Law School Case Brief
Smith v. Wakefield, LP - 462 Md. 713, 202 A.3d 1240 (2019)
The three-year period of limitations set forth in Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-101 governs actions for back rent under residential leases, regardless of whether the lease includes provisions that purport to convert it into a contract under seal.
Maryland law has provided that an action seeking payment of back rent for a residential lease is to be brought before the expiration of a three-year period of limitations. In 2007, Smith entered into a month-to-month lease for an apartment in Baltimore City. He remained in the apartment only a few months before vacating it and ceasing to pay rent. In 2008, Smith was evicted for failure to pay rent in 2008. He was given appropriate notice from his landlord for terminating the lease and left voluntarily. In 2015, his landlord Wakefield brought suit against Smith seeking to recover unpaid rent that it claimed Mr. Smith owed from 2008. When the case finally came to trial in 2018, Mr. Smith filed a motion to dismiss asserting that Wakefield had not filed suit within the three-year period of limitations in CJ §5-101 that applies to actions seeking back rent. Landlord Wakefield argued that the lease qualified as a "contract under seal" and that the 12-year statute of limitations set forth in CJ §5-102 applied. The District Court agreed with Wakefield's argument and entered a judgment in its favor. On appeal, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City reached the same conclusion.
Did the lease qualify as a "contract under seal" with a 12-year statute of limitations?
The Court held that actions for back rent under residential leases are subject to a three-year period of limitations regardless of whether the lease includes provisions that purport to convert it into a contract under seal. Although the language of the residential lease purported to convert it into a contract under seal, to the extent this might be deemed an agreement to replace the otherwise applicable period of limitations with the 12-year limitations period, it was unenforceable since it violated Md. Code Ann., Real Prop. § 8-208(d)(2), which barred lease provisions waiving a tenant's rights or remedies under "any applicable law." As such, the trial court erred in denying tenant's motion to dismiss.
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