Tenants can sue for wrongly discarded belongings

6 tips for proving your case against landlord, manager

Q: At our previous rental we gave 30-day notice that we were relocating to another city. Within that notice period the property manager told us that the landlord was anxious to begin remodeling and that he was willing to "work around us." The property manager said he needed the key to gain access so he could have an overview of the renovations that needed to be done. He also assured us the contractors wouldn’t start any of the work before we fully vacated.

We were going to be making several trips to our new home city and wouldn’t even be there so we thought that the request was reasonable. We trusted the property manager so we gave him an extra key and even asked him to put any items that were in his way on the back patio until we could pick them up.

Our move did not go quite as smoothly as we planned since I unexpectedly fell ill and made it clear to both the landlord and the property manager that I needed help from my family to help move the last of the items. I also knew that I would need to pay any prorated rent into the next month, which I had agreed to do.

To our horror, they disposed of a roomful of valuable family possessions without attempting to contact us and against our specific instructions that these items were being picked up.

When I questioned the landlord, he knew nothing about the items or any agreement we had with providing a key, and then referred us to the property manager. The property manager who had been so friendly when we gave our notice and let him have the key suddenly had a much different attitude and wouldn’t take my calls.

When the property manager finally responded weeks later in a formal letter, he said that we had "given up possession of the property" and that neither he nor the landlord was required to honor or protect our possessions. I didn’t put any of our agreements in writing and so I am concerned that it is now my word versus the word of the property manager.

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What recourse do we have at this point in time?

A: Your situation is most unfortunate, as you were trying to help the property manager and the landlord, and your good deed has turned sour for you. Your landlord is responsible for the actions of the property manager. I would immediately put your claim in writing, just as you have done in your question to me, and also provide a list of the fair market value of the missing property.

Hopefully, you have receipts and, ideally, photos of the items that were left behind and improperly disposed of by the property manager to help you establish their authenticity and value. You should also file a police report, although law enforcement will likely consider this situation to be a civil dispute and not a criminal matter. Finally, you should also file a claim with your own renters insurance policy.

If the insurance claims are not successful to cover any or all of your loss, and the landlord and his property manager refuse to offer you a reasonable settlement for the value of the items you lost, then you should consider a small claims action. You didn’t have any written agreements about this arrangement, but you might have some evidence that can support your case.

The rules of evidence in small claims courts are often much more reasonable than in more formal, higher monetary jurisdictional matters, and this could be very helpful, as you just need to present a plausible foundation to support your claim.

Start with the 30-day notice and then look for any emails or texts or voice mail messages between yourself and the property manager. Your phone records may also show some calls. For example, any phone records indicating that you made calls from your new city to the property manager could be helpful in supporting your statement that you had advised the property manager of your illness and the delay in returning to get the remaining items in the rental home.

If the value exceeds the small claims jurisdictional limits, then you will need to contact an attorney and discuss a formal court action and discuss the pros and cons of such a lawsuit and the higher standards for evidence required to prove your case.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

Email your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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