Former Portland mayor Ethan Strimling appears in court during an eviction trial at the Cumberland County Courthouse on April 12, 2022. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

A former Portland mayor who was ordered evicted from his downtown Portland apartment has won his appeal to the Maine Superior Court and will receive a new trial, according to a ruling provided by his attorney.

Ethan Strimling, who served as mayor of Maine’s largest city from 2015 to 2019, was ordered to be evicted from his Congress Street apartment last year for what he said was retaliation for efforts to form a tenants’ union and fight illegal rent hikes.

Amid a Maine housing market with rising prices and a return of evictions, the case has the potential to hold precedent for tenants’ rights in Maine.

A District Court judge ruled in April that landlord Geoffrey Rice could evict Strimling, saying that it was Strimling’s actions as a tenant and not his organizing that had driven Rice to want to stop renting to him. Strimling and his attorney, Scott Dolan, appealed that ruling within a week.

Now, in a ruling dated July 5, the Maine Superior Court has ruled in Strimling’s favor, ordering a new trial with a jury. The previous trial did not involve a jury.

David Chamberlain, who represented Rice in the District Court trial, declined to comment on Strimling being granted the new trial on Monday morning.

Rice argued at trial that he wanted Strimling, who co-writes a column for the Bangor Daily News, out because of a lease violation. Strimling left his window open during the cold months and had “nickel-and-dimed” Rice when the landlord sought rent increases, Rice said.

Now, the Superior Court agreed with Dolan’s argument that Strimling’s role in tenant organizing may have played a larger role than Rice had said.

In his appeal, Strimling’s side argued there were issues of material fact in the District Court ruling that warranted a jury trial, including discrepancies involving a meeting between Rice and Strimling last May where the former mayor was given a notice to leave the apartment.

At its heart was a message Rice sent to Strimling about that meeting that appeared to reference a previous email from the Trelawny Tenants’ Union, an organized group of Rice’s tenants that Strimling was and is a part of.

Also in question is what was said in a May meeting with Strimling, Rice and Rice’s attorney, Paul Bulger, of which recollections varied widely in court.

The Superior Court ruled that both matters had disputed facts that required a jury trial, despite the District Court finding Rice’s argument more credible.

“Rice’s letter informing Strimling of the meeting suggests that Rice’s decision to issue that notice was reached, at least in part, on the [Trelawny Tenants’ Union] communication,” Superior Court Justice John O’Neil wrote.

The Superior Court ruled that a third charge of factual debate, whether Strimling took a leading role in tenants’ union communications with Portland officials, was not relevant to Rice’s decision to evict and did not require further inspection in a jury trial

It was unclear when the new trial would be scheduled, Dolan said.

Strimling and Dolan praised the appeal, with the latter saying he was confident that the jury would find that Strimling was evicted due to his activities with the tenants’ union.

“Forming a tenants’ union is the right of every tenant in Maine,” Strimling said. “We will fight this case until justice is served.”