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Can Landlord change locks and not give us a key while we are paying rent

My roommate and I hold a lease with 2 other girls from 9/1/12 - 8/31/13. She and I moved out 12/1/2012 because we are not getting along with the 2 remaining roommates, which the Landlord is aware of. Subltetters are moving in 1/1/13 - 5/31/13.

We planned on paying December rent, but when we returned to the apartment Saturday night 12/1 to complete our move, we found the landlord had changed the locks and we could no longer had access to the apartment. Are we required to pay rent on an apartment we don't have access to - especially since he said to us during the move that "he didn't want us there anymore".

In a certified letter to the landlord, we informed him we'd like to end our relationship and have him return our August (last month's) rent and security deposit now. Here are my questions:
1. Can he take us to court for non-payment of December rent
2. Is he most likely going to apply the August rent to December and require the girls that remained to find subletters for June-August.
3. Can we take him to small claims court to get back August rent - since he interfered with out 'quiet enjoyment of the apartment' when he changed the locks to prevent our access during December.

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Until your landlord formally agrees to modify/terminate your lease, technically that lease is still in force for both sides. You would still be obligated to pay rent until alternate provisions or a termination are agreed to. You indicate that the landlord “is aware” that you moved out, but unless there’s an agreement terminating the lease, which does not appear to be the case, your obligations continue. Having said that, no landlord is allowed under Massachusetts law to engage in conduct considered to be “self-help” eviction. Changing the locks on an apartment for which a valid lease exists would clearly fall with those prohibitions, and exposes the landlord to considerable liability. I doubt a court would look favorably on his/her request for December rent given that the landlord has prevented you from occupying the apartment notwithstanding the fact you moved out. (Theoretically one could rent an apartment and never occupy it or do so for less than a full term, and as long as lease obligations are honored, there’s no violation of any law.) There are guidelines and laws dealing with the return of security deposits and application of last month’s rent which the landlord is also obligated to follow. In normal situations, a landlord would likely apply a last month’s rent deposit to the last month of a lease. I would argue that the landlord’s actions are clear violations of the law, and that your moving out was not the same as a refusal to pay rent and thus violate your obligations. That creates a gray area where it’s not clear the landlord could in fact apply the “August” rent to this month, given that he made it impossible for you to occupy. I think the Housing Court is your best alternative under these circumstances. Whether or not he “requires” the other two girls to find subletters is not really a legal issue, since I’m not clear there remains an enforceable lease at this point - at least as it relates to your obligations.

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