Q: I am a landlord and had a tenant who is in the Army Reserves. He received mobilization orders in February, directing him to appear in June, several months away. My tenant just gave me a verbal notice seven days before he left. He claims he is entitled to a full refund of his deposit because the Army gives some rights to their personnel when they have to be mobilized. I would like to know if this is true and what my options are. –Robert S.

A: As a member of the armed services, your tenant does have special rights when it comes to breaking a lease, if that’s what he has to do to fulfill his activation orders. Under the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act, a tenant who must move can give his landlord a 30-day notice, which will end the tenancy 30 days after the rent is next due. For example, suppose rent is due on the first, and your tenant gives you a 30-day notice on Dec. 15. Responsibility for rent will end on Feb. 1 (but the tenant must still pay January’s rent).

Your tenant had plenty of time to give you the required amount of notice. Having given you only seven days is not sufficient. You may treat this notice as if it was done properly — that is, consider it a 30-day notice and consider the tenancy to have ended 30 days after the date that rent would have been next due.

Now to the security deposit. The Servicemembers’ law does not vary your state’s rules on the retention and use of the deposit. In general, you may use the deposit to cover unpaid rent and to remedy damage in excess of normal wear and tear. If your tenant left the place spotless and had no unpaid rent to his name, you’d need to return the entire deposit. But apparently the tenant did leave unpaid rent behind — that next month’s rent, which he was responsible for under the Servicemembers’ law. You may deduct that month’s rent from the deposit.

Q: I live in an old apartment complex. I would like to purchase a big new flat-screen TV for my living room, but have encountered a stumbling block. The landlord has referred me to the DIRECTV agent who services our buildings, but he says he can’t give me high definition until the owners improve the wiring. And when I ask the manager, I get the runaround.

My unit has a large private deck where I could easily mount a satellite dish and run wires directly into my apartment, thus bypassing the present wiring. I heard a year or two back about a law that should apply to a situation like mine — permitting a tenant to independently contract for individual cable or satellite television despite any exclusive arrangements by the apartment ownership. Could you provide me a citation to this statute or ordinance and give any clarification of my options? –Jim A.

A: Your memory has served you well — just about a year ago, the Federal Communications Commission issued a final regulation that forbade owners of multi-unit residential buildings from entering into "exclusive" deals with audio and video providers. The theory behind the rule, which was opposed by apartment industry lobbying groups, was that exclusive arrangements kept healthy competition from flourishing, thereby making it more expensive for tenants to receive their programs. The apartment industry argued to the contrary, claiming that exclusive deals resulted in more competition, for the exclusive deal itself, and that the price savings would be passed on to the tenants. Importantly, the regulation decreed that any existing exclusive arrangements would no longer be enforceable.

But here is where your situation and the regulation your remember part ways. Your wish — to receive high-def TV — wouldn’t necessarily be solved by invoking the FCC rule and calling a different cable provider (whom your landlord wouldn’t necessarily have to let into his building — the ban on exclusive contracts didn’t mean that every cable company has the right to enter the building). You’d still face the roadblock of the antique wiring. You have, instead, hit upon a different solution, which is to rely on your right to receive satellite transmissions independent of any wiring in the building or existing cable deals between the owner and a cable company, exclusive or not. Since 1996, the year the Federal Telecommunications Act was passed, landlords cannot unreasonably interfere with tenants’ rights to mount an antenna within their exclusive rented space. You can learn the specifics of this rule by going to the FCC Web site (www.fcc.gov) and typing "Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule" in the search box.

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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