Q: I understand that I will have to pay a late fee if I pay my rent late. But what about legal fees? I guess my landlord got his lawyer involved in my pay-or-quit notice, because the lawyer sent the notice, but then I paid the rent before going to court. Yesterday, I got a letter from the landlord telling me that I owe him for two hours of his lawyer’s time. Is this legal? –Pat M.
A: Whether your landlord can charge you for the time his lawyer spent preparing the termination notice (and possibly an eviction complaint) depends on what your lease or rental agreement says. If it has an "attorneys’ fees" clause in it, take a look. You may find that it gives the landlord broad power to charge tenants for legal services that he needs in order to enforce the terms and conditions of the lease. This means that even if you didn’t get to court, the cost of hiring the lawyer to prepare for court would be covered by the clause.
Not all legal costs associated with a tenancy can be covered by an attorneys’ fees clause. These are proper only when the incident concerns the meaning or implementation of the lease. For example, if you sued your landlord for injuries you sustained on the property, claiming that he was negligent and was responsible for them, and you lost, you would not be on the hook for the landlord’s fees and court costs. That’s because this type of lawsuit does not concern the meaning or fulfillment of the lease terms.
Some legal costs will be subject to a "loser pays" rule, however, if the legislature in your state has decided that it’s important to do so. For example, your state, like many, may specify how, when and for what reason landlords may enter tenants’ homes. If you successfully sue a landlord who breaks these rules, you may find that the landlord will be ordered by the court to pay your attorney fees and court costs, because the privacy statute requires it.
Q: I’m a maintenance worker in a large apartment complex. One of my co-workers, Sal, is being discriminated against — she always gets the worst shifts, the hardest jobs, and she’s been hounded by the boss for a date. She’s going to go to upper management and complain, and she’s asked me and others if we would back her up. I’d like to, but I’m afraid for my job. Can I be fired if I cooperate? –John P.
A: What you’re describing certainly sounds like a case of workplace discrimination — specifically, sexual harassment. Sal will probably argue that she’s being punished with difficult work assignments in an attempt to get her to return her supervisor’s sexual attentions. With the right kind of evidence, this complaint could be a slam dunk for Sal, resulting in the removal of her supervisor and perhaps some compensation to Sal for having endured the behavior.
Note, however, that the outcome will depend on "the right evidence." And this is where you come in. Understanding whether you’re putting your job at risk means starting with Sal herself. It’s clear that Sal is protected from retaliation when she makes a good faith claim of discrimination — that’s guaranteed in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — and she’s protected whether upper management ultimately decides in her favor or not. Title VII protects anyone who "opposes" illegal discrimination, and until recently, only the victims themselves were recognized as opposing the discriminatory acts (their complaints constituted the opposition). The U.S. Supreme Court recently held, however, that people like you, who participate in the internal investigation of another person’s discrimination complaint, are also protected. Interesting that we should have to wait for the Supreme Court to tell us the obvious: If we’re going to protect employees who report discrimination in their own cases, it’s ridiculous not to protect other workers who report the same behavior in someone else’s case.
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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