Landlords and tenants do not typically enter into their relationship looking for conflict. Sometimes, however, problems develop that cannot be easily fixed by a phone call or email. In these situations, a tenant may consider suing their landlord to resolve the issues in court. Learn the reasons you may be able to sue your landlord and if it really is the best approach.
Benefits of Suing Your Landlord
Filing a lawsuit does have some potential advantages for tenants.
- Could Motivate a Landlord to Settle Outside of Court: Notifying your landlord of your intention to sue him or her could motivate your landlord to do everything in their power to avoid actually going to court. He or she may agree to settle with you before the matter ever goes before a judge.
- Receive Money You Are Owed: If you sue your landlord and win, you will be awarded the money you are owed, possibly more. For example, if your landlord wrongfully withheld your security deposit, you will be awarded this amount, and in some states, two or three times this amount.
- Receive Damages: If you win a court case against your landlord, you may also receive damages. For example, if your unit was uninhabitable, you could be awarded damages for any pain and suffering it caused you.
- Ability to Stay in Your Apartment: If you file suit against your landlord for a wrongful eviction and win, you will not be forced to move from your apartment.
Risks of Suing Your Landlord
Filing a lawsuit , however, also has some important potential risks that every tenant should consider.
- You Could Lose: Deciding to sue your landlord is not a guarantee of victory. You can go through all the hassle of a lawsuit and lose. Often times, landlords are protected by limited liability companies (LLCs) or larger organizations that may have in-house legal counsel or fat wallets to hire competent attorneys.
- Costly: Filing a lawsuit is not free. You will have to pay court costs and filing fees. Certain states will also require you to be represented by an attorney, although most allow you, or even require you, to represent yourself in small claims court—and lawyers can become very expensive. You have to decide if the amount you are seeking from your landlord justifies all of these extra costs.
- Landlord Could Countersue: Filing a lawsuit against your landlord could motivate them to file a lawsuit against you. If you lose this countersuit, you could be responsible for court costs, their attorney’s fees (as well as your own), as well as damages the landlord suffered plus the original amount the landlord was seeking.
Is Suing the Best Option?
While suing is one option, it may not always be the best option. If you get into the habit of suing your landlords, it may make it harder for you to find an apartment in the future. You don’t want to be known as the tenant who sues over everything.
There will be legitimate circumstances where a lawsuit is the only option, such as a serious injury caused by a landlord’s complete neglect. In other, less serious, situations, a lawsuit may be a waste of your time. If your landlord is withholding $25 from your security deposit and it costs $50 to file a lawsuit in small claims court, you have to determine if the hassle of a lawsuit for such a small sum is really worth your time.
Send a Demand Letter First
Before you actually file a lawsuit against your landlord, you should send a demand letter to the landlord. This letter should state what you are seeking from the landlord. For example, you want the landlord to fix a mold issue in the bathroom. Make it clear in this letter that if this issue is not remedied, you plan to file a lawsuit against the landlord.
State Rules Differ
Every state will have different rules about when and how you can file a lawsuit. You need to check with the small claims court or with an attorney in your area to determine the exact requirements.
In most states, there is an implied warranty of habitability. This means that the landlord is responsible for making repairs and keeping the property in livable condition. For example, every tenant has the right to have heat, plumbing fixtures and running water available to them. If the landlord refuses to make repairs that affect the health and safety of the tenant, then the tenant can often withhold rent, move out of the property or eventually sue the landlord.
Where Do You Sue a Landlord?
Most landlord versus tenant lawsuits occur in small claims court. Eviction cases, however, are usually heard in a higher court. Again, each state will have different laws regarding the exact procedures.
For example, the maximum amount you can sue your landlord for will differ in each state. In some states, this limit is $2,500, while in others it is $15,000.
State laws will also differ on how long a landlord has to reply to the lawsuit. In Alabama, for example, a landlord has 14 days to respond.
When to Sue a Landlord
When you should sue your landlord depends on the reason you are suing. If you are suing because the landlord withheld your security deposit, then it makes sense to file the lawsuit after move out. If you are suing because the landlord refuses to perform repairs to make the unit habitable, then it makes sense to sue while you have an active lease.
If you sue while you are still living in the apartment, you do risk the landlord trying to retaliate against you.
However, many states have laws that prohibit landlords from performing an act of retaliation in response to a tenant taking a legally allowed action, such as taking the landlord to court.
- Statute of Limitations: You must be aware that there is a statute of limitations for property damage on how much time after the incident you have to sue your landlord. Laws vary widely. In Louisiana, for example, you have as little as a year, while in Rhode Island, you have up to 10 years.
10 Reasons You Can Sue Your Landlord
State specific laws will again come into play. In general, you may be able to file a lawsuit against your landlord for the following reasons.
- Illegally Keeping Your Security Deposit: Each state’s landlord tenant law lists specific reasons a landlord can take deductions from your security deposit. If a landlord has made a deduction for a reason that is not legally allowed or which were not agreed specifically in advance, such as normal wear and tear on the property, then you could take your landlord to court. You can also file suit if your landlord has simply not returned your security deposit or is withholding it and falsely stating that you violated the terms of your lease.
- Not Following Your State’s Security Deposit Laws: In addition to wrongfully withholding your security deposit, you may be able to sue your landlord if he or she does not follow additional security deposit rules. This could include charging more than the state maximum allowed, failing to notify you of where your deposit is being held or failing to include an itemized list of any deductions taken.
- Housing Discrimination: If your landlord has violated the terms of the Federal Fair Housing Act, you may have a legal case against them. You will first have to file a complaint with HUD. HUD will investigate and if they feel the landlord has committed housing discrimination, further legal action will be taken.
- Illegal Clauses in Lease Agreement: A landlord cannot include clauses in the lease that are illegal or that go against the landlord-tenant laws in your state. For example, service animals are allowed under the Federal Fair Housing Act. If a landlord refuses to allow service animals, it is illegal. Another example would be a clause in the lease which states that a landlord is not responsible for making any repairs in the property or that the landlord has the right to make the tenant move out of the property at any time he or she wishes.
- Landlord Has Not Reimbursed You for a Repair: If a landlord refused to perform a repair that affected health and safety, or refused to perform it in a reasonable amount of time, and you personally paid someone else to perform the repair, you can sue your landlord to recover the money you paid out of your own pocket, as well as for possible damages.
- Unit Is Uninhabitable: You can file a lawsuit if your landlord refuses to make repairs that affect your health and safety. For example, you do not have running water, your heat is not working in the winter or you have a mold issue or lead paint hazard. In this scenario, before you file a lawsuit against the landlord, you usually have the option to notify the landlord that you will withhold rent or move out of the unit if they do not fix the issue.
- Did Not Disclose Lead Paint Hazards/Mold Issue: Landlords are required to disclose any known, existing or previous lead paint hazards or mold issues at the property. It is illegal for a landlord to purposefully hide this information from you, especially because it is an issue that could cause long-term health problems.
- Entering a Tenant’s Property Illegally: Landlords usually have to provide reasonable notice to enter a tenant’s rental property and they can only do so for legally allowed reasons. If a landlord violates these laws, the tenant can go to court to stop the landlord from entering and could be awarded damages.
- Injury at Rental Property: You could have a case for a lawsuit against your landlord if you are injured at the rental property due to a landlord’s neglect. For example, you slip and fall because there is not a lawfully required banister in the stairwell. You cannot sue the landlord if your injury is due to your own neglect. For example, your apartment is so dirty that you slip and fall in your apartment on a pile of your own dirty clothing.
- Filing an Illegal Eviction: You can countersue your landlord if you feel your landlord is trying to evict you illegally.