Q: My son and a couple decided to rent a two-bedroom townhouse. Last month, all three signed the lease, and they each put up one-third of the deposit and one-third of the first month’s rent. Now the couple (who share a room) are saying that my son has to pay half the rent because he has his own room. This is not what they originally agreed to among themselves. I believe that since all three are on the lease, they should each pay one-third of the rent. Is my conclusion legally correct? –Jaci J.
A: When people rent a place together, how they share the rent is up to them — no law requires that they share the rent equally. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t agree among them that they will divide the rent in a certain fashion, and if they are wise, they will write down that understanding in a "roommate agreement." For example, a roommate with a large bedroom and private bath will often pay more than his two roommates who share a room and bath. A roommate agreement that is clear, signed and dated will be legally binding on each roommate who signs it. This means that if one roommate fails to pay his share, and the others cover for him, they can use the agreement as a basis for bringing a suit in small claims court for reimbursement. An oral agreement that covers the same issues is also legally enforceable, but it’s hard to win a case when the evidence boils down to "he said" and "she said."
In your son’s case, it appears that he and his friends initially agreed to split the rent equally per person, without regard to who shares a room and who does not. But is their oral agreement to share the first month’s rent in this manner legally binding on future months? Common sense would suggest that it would apply to the future, but your son is in the unfortunate position of not having a written agreement that he can rely on. Expect the couple to argue that they had no intention of applying the first month’s split to future months.
The short and practical answer to your son’s predicament is that he needs to confer with his housemates and hash this out again. If he cannot afford to shoulder half the rent, or feels it is unfair, he can always break the lease and move, though this will undoubtedly be an inconvenience and he cannot expect a good reference from the landlord. His departure would leave the couple in the position of paying for the entire rent, at least until they find a substitute — who may, like your son, decline to pay half when three people are living there.
Everyone needs to think long and hard about whether they are prepared to unravel the entire living arrangement and face the consequences. In the meantime, keep in mind that the landlord can demand the entire rent from any of the three tenants — how the tenants ultimately divide the rent is not the owner’s problem.
Q: My wife and I have lived in our apartment for 10 years, and I’m the resident manager. A few years ago, my wife was diagnosed with AIDS, but thanks to aggressive (and expensive) medical care that we get through my health benefits on the job, she seems to be holding on. I’ve just been told that I’m being terminated as the manager, but no one will tell me why. I suspect it’s because someone’s uncomfortable with me taking care of an AIDS patient, and that sounds like discrimination to me. Can the firm legally do this? –Brent B.
A: You may be experiencing a form of discrimination known as "association discrimination." A little-noticed provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) aims to prevent employers from discriminating against employees who "associate" with someone who has a disability (for example, an employee who has a family member or roommate with a disability). There’s no debate about whether it’s illegal for an employer, afraid of contamination, to fire someone who cares for a person with HIV-AIDS — that’s against the law. Similarly, employers can’t legally refuse to hire someone who has a child with disability, on the assumption that the applicant would miss a lot of work due to her child’s condition.
Your wife qualifies as a person with a disability; the Supreme Court has said that even asymptomatic HIV infection qualifies as a disability under the law. But now we get to the hard part of your potential claim: You’ll need to be able to show that it was your association with an AIDS patient that motivated the apartment firm’s actions, and not something else. To prove this, you would need to show that the firm knew of your wife’s condition and that there are no other plausible reasons for your firing. If your personnel file is replete with glowing job reviews, it will be hard for the firm to plausibly offer "poor performance" as a justification. If you have any direct proof of how your firm felt about your wife’s condition — perhaps evidenced by its words or deeds — that would be strong evidence, as would proof that you were fired shortly after the firm became aware that your wife has AIDS.
Unfortunately, there’s one more hurdle that you may need to confront. While it is against the law to discriminate against you because of your association with a disabled person, the apartment firm may argue that its action had nothing to do with your wife’s condition and everything to do with the cost of treating that condition. Its argument would be that it fires anyone whose insurance costs reach a certain level, whether or not those costs are related to a disability. It’s unclear how a court would rule on this type of defense. There haven’t been many cases on the issue, and legal commentators disagree on how this defense should be analyzed. Where the law is unsettled and there’s so much at stake (not only your job, but your wife’s continued access to the health care she needs), you’d be well-advised to talk to a local disability-rights lawyer.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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