Q: We’ve discovered to our dismay that our former landlord has thrown away many of our belongings, claiming that we abandoned them. Here’s what happened: Towards the end of our lease, we traveled out of town to our new home, and told the landlord we’d be returning. We had already moved most of our things, and had placed some remaining furniture and boxes in one room, so that the landlord could get a head start on repainting. When we got back, we found the locks changed. The landlord told us that he rightfully concluded that we had abandoned the premises, and pointed to a clause in our lease that says "abandonment" equals removing most of our stuff or not having a bed to sleep in. Do we have any recourse? –Bill and Mel G.
A: Common sense alone would suggest that your actions were not those of an absconding or irresponsible tenant. Your willingness to let your landlord come in before the end of the lease to ready the house for the next occupants was above and beyond the call of duty. Most reasonable landlords, no matter what their lease says, would not have treated you this way.
But alas, you seem to be dealing with an ungrateful fellow who is relying on a creative lease clause to justify his rude behavior. Legally, the question is whether his lease clause would be enforced by a judge (if it would be, any attempt by you to sue in small claims court for the value of your lost possessions would fail). The answer depends on what your state has to say about how landlords must handle abandoned property. Many states have specific procedures, some of which will vary depending on the reason for the tenant’s departure (in some states, tenants who have been evicted but leave belongings behind have fewer reclamation rights than those who have left voluntarily).
If your states give specifics on when, and under what circumstances, a landlord may consider tenant property to have been abandoned, the next step would be to compare the law with your lease clause. I’ll bet my Bar card that your state law does not say that absence of a bed equals abandonment. But that’s not the end — you also need to figure out whether a judge would let your landlord’s clause supersede state law. And this isn’t always easy to determine. In general, the more specific the state scheme for handling abandoned property, the more likely it is that a judge would be loathe to let a landlord circumvent it all by use of his own rules — especially one so ridiculous as the clause in your lease.
Q: I have a maintenance staff of four at my apartment complex. We offer the use of the common facilities to our residents and to others in the community who want to rent them for parties and such. We supply a staff member to be present at the event, to monitor activities and make sure nothing gets out of hand. Nobody likes these assignments, because they’re typically on weekends and in the evening, and the pay isn’t that great.
Two of our staff, who are Muslims, have refused to take these assignments, on the grounds that being present at events where alcohol is served violates their religious beliefs. That means that the remaining two have to shoulder the entire responsibility, which they say is unfair. Do I have to accommodate the wishes of the staffers who refuse? –Lex M.
A: Employers are required to accommodate, to the extent reasonably possible, the religious beliefs held by their employees. Put another way, you must balance the employees’ rights to religious freedom against your own right to run a productive work environment.
A religious practice is one that is motivated by religious faith (it’s the motivation, not the act itself, that counts). For example, a dietary restriction embraced by someone for health reasons would not be a religious practice; but that same restriction, if part of a genuinely held religious belief, would qualify. The Muslim prohibition against alcohol is a well-known part of that religion, and as long as you have no evidence that the employees’ request is a sham (for example, you don’t see these same employees drinking alcohol themselves), you probably have no reason to doubt their sincerity.
Employers aren’t obligated to grant every request for an accommodation. If doing so poses more than a minor hardship, they may decline. Importantly, it’s up to you to show that the accommodation would in fact be more than minor. In your case, you might point to the unfair burden it places on the other half of your workforce, the loss in revenue to you if you must refuse bookings because staff isn’t available to monitor the parties, and the cost of hiring an outside service to keep an eye on things. Practically speaking, this is the kind of evidence you’ll need if you refuse your employees’ request and they complain to a fair employment agency.
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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