Former Portland mayor Ethan Strimling granted jury trial on whether his landlord can evict him

·4 min read

Jul. 11—Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling has been granted his request for a jury trial after appealing a previous court ruling that his landlord could evict him from his Congress Street apartment.

Strimling has argued that the eviction is unlawful because it is in retaliation for his involvement in a tenants union.

Maine Superior Court Justice John O'Neil Jr., in a ruling issued last week, negated the district court ruling that Strimling could be evicted, and sent the case to a jury trial.

The earlier decision came in April from Cumberland County District Court Judge Susan Oram after a one-day hearing — without a jury — known as a summary proceeding. Strimling filed an appeal soon after.

Oram ruled that Strimling could be evicted from his apartment in the Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St. after his landlord, Geoffrey Rice, said he initially decided not to renew the former mayor's lease because he was tired of Strimling trying to "nickel and dime" him over rent increases. He later began eviction proceedings.

Strimling, who served as mayor from 2015 to 2019, said he was being retaliated against for his involvement in organizing the Trelawny Tenants Union, which was formed in 2020 under a previous name to respond to concerns of Rice's tenants in Strimling's building and other buildings.

"Mr. Rice has created a building with unsafe living conditions, he has attempted to impose illegal rent increases and he has intimidated tenants with fear of eviction," Strimling said in a statement responding to the new ruling Monday. "In response, we formed a tenants' union which he is trying to break. Forming a tenants' union is the right of every tenant in Maine and we will fight this case until justice is served."

David Chamberlain, an attorney for Trelawny 657, the company that owns the building with Rice as sole shareholder, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking to discuss the ruling. An email sent to the property management company for 655 Congress St. was returned with the message that Rice is out of town this week and was not available for an interview.

In his written decision, O'Neil said there were two questions at the center of a dispute over the facts of the case that could change the outcome and thus warranted a jury trial.

The first is whether Rice's decision to schedule a May 2021 meeting with Strimling was because of a dispute they were having over the fact that Strimling had broken lease rules by leaving a window open in April and that Rice had fined him for it or because of Strimling's participation in the Trelawny Tenants Union.

Strimling has argued that the meeting was called because of his participation in the union. He has pointed out that the email he received setting up the meeting referenced an email he and other tenants had sent the landlord, asking questions about lease renewals and whether the building was going to be sold.

Rice, meanwhile, has said the meeting was to discuss the $50 fine he sought to collect from Strimling for leaving his window open during heating season.

The second disputed issue is whether Strimling's participation in the union was discussed during the May 2021 meeting. During the April hearing before Oram, Strimling said concerns about the union were discussed, while Rice and his attorney who was with him at the meeting, Paul Bulger, said there was no discussion of the union.

"If, in fact, the May 25th, 2021, discussion involved Strimling's role in an organization 'concerned with landlord-tenant relationships,' then it could serve as proof of Strimling's claim that his lease was not renewed — and he was evicted — as retaliation for his involvement in the TTU," O'Neil wrote. "What exactly took place at this meeting — and the ramifications of such a finding — is well within the province of a jury."

Strimling also argued in his appeal that the jury should look at whether he took a lead role in a complaint the union made to the city about Trelawny because it could show evidence that Rice had retaliated against him. But O'Neil said that issue wasn't likely to impact the outcome of the case because the union complained to the city in June 2021, nearly a month after the meeting at which Rice served Strimling the non-renewal notice.

A date for the jury trial has not yet been set, said Scott Dolan, an attorney for Strimling. In the meantime, Dolan said, Strimling continues to live and pay rent at 655 Congress Street, his home for the past six years, and remains an active member of the Trelawny Tenants Union.

According to the Superior Court ruling, Strimling pays a monthly rent of $980.