants who live in 2 or 3-family buildings if the landlord lives in the building. To use this law, you must follow specific rules, including sending the landlord a “demand letter.”

Security Deposits

Landlords must account for security deposits and last month’s rents properly. If your landlord violates the security deposit law, send them a “demand letter” for violating the Consumer Protection Law. See sample security deposit demand letters: Form 5: For Tenants in an Apartment and Form 6: For Tenants Moving Out
Or try the MassAccess interactive interview, MassAccess interactive forms icon Form 6 Security Deposit Demand Letter for Tenants Moving  Out , that lets you complete, review, sign and send your letter to your landlord from your smart phone or computer.

. If your landlord does not give you a reasonable response, you can take them to court.

Housing Discrimination

Discrimination is illegal. Laws protect certain groups of people, cover different types of housing, and provide different protections.

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

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