Before I bought my house, I had a landlord who failed to fix my broken refrigerator for six weeks and then replaced it with a filthy model from a fly-by-night used appliance store.
When my lease was nearly up a few months later, I told him we were moving and to use our security deposit for the final month’s rent. I worried that if I paid for the final month, he’d find some bogus reason to keep my deposit.
My landlord scoffed at the offer and instead, entered my apartment unannounced and stole several boxes of personal belongings, telling me I could have my things back after I paid the final month’s rent.
Despite my lack of legal training, I figured out the legal process, went to court and won. The landlord had to give our stuff back and accept the deposit as rent money.
If you’re facing a landlord lawsuit, you too can give yourself a fighting chance by reading the 6 tips below:
1. Know your state’s landlord/tenant laws.
Does your landlord have a solid case? Find out by reviewing your state’s law on the Tenant Rights page of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website.
2. Read and respond to the court summons.
Once your landlord files a lawsuit against you, the court serves you a summons and a copy of the lawsuit petition. You must then file an “answer” to the allegations, stating whether you admit, deny or lack knowledge of each allegation.
Answer truthfully, since the landlord may have evidence to the contrary and lying constitutes perjury, says Shaolaine Loving, a Las Vegas attorney. Provide only information that is crucial to dispute the allegations and stay away from long explanations.
Most states give the defendant 20-30 days to file an answer pleading in court. If you fail to file an answer, then the landlord can get a default judgment against you and automatically win the case.
3. Try to work out a settlement.
“It’s better not to get to court in the first place because it’s going to go in your credit report,” says Theresa Morelli, an attorney in Akron, OH. “If you try to rent again, you’ll have to explain what happened.”
Attempt to negotiate a smaller amount than what’s owed or arrange a payment plan.
4. Consider legal counsel.
If you’re in a lower income bracket, your first call should be to your local legal aid or legal services office, says Morelli. However, anyone can contact their state bar association for a lawyer referral, although those attorneys won’t be free.
If the only reason your landlord is suing you is because of past-due rent, you probably don’t need an attorney, says Morelli. However, if you didn’t pay your rent for a valid reason such as your landlord refused to get rid of dangerous mold or discriminated against based on race or another federally protected class, you’d be wise to consider legal counsel.
In my case, I filed a counterclaim to my landlord’s small claims suit, listing the dining out expenses incurred by being without a refrigerator for six weeks and mentioning my landlord’s illegal seizure of my belongings.
If you file a counterclaim, you’ll have to pay a filing fee, which is typically under $200. It’s generally a good idea to have an attorney when you file a counterclaim, says Morelli.
5. Show up for court.
When Al Harris and his wife needed to break their lease for a career move from Virginia to Philadelphia, their landlord okayed the early move as long as they found a replacement tenant. Then he rejected any applicants they referred. (Full disclosure: Harris is an editor for the Selfstorage.com Moving Bog)
The couple moved anyway after failing to work out a reasonable deal with their landlord, who soon demanded the final month’s rent plus other fees.
“We decided not to pay and to take our chances in court,” says Harris, who found out that his landlord had actually rented to a replacement tenant but was still going for a judgment against them.
“He was very surprised when we actually showed up to our court date, expecting to receive a default judgment,” says Harris, who’d filed a subpoena for the new tenant to appear as a witness. “After our appearance, the landlord dropped the case. ”
6. Look sharp and provide evidence.
“Dress like you would if you were going to church,” says Morelli, who suggests providing evidence that includes:
- Letters or notices from the landlord and copies of all correspondence, including e-mail. As for text messages, which are difficult to present in court, leave them at home.
- Quality photos or videos of repairs needed or other issues.
- Helpful witnesses such as other tenants from the building.
“Be respectful and factual,” says Morelli. Above all, don’t lie. “Other than committing perjury, it just destroys any credibility you have.”