Find ex-tenants who owe you money

Rent it Right

Q: My tenant left me with a lot of damage that the security deposit won’t cover, so I’d like to sue him in small claims court. But I don’t know where he is — he refused to leave a forwarding address. I thought I could send a letter to his old address, ask for confirmation of delivery, and get the new address that way. But that system is no longer in place. Any suggestions on how to locate him? –Brenda S.

A: You’re right — U.S. Postal Service policies have been tightened up in recent years, in response to federal privacy laws. According to the U.S. Postal Service, it will not share a patron’s new address to requesting mailers unless those mailers already possess the patron’s address and the patron submitted a change of address form. If your tenant wouldn’t leave a forwarding address with you, chances are he didn’t leave one with the post office either.

This leaves you with some alternative methods for tracking down your ex-tenant. The Internet is full of advertisements for "skip searches" for landlords. These organizations promise to find your ex-tenant, for a fee, of course.

Before signing up with a skip search, try some sleuthing on your own. Begin with the tenant’s rental application (hopefully, you have a comprehensive one that you’ve saved). A good application will ask for names and addresses of employers and references; you may be able to learn your tenant’s whereabouts by calling up these contacts and asking some creative questions.

Once you obtain an address, you’ll need to serve the ex-tenant with your summons and complaint. You may be able to do this by using the mail, or court procedures may require personal service.

Q: Years ago, we hired a lawyer to prepare a lease form for us to use at our apartment building. The lawyer is now representing a tenant who claims we discriminated against her. I thought that lawyers couldn’t go against former clients — isn’t it unethical for that lawyer to threaten to sue us? –Patricia B.

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A: You’re wading into some tricky lawyer ethics questions here. Many clients think that "their" lawyer is on their side forever, no matter what the nature of future cases or disputes. Not so.

The general rule is that lawyers may not take a position that attacks their prior work. For example, suppose your lawyer drafted a lease form for you that included a clause that a tenant now claims is against the law. If that tenant were to ask your former lawyer to represent her in attacking that clause, the lawyer would be ethically bound to turn the case down, because he’d be attacking the very lease he prepared for his former client.

The question is: What’s the genesis of the discrimination claim? The claim may have nothing to do with your lease form. Chances are it involves actions or statements by you or your employees that involve federal or state fair housing laws, irrespective of your lease.

But if the complaint stems from a lease clause, you’ve got reason to object to the lawyer’s involvement now.

For example, if the lease he drafted included a clause making tenants with disabilities pay for certain modifications, and if that clause is the basis for the tenant’s claims, you’re dealing with the lawyer’s "former work," and you may be able to fairly insist that the lawyer turn this case down.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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