Q: I have a family in one of my rentals that is experiencing a very rough time — I think the wife, who has a huge temper, is physically abusing the husband. In fact, the husband wants to move out with the kids, but when he went to the local shelter for victims of domestic violence, he was turned away because he’s male. This makes it practically impossible for him to leave, because he doesn’t have the finances to set up a separate household. Isn’t this unequal treatment against the law? What should I do to help? –Wendy S.
A: Although the public often assumes that victims of domestic violence are overwhelmingly female, there are significant instances of violence directed against men. But many battered women’s shelters offer services for females and their children only, and do so because the state funding statutes they depend upon specify that grants will be given to organizations offering help to battered women only. To challenge these statutes based on equal protection, a male victim of domestic violence would have to convince a judge, first, that he and his children are in the same boat, practically speaking, as a woman with her children; and second, that no compelling state interest justifies the "women only" classification. Let’s look at those requirements in the context of your situation.
Some studies have shown that women and men are, in fact, equally likely to suffer domestic violence, but that physical injuries to men tend to be less severe. But even if fewer men suffer injuries, this doesn’t make them dissimilar to women victims (the size of the victim group isn’t relevant — it’s the individual man’s experience, measured against a woman’s, that counts). Similarly, even if the number of male victims is less, this doesn’t give the state the administrative luxury of deciding to help the larger group to the exclusion of the smaller group. This isn’t to say that men and women should necessarily be given equal services, but that help should extend to both sexes. For example, a shelter program that encountered many more female victims could maintain a shelter for women and their children, but give male victims and their children hotel vouchers. There’s no reason to have a one-gender-only funding scheme when a gender-neutral approach will accomplish the same goals. If your tenant raised these arguments and won, a court would order the state to fund shelters regardless of the gender of the victim, which would drive the shelters to offer aid to both sexes.
Your tenant might consider approaching a fair housing advocacy group with his situation. Now, even if they take interest in his case, in the meantime, he’ll need to take steps to protect himself and his children. Here’s where you come in: By law in about one-third of the states, victims of domestic violence have special rights when they are tenants. Many states give the victim the right to break a lease without financial consequences, and some states give the landlord the right to evict the perpetrator of the violence (but leave the rest of the family on the premises). A call to the local legal aid office may give you the information you need on any applicable laws. You may also want to find out if your tenant has obtained a restraining order against his wife; this will also allow you to keep her off the property. Because excluding spouses from a shared rental is tricky business, you might want to check with a local lawyer before taking action.
Q: We’re renters of a single-family home, and recently found out that the landlord with whom we signed our lease doesn’t own the house anymore — the bank does. We have seen the title for the house and it is in the bank’s name only. The bank knows we’re here and has no problems with that (we’re paying rent to them.) Today, we received eviction papers from our former landlord! How do you suggest we deal with this problem? –Michelle W.
A: Your situation is a bit unusual — when tenants encounter a scam from a foreclosed-upon former landlord, they’re usually told to pay the rent to the ex-owner. Having a former owner who is not demanding or receiving rent try to evict you makes no sense. Eviction lawsuits are expensive and time consuming, so it’s hard to imagine why your former landlord would want to go down this road.
But rational or not, this is the situation you find yourself in. Of course, only an owner can evict a tenant, and that defense will stop an eviction lawsuit at the first opportunity. But knowing that you can defeat the case in court is slight comfort when you realize that doing so will cost some time and money. Even worse, having an eviction filing in your past — even one so absurd as this, which you will surely win — will have negative consequences. Some landlords will automatically reject prospects who have undergone an eviction lawsuit, even one that the prospect has won, and however arbitrary this practice may be, there’s no law against it.
You would be well-served to get this thing stopped as soon as possible. If you’ve been served with court papers, you will have to respond within a few days. First, get in touch with the bank and tell them what’s happening. Next, find a lawyer experienced in landlord-tenant law and hire that person to write the legal pleading that you’ll need to get this lawsuit tossed. You’ll also want to find out if there is any way, under the rules of your state, that you can seal the record of your case or otherwise make unavailable its history. With luck, you can get the judge to order the former landlord to pay your attorney fees and costs, on the grounds that ex-owner has brought a frivolous lawsuit.
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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