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Tuesday
Feb212012

Top Five Things You Need to Know To About Bell Hearings

While they have come up in several of my past blog posts, I get more questions about Bell Hearings than just about anything else, so here are the top five things you need to know about Bell Hearings.

First, a basic definition: a Bell hearing is a hearing held to determine the amount of the protective order, or the amount of money the tenant must pay into the court registry to continue with the case.  If the landlord requests a protective order and the tenant claims there are Housing Code violations, a Bell Hearing will be scheduled. 

1)   Bell Hearings address only the conditions of the unit, not the amount of rent due. 

No matter how much back rent is due, the tenant can only be ordered to pay into the court registry from the date of the initial hearing forward.  However, if a tenant owes many months of back rent, a landlord can raise it with the judge because some judges will consider it a factor in how much the tenant is likely to owe at the end of the case.  However, many judges will tell the landlord they had the opportunity to sue the tenant earlier. 

2)   Bell Hearings look at the conditions in the unit today, not in the past. 

Because the tenant can only be ordered to pay a protective order from the initial hearing forward, the conditions of the unit before the initial hearing aren’t relevant at a Bell Hearing.  So if the tenant complains they had no heat for a week on December, and the initial hearing wasn’t until January, the landlord can object that anything that happened before the initial hearing isn’t relevant.  This is yet another reason landlords should inspect units before they sue for non-payment and make any necessary repairs. 

3)   Bell Hearings set the amount if the protective order for the entire case, and the consequences can be huge for the outcome of the case and the likelihood of settlement. 

While it’s true that in theory either party can go back to the court to modify the protective order if circumstances change, that is rarely worth it unless the amount is set significantly lower than the monthly rent due to one verifiable defect, such as lack of heat or a non-working stove.  In those cases the landlord can repair the problem and come back to the court to modify the order, but most protective order amounts are set because of a variety of factors and there is no guarantee that going back to the court will change anything. 

When the protective order is set significantly lower than the monthly rent, the case may be difficult to settle because there is too much rent outstanding for the parties to come to an agreement on the correct amount to be paid and a payment schedule. 

However, when the protective order is set close to or at the monthly rent, the amount outstanding doesn’t grow as the case goes forward so the parties don’t get farther apart, and the tenant doesn’t have an incentive to keep the case going just to pay the lower rent.  Low protective orders can also result in evictions when tenants end up with a large amount due at the end of the case that they cannot pay. 

4)   If the case has been jury demanded, a Bell Hearing is the last substantive hearing you will have for months and the last opportunity you will have to be in the same room with the other side until mediation. 

The Bell Hearing is an opportunity to sit down with the other side and resolve the case.  Many cases are resolved on the day of the Bell Hearing.  The parties have had a little more time to investigate the case, perhaps repairs have been made, or at least an inspection has been done and the parties can come to an agreement on what repairs need to be done.  Don’t waste the opportunity to negotiate or mediate the case.  If the case has been jury demanded it will be weeks or months before the parties have another change to talk. 

If possible, at least make progress towards a settlement.  If the tenant wants to move, this is a good time to work out a move-out date before they are ordered to pay into the court registry.  If the landlord is willing to work out a payment arrangement, this is a good time to do so. 

5)   You don’t need to have a Bell Hearing to negotiate a protective order amount.

Consider working out an amount you can both live with or if the parties agree repairs need to be done, set an interim protective order and schedule of repairs and continue the Bell Hearing until the repairs can be finished.

 

A Bell Hearing is a mini-trial.  Both the landlord and tenant will need to put on evidence effectively.  While landlords can move forward without a witness at this stage and simply say that they want the full amount of the rent that usually isn’t the best decision.  Instead, inspect the unit, do any necessary repairs, and make sure the person who inspects is the person who comes to the hearing to testify. 

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