Q: We own rental property in a college town, and have generally had good experiences with our student tenants. But this year we got a particularly rowdy bunch, and despite our pleas (and the intercession of the neighbors and the police), we were slapped with a fine on account of the renters’ loud parties. Can we insist that they reimburse us? Is this grounds for eviction? –Ann and Goren M.
A: Let’s look at your second question first — can you terminate the lease based on the renters’ loud parties? You probably can, based on your tenants’ violation of your town’s noise ordinance (the police had the authority to intervene because violating the ordinance is an infraction, subjecting the perpetrators to a fine). In other words, the tenants broke the law.
Whenever tenants use rental property in an illegal way — as a meth lab, to give an extreme example — landlords have the right to declare the tenancy over.
Not every illegal act that occurs on the property can justify eviction. For instance, writing a check on insufficient funds can be a violation of a state’s criminal law, but it’s doubtful that a landlord could evict simply because the tenant sat at the kitchen table while writing the check. The closer the relationship between the illegal act and the property, the more likely a judge would be to uphold a termination.
Most leases and rental agreements include clauses in which the tenant agrees not to conduct illegal activities on the premises, and is advised that doing so will be grounds for termination. But even if your rental document is silent on this issue, your state’s landlord-tenant statutes probably make the tenant responsible for behaving in a law-abiding manner. The duty applies whether or not it appears in the rental agreement.
Getting reimbursed for the fine is another matter, however. Unless your lease or rental agreement specifies that the tenants will reimburse you for any fines you end up paying as a result of their misbehavior, you may be out of luck. For this reason, smart landlords with properties in cities with noise ordinances include such a clause in their leases.
And even though you didn’t ask about this avenue, think twice if you are considering reimbursing yourself from the tenants’ security deposit. Whether you take the money now, and then demand that the tenants replenish the deposit to its original amount, or you deduct it at the end of the tenancy, the tenants might object.
Their argument will be that, according to law, the deposit may be used only for unpaid back rent and wear and tear beyond normal use. This fine was neither.
And even if your state allows you to use the deposit "for any other sums due under this lease," this won’t help you unless you’ve specified, in the lease, that fines you pay as a result of the tenants’ rowdiness must be reimbursed (that’s how it becomes a "sum due under this lease").
Before chalking up this fine as a tough lesson, check your state landlord-tenant laws to see if the issue is specifically addressed. You may find that your state has made reimbursement in a situation like this a legal requirement.
Q: My landlord tried to evict me for violations of the lease, but in the middle of the unlawful detainer lawsuit, we settled. I agreed to move out, and he agreed to drop the lawsuit. Part of the written agreement said that I would abandon any belongings I left behind.
When I moved out, I wasn’t able to move all of my stuff. I came back and asked for it, but the landlord said, "No." But in my state, landlords have to store tenants’ belongings and tell them how to get the stuff back. Shouldn’t the landlord have followed this procedure? Now he’s telling me that I can have it back if I agree not to sue him. –Julius T.
A: The answers to your question lie in what, exactly, you signed and on the nature of your state’s law on abandoned property.
The agreement you signed was probably a "stipulated settlement," in which each party to the lawsuit agreed to do specified things in order for the lawsuit to be dismissed. Like a contract, each party both gives and gets something. In your case, you agreed to move out in exchange for not having to go through the lawsuit; and the landlord agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for your departure.
But the landlord added another "get" to his side of the bargain — you apparently agreed to forfeit any ownership interest you may have had in anything left behind. This excused the landlord from any obligations that state law might impose on him regarding the handling of tenants’ leftover property.
Did you notice the emphasis on "apparently," above? If the stipulation merely stated that any belongings left behind would be deemed "abandoned," then you may not have forfeited any ownership rights at all.
That is, by agreeing that leftover stuff would be considered abandoned, you may have simply been restating what the law already knows — that tenants’ property left behind is "abandoned" property. That’s a far cry from saying that you give up any rights state law may give you to get it back.
Without seeing the stipulation, it’s impossible to know whether you were truly giving up ownership rights or simply restating the law (that belongings left behind are deemed abandoned).
Let’s look at each possibility. If the stipulation means that you’ve given up any recapture rights, then whether this decision seals your fate depends on your state’s law concerning landlords’ treatment of abandoned property.
May the parties waive the procedure described in the statute or is it the type of right (like your right to a fit and habitable home) that the law will not allow landlords and tenants to modify? If the former, then your agreement in the stipulation to give up any ownership rights will stick, and you’re out of luck.
On the other hand, if state law will not uphold a tenant’s waiver of the process whereby he can recover his belongings, then the stipulation has no effect. That’s a long shot, however, because the judge in the eviction lawsuit had to review the stipulation.
Presumably, a judge would not approve of a settlement in which you agreed to waive a right that cannot legally be waived.
Now what about the other possibility — that the stipulation is merely your acknowledgment that anything left behind is deemed "abandoned"? If that’s how the stipulation should be understood, then must your landlord handle and return the items according to state law? Again, it depends on your state’s law.
Some states, such as California, provide for a very orderly process for the handling, storage and return of tenants’ belongings, but it’s not mandatory. It simply gives landlords a process that will shield them from liability if a tenant later tries to sue over discarded items.
Landlords may choose not to follow the system (a classic "safe harbor") and may instead take their chances if tenants later sue to recover property or for damages due to the property’s destruction.
If your state has set up a system like this, your landlord was free to handle your leftovers as he saw fit; but if your state requires landlords to handle property in a certain way, your landlord has possibly violated the law, and you may have a case against him.