You may not have heard the term landlord retaliation before, but this is a legal term for behavior such as any type of eviction, threat, harassment, charge, or other discrimination against a tenant for exercising their legal right. Examples of this could be giving notice to vacate when tenant requests repairs to their unit or evicting a tenant for lease violation after they call the city on you. This type of action will get you in hot water with the authorities.
Being a landlord can be a frustrating position and sometimes you feel like you are backed into a corner. Illegal eviction activity like changing the locks, turning off utilities, or trying to get the tenant to leave without a proper eviction proceeding through harassments can also fall into landlord retaliation. I have seen that in Minnesota, the judges will see right through this type of action as this is not going to work to settle a dispute.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. Never played one on TV. If you are accused of retaliation, this is not to be taken lightly. Call an attorney and get them involved.
So what are the steps in a common retaliation action look like?
- Tenant make complaint/concern to landlord, agency, city or otherwise exercises their rights as a tenant.
- The landlord retaliates (possibly unknowingly) against the tenant such as filing an eviction, asking them to leave, giving notice to vacate, harassments, or other.
- Tenant gets an attorney or calls the city attorney and files a lawsuit (or the city attorney files suit).
- Everyone goes to court. Goal for landlord is to prove their side of story that their action was not retaliatory. This can be done using landlord’s attempts at conflict resolution, documentation of any actions the landlord has taken, and any other information that can show the landlord followed the necessary procedures.
- If the court finds in favor of tenant, landlord may have to pay damages.
While we can all think of deliberate retaliation examples, what would be some examples of actions that could seem like retaliation that you should avoid as a landlord:
- Tenant calls landlord to report that heat is not working. Landlord turns heat up to 75 degrees.
- Tenant calls city instead of first calling landlord to report repairs that need to be done on property. Owner decides that he would rather give tenant notice to vacate, fix the house up and then sell it instead of continuing to rent it. We have all considered this when faced with large repairs, but be careful how you approach this situation.
- Tenant organizes other tenants in a building to band together to bring concerns to landlord. Landlord gives notice to vacate to any or all the members of this group. This might have been normal “run the business” activity, but it could be seen as retaliatory.
- Tenant submits work orders for repairs on their unit. Owner refuses work. Tenant contacts rental department at city, who in turn does inspection and requires owner to make repairs. Owner drags his feet making repairs and/or does repairs in way that is reducing tenants use or enjoyment of property (such as shutting down a bathroom for days).
- Tenant submits work orders. Owner does work, but performs work at odd hours and leaves a mess behind.
- Landlord blocks or ignores calls from tenant about maintenance requests.
- Not an exhaustive list, but hopefully you get the point.
How do you avoid, even unintentional, landlord retaliation lawsuits:
- Obviously, don’t threaten, harass, or otherwise discriminate against a tenant for exercising their legal right.
- Many of these situations start because of a tenant request for repairs. Most jurisdictions require that landlords perform necessary repairs to maintain habitability. Do the repairs even if they are caused by tenant. I know this sound counter-intuitive, but it is easy in Minnesota for a tenant to go to court and say that they notified the landlord about a necessary repair on this date and the owner did not do the repair within an acceptable timeline. If that happens, you could not only be forced to do repair, the tenant may easily be able to get the court to abate the rent until repairs are done.
- When a tenant submits repairs that seem frivolous (tenant wants new carpet, entire unit painted, replace counters, larger refrigerator, etc), reply to the request in written format stating that you are not prepared to make those improvements at this time.
- Wait at least 90 days after the repair request to give notice to vacate or file eviction. This is typically enough time to show the court that this is not retaliation.
- If you had previously not discussed renewing their lease, you may be able to give them a non-renewal as long as enough time (I recommend 30+ days) has passed.
- Consider making an agreement with the tenant to mutually terminate the lease. I have had a few conversations like this over the years. It starts like this: “Mr. Tenant, it sure seems like you are not happy here. I know you put in a number of work orders for things you want done. Most I will do, but I am not prepared to [repaint your entire unit, put in carpet, add a deck]. What if we agree to terminate your lease and you can find somewhere else to live that fits more what you are looking for?”
Remember to always maintain good documentation of everything you did and said. If you go to court, you want a timeline, photos and communications of everything. Not that you will always be looking over your shoulder, but start good processes today and you will minimize your risk.