Consequences for lying on rental application

Rent it Right

Q: I’ve just discovered that a tenant misrepresented a very important fact on his rental application: He said he had no criminal record, but another tenant in the building told me that this man has recent convictions for burglary and rape. When I confronted him, he admitted it. Now, his neighbors have given notice, saying they’re afraid to live here. Do I have any legal recourse against the tenant with the rap sheet? –Denise W.

A: "Legal recourse" is a big phrase. What, exactly, do you want to do? I can imagine you might want this fellow off your property, and you might also want to be compensated for the loss of other tenants.

First, can you insist that this tenant move out? That depends on your state law and what your rental application says.

In some states, a material misrepresentation is grounds for termination — if you’re in one of those, you can proceed. But what if you’re not in one of those states? You’ll need to rely on your application.

A carefully drafted application advises the applicant that material misrepresentations will be grounds for termination, and it asks the applicant to sign an acknowledgment of this provision.

While there will always be arguments about whether a misrepresentation is material — that is, important enough to have affected your decision to rent to this tenant — the misstatement you describe would undoubtedly qualify. If you have no such statement on your application, you’ll have a hard time dislodging this tenant in the absence of some act that would justify a termination.

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How about compensation for the loss of your other renters? You may feel that the tenant who misled you should cover the cost to advertise and show the new vacancies, and to screen potential renters, because his lie caused these expenses. The legal name for your theory would be "intentional interference with a business opportunity or relationship."

You might also find some help in your state statutes. Apparently, the landlords in Minnesota have encountered enough mischief-making misrepresentations in tenant applications to warrant a specific rule concerning the consequences.

Under Minnesota Statutes Annotated Section 504B.173(2)(4)(b), an applicant who provides materially false information on an application, or who omits material information, will be liable to the landlord for damages, plus a civil penalty of up to $500, civil court filing costs, and reasonable attorney fees. The "damages" part would cover your advertising and screening costs.

In the future, consider confirming important information that you ask for in the application. Tenant screening services abound, and although they are far from 100 percent accurate, they’re a start. Wise landlords consider an application to be the beginning of their due diligence, but not the end of it.

Q: I have a lease that doesn’t say anything about pets. My landlord wants me to agree to a new clause prohibiting pets without his consent, but I refused to sign the amended lease, because I was planning on getting a dog. Now he’s hassling me, and has taken away the parking place that I’ve been using since the lease began. Can he do this? –Yuri F.

A: When your landlord handed you the lease, you can be sure that he expected you to follow its terms until it ended. You, too, are entitled to hold the landlord to the original understanding. There’s nothing illegal about both of you agreeing to vary the lease midterm, but that requires agreement by both, which apparently isn’t the case with this proposed amendment.

Your landlord’s response appears to be retaliatory, unless you can think of an independent reason why the landlord is now attempting to deprive you of the parking place. If you’re lucky, your state protects you against such responses.

Typically, states make it illegal for landlords to take negative actions (terminations, rent hikes, reductions in service) after a tenant has complained in good faith to the landlord or a government authority or agency about substandard conditions, exercised a legal right (such as rent withholding), or participated in tenant organizing. Most states don’t list "refusal to amend a lease" as one of the tenant acts for which retaliation is prohibited.

If your state prohibits retaliation and doesn’t specifically address your situation, you may still be able to argue that refusing to amend the lease was a "legal right" that you exercised. It might be a bit of a stretch, however, especially if your statute gives examples of tenants’ legal rights (they typically mention repair remedies).

Because your right to stand by the terms of the original lease is so different than the specified repair rights that illustrate the concept, a judge might be hesitant to give you this protection.

You might, however, get lucky, and find that your state has addressed your situation directly. In Nevada, for example, a landlord cannot retaliate when a tenant has refused to agree to a new "regulation" that the landlord could not otherwise immediately enforce — see Nevada Revised Statutes Annotated 118A-510(f).

That’s not too far from saying that a renter who refuses to amend a lease (with terms that can’t be unilaterally changed until it’s renewed) is also protected.

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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