Q: My husband and I signed a yearlong lease a few months ago. I’ve just learned that he’s been cheating on me with a longtime girlfriend. I’m devastated and want him to leave as I seek a divorce, and he’s agreed to move out. Our landlord says that if I can’t come up with the entire rent on my own, she’ll evict me. In fact, my husband made most of the money and I don’t think I can come up with that much money. Aren’t there legal protections for tenants in a situation like this? –Ellen S.
A: Federal law protects divorced people from discrimination. Landlords generally may not refuse to rent to someone or set unusually onerous rental terms just because the prospective tenant is divorced. Many state laws have similar protections. And in a recent trend, about two-thirds of the states have enacted anti-discrimination protections for abused spouses and domestic partners.
These laws offer various protections, such as prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to spouses or partners who have obtained protective orders, and not letting landlords evict a remaining spouse solely because an incident of domestic violence occurred on the property. Many laws also give victims the right to terminate the rental early and have the locks changed. To build in some protection for landlords, some states require victims to file a police report within a specified time before claiming protection under the statute.
All of these protections have two things in common, however: First, the situation must have involved not just domestic discord or disappointment, but actual violence or the credible threat of violence. Second, even when a landlord is dealing with a bona fide case of domestic violence, the landlord is entitled to receive the entire rent.
And here is where your situation may place you outside these laws’ protections: You don’t report any violence or threats, and you’re asking for more than just the right to stay in your rental — you want a rent reduction. The law doesn’t give you that right.
Before resigning yourself to having to move, remember that your husband, now living elsewhere, may still have the obligation to support you, at least until you formally divorce. Your rent money is a "necessity of life," which in most states means that the absent, income-earning spouse has to contribute to that expense. Check with a family law attorney right away to see whether you’re entitled to support — before you fall behind on the rent — and to make sure all of your rights are protected in the divorce.
Q: I’ve been using the same maintenance company to take care of my rental properties for several years, but I’ve decided to switch after hearing some complaints from tenants. They say that the workers play loud music while they work, smoke, and just aren’t pleasant to encounter. When I told the owner that I’d be stopping his services, he got angry and accused me of discriminating against him (he and all of his workers are of a particular ethnicity). Can I be sued for this? –Wes C. …CONTINUED
A: First, understand that anyone can be named in a civil complaint for having done anything, period. When someone files a lawsuit, the clerk doesn’t evaluate it for anything other than whether it’s on the right kind of paper and includes basic information about who’s suing whom, and in what court. Not until the case gets to a judge is it evaluated on its merits. You could be sued for wearing blue socks that caused the plaintiff irreparable injury and you’d have to answer in some fashion before the case would go away.
You might get some money for having to respond to such a frivolous lawsuit, but you would still have to engage in the legal process. In theory, lawyers won’t file nutty lawsuits because they have an ethical duty not to do so (and they won’t make any money doing so, either). But people who represent themselves can proceed at will.
So the true answer is "Yes, you could be sued." Then, the issue is whether the lawsuit would stick, or be allowed to proceed; and if so, what are the chances you’d lose?
Your question involves whether a landlord, or anyone hiring an independent contractor such as the maintenance company, can be sued for discrimination. Of course, employers are subject to anti-discrimination laws, but it’s less clear when it comes to dealing with contractors. One answer comes via the federal Civil Rights Act of 1991, which forbids discrimination in the making of contracts.
If you have a service contract with the maintenance company, and the maintenance company claims you’ve canceled it because you decided not to continue doing business with a company comprised of people of a certain ethnicity, that may be enough to get the maintenance company into court to argue the merits of its case.
From the sounds of things, though, you may have a solid defense to such a claim if your tenants’ complaints are truly based on the behavior of the company’s employees and not on their ethnicity — in other words, on what they do, not who they are. For example, terminating the contract because they speak a certain foreign language among themselves, eat certain ethnic foods while on a break, or listen to radio stations from a particular country will get you perilously close to adopting and endorsing ethnic discrimination.
On the other hand, if you are told that the workers are loud and abrasive and disturb your tenants’ peace and quiet, you’ll have a legal and solid business reason to look for another maintenance company. This kind of behavior has no place in a residential setting, no matter who is doing it.
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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