Backlash grows over online rent payments

Rent it Right

Q: Our landlord has instituted a policy of online rent payments only, using a bill-paying service on the Internet. We object to this, as we don’t have a computer at home and would rather use a check. Can we refuse to go along with the new policy? –Marvin and Gayle D.

A: If you refuse to pay rent online and the landlord rejects your check, you may get hit with an eviction lawsuit for nonpayment of rent. But if you are renting with a fixed-term lease, your landlord’s unilateral change in an important term (how rent is paid) would probably be ruled illegal by a judge. The essence of a lease is that its terms remain in place until it expires or both parties agree to make a change.

On the other hand, if you’re renting month to month, the landlord can announce a change of terms with proper notice (30 days in most states). After that, you’d be obligated to pay online.

Or would you? Perhaps it’s worth asking why the landlord is instituting this change. Maybe it’s to cut down on administrative costs and paper, but maybe a more sinister motivation is at hand.

Recently, just such a policy was instituted at apartment complexes in Los Angeles. Tenants objected, claiming that the landlord was targeting older, low-income tenants who had two things in common: Many were protected by rent control, and many did not own a computer. They argued that apart from the notice issue, the landlord was targeting a particular class of tenants — older ones — with the intent of inducing them to move out or, if tenants refused to pay, creating a reason to evict them. This would create vacancies that could rent at market rates, presumably to younger people who were not averse to paying rent online.

But the policy sparked a rebellion. Tenants demonstrated, filed a lawsuit handled by venerable legal aid group Bet Tzedek, and inspired a bill in the state Legislature that would forbid online-only rent payment clauses (Senate Bill 1055, Lieu).

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Q: I own and manage a large apartment complex. We’ve always encouraged our tenants to actively take part in providing security on the property by reporting suspicious activities and participating in a neighborhood watch group. The group assigns members to walk around the grounds on specific days and to report anything amiss. After the shooting of the young man in Florida by a neighborhood watch leader, I began to wonder: Do I, as the property owner, face any possibility of liability if one of my tenant-watchers were to do something similar? –Daron F.

A: You’re not the only one who’s wondering about this — lawyers for community associations, homeowners associations and other groups are addressing the same worry. The answer from prudent counsel is straightforward: The more closely allied you are with a neighborhood watch group, the more likely it is that you may be found jointly liable if the group or a member does something that leads to a civil lawsuit. If you need security, say the lawyers, hire a private security firm, which has the dual advantages of being separately responsible for its own misdeeds and employing trained personnel (though some might take issue with the value of this last point).

Here’s how a liability problem might unfold: Suppose the group you sponsor mistakenly targets an innocent visitor as someone who’s up to no good, confronts the visitor, and a fight ensues. The visitor is hurt and sues the watch member for his injuries. But the watch member has few monetary resources (the member is "judgment proof," as the lawyers say), so the visitor’s lawyer looks around for a source of recovery. You, and your liability insurance policy, are just what the doctor ordered. You’ll be brought into the lawsuit as a defendant, on the theory that by sponsoring and encouraging the group, you are responsible for its negligent and possibly even intentional wrongdoings.

Don’t get sidetracked by asking, "What if the visitor was the aggressor?" Those questions of proof get settled by the jury. Until the jury starts deliberating, there’s usually enough evidence to keep the property owner in the case. And that’s the headache and expense you want to avoid, if at all possible.

So, what’s the safe course? Some lawyers for associations are telling their clients that if the association supports the watch group, partners with it, includes it in their meetings and plans, or has association members serving as watch participants, the association risks being found responsible for injuries and damages. The more separation, the better.

This advice is disappointing news to the many groups that have operated without incident for years, sponsored by associations and property owners, and even encouraged and taught by local law enforcement. Most watch groups do not include members with an agenda and a trigger-happy finger. It will be up to individual associations and owners to decide whether the risk of civil liability, though remote, is too great to continue their working relationship with a watch group.

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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