What is wrongful eviction and how might it apply in your case? A wrongful eviction occurs when an owner evicts a tenant without going through the proper procedures. Procedures entail following all the specific rules and regulations in the state and local landlord tenant law. Landlord tenant law is very technical and complex and varies from city to city. Even within the same state different jurisdictions will interpret the state statutes differently so it is very easy for a landlord to make a procedural mistake that deprives a tenant of their rights. Once the mistake is made and the tenant has been evicted, as the attorneys say, “you can’t unring the bell.” A tenant who believes they have been wrongfully evicted should consult one of the attorneys who specialize in landlord tenant law in your jurisdiction.
The fact that your landlord or property manager may be a casual landlord or part-time property manager who is not familiar with the rules and regulations is no excuse. Their actions have to be 100% legitimate and defensible and it is a plain fact that many landlords and property managers take actions that are plainly illegal and improper. As the saying goes, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Whether a landlord owns one or 100 rentals is immaterial; similarly whether a property manager manages one or 100 rentals is also immaterial. A violation is a violation.
Examples of Wrongful Eviction
When a wrongful eviction occurs and the tenant is damaged, what happens? They can sue for the amount of their damages and even get triple damages. That is the damages themselves, the triple damages, and court costs, maybe even attorney fees.
On the website www.whocanisue.com they give several examples of wrongful eviction court cases. In one the jury awarded $860,000 to victims in Hamilton County Tennessee when they found the landlord improperly evicted tenants and destroyed their belongings.
Another example. In Queens New York. a landlord was ordered to pay $500,000 to a single dad who she evicted and then threw his belongings out into the rain.
There are lots of ways for the landlord to run afoul of state statutes, city ordinances, or local rules. The landlord might follow the correct procedures but not for the type of tenant that you are. Landlords may also be generally correct but may not properly dot an I or cross a T. When they do not follow the procedures strictly, they wrong their tenant. And tenants who have been wronged have the ability to sue for wrongful evictions.
Many jurisdictions around the country explicitly state the reasons why tenants may be evicted These states are “just cause” states, meaning that the landlord has to have a “just cause” before they can evict a tenant. When a landlord does an eviction in these jurisdictions, they must use one of these specific reasons as their justification for the eviction. If they evict a tenant for a reason other than one contained in the statutes, they might well be doing a wrongful eviction since there is no statutory basis for their eviction, which means that they are terminating a tenancy improperly and perhaps practicing self-help. When you research your statutes, you will see whether or not your jurisdiction is a “just cause” state.
Landlords also cannot end a tenancy for improper reasons. For example if a landlord told a tenant that they had to move out because the landlord wanted to move his sister into the rental unit, that is not a proper reason to terminate the tenancy. The tenant is entitled to remain in the rental unit until the normal end of the lease; after that, not until, the landlord could move his sister into the unit. If the landlord has improperly ended the tenancy forcing the tenant to move out, that is oftentimes grounds for a wrongful eviction.
Rent controlled apartments are fertile ground for wrongful evictions. Landlords may contrive some reason why the tenant will have to leave and cannot return, such as extensive repairs and renovations that will render the unit uninhabitable during the renovation period.
Landlords who take matters into their own hands also are subject to being sued for wrongful eviction. A landlord who moves your furniture out of the rental unit without having been placed in possession of the rental unit by the legal system is wrongfully evicting the tenant. A landlord who changes the locks of the rental unit without having first been placed in possession of the rental unit by the legal system is wrongfully evicting the tenant. When a lease ends and the tenant doesn’t move out on the lease termination date, the landlord may not move the tenant’s furniture out of the unit. When landlords do these types of things they are practicing what is called “self-help” and the actions are illegal because they have not been approved by the legal system.
Landlords are quite often guilty of actions where they jumped the gun improperly. They almost always get away with it because tenants do not know their rights and rarely bring the landlord up short for their illegal actions.
Just because a landlord committed some procedural violation, however, that does not mean that the tenant will be entitled to significant damages. In order to obtain significant money from the landlord, the tenant is going to need to show that the landlord’s actions caused them a significant loss. For example, if the landlord illegally moved the tenant’s property to the sidewalk where it was picked up by scavengers, the landlord would be on the hook for the value of the tenant’s property that his illegal actions caused the tenant to lose. In some cases the tenant might be able to obtain treble damages.
Laws Strictly Interpreted Against Landlords
Interestingly enough, the eviction laws are strictly interpreted against the landlord even if the tenant has not paid rent, done damage, or breached the lease in some other fashion. The landlord’s obligation to the tenant therefore is strictly interpreted and the behavior of the tenant does not relieve the landlord of their obligation.
Landlords are supposed to know and obey the statutes and ordinances strictly. Because they often have more money than the tenant and because they drew up the lease that the tenant signed, they are presumed to know the landlord tenant aw, obey all procedures strictly, and treat the tenant properly. The lease they drew up is supposed to be fully compliant with their state statutes and local ordinances. In many cases it is not.
Landlords cannot change the utility service to the unit or cut off the tenant’s access to utilities such as water, heat, light, electricity, or gas. To do so makes the unit uninhabitable and forces the tenant to move out. When the landlord does that, it terminates the tenancy improperly which is grounds for a lawsuit for wrongful eviction.
Similarly, landlords cannot simply force a tenant to move out when they quit paying rent. They have to go through the legal process of recovering possession of the unit before the tenant can be required to leave. In order to do that the landlord has to go through the eviction process and have the legal system put them back in possession of the rental unit. If they simply force the tenant to move out without going through that process, they are committing a wrongful eviction
Tenants can also recover attorney’s fees when they successfully sue their landlord and are able to document that the landlord wrongfully evicted them. In some jurisdictions they are able to recover their actual damages and up to treble the actual damages.
Wrongful evictions are closely associated with the tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment, the subject of a separate chapter. Briefly, tenants have the right to peacefully and quietly enjoy premises that they have rented. Where the landlord breaches their ability to enjoy the rental unit, the landlord is wrongfully evicting the tenant.
In order for landlords to properly evict a tenant, they generally must first send a notice to the tenant to ask them to stop breaching the lease (or to end the tenancy). Once the notice period is past, they then file an eviction action in the local court. When the eviction comes to court, the landlord must win their case in the eyes of the local judge. The judge will tell the tenant to move by a particular date. If the tenant does not move by that date then an eviction crew hired by the landlord will accomplish putting the tenant’s possessions outside the rental unit and changing the lock. That is the normal eviction process.
Even if the local court agreed with the landlord and ordered you to leave, the landlord cannot simply move your possessions or force you to move out. They have to allow the court process to run full course, which means to have the eviction crew, accompanied by someone from law enforcement, escort you and your belongings from the property before changing the lock. When your goods are moved out of the unit and law enforcement places the landlord back in possession of the rental unit, that is what terminates the tenancy you had with the landlord.
If the landlord did not follow these procedures exactly, dotting every I and crossing every T. in the process, there is a good chance that the tenant was wrongfully evicted and can obtain monetary damages to compensate them for their loss.
If the landlord attempted to force you to leave the rental unit because you requested repairs, the landlord is attempting to wrongfully evict you because all tenants have the right to request repairs be made. If the landlord is attempting to get rid of you for some discriminatory reason, that is also a wrongful eviction. See the chapter on Fair Housing discrimination in order to read up about discrimination in detail.
Most Likely Reasons for Wrongful Eviction
The most likely reasons for a wrongful eviction are these:
- The landlord evicted the tenant without terminating the tenancy, or improperly terminated the tenancy, causing the tenant damages
- The landlord evicted the tenant without getting all the necessary court approvals or didn’t complete the process properly, causing the tenant damages
- Eviction due to the tenant requesting repairs. Depending upon the circumstances, this could also be considered a retaliatory eviction as well as or instead of a wrongful eviction
- Discrimination against you by attempting to force you out of the rental unit. See the chapter on Fair Housing for further detail
- Threats to the tenant’s health or safety (See definition below).
- intimidation of the tenant or harassing of the tenant.
- Changing the locks on the unit (called a “lockout)” or putting the tenant’s property outside
- Shutting off tenant utilities such as water, heat, electricity, or gas (called a ”freeze out”)
- Attempts to physically remove a tenant
- Evictions in response to tenant requests for any repairs, especially if the repairs requested involve health and safety
- Ignoring repair issues, particularly the ones that make the unit uninhabitable
- Removing your possessions even after winning the case at eviction court, because they did not involve law enforcement in regaining possession of the unit
- An eviction without first terminating the tenancy legally
- An eviction due to the landlord continually harassing the tenant
- An eviction due to unauthorized entry into the rental unit and taking action based upon what they saw while they were there
- Evicting a tenant that has lodged complaints about the condition of the unit with regulatory agencies, building code people
- Evicting a tenant that has questioned the legality of certain lease provisions or landlord actions
- Discriminatory behavior. (This is also called Fair Housing) See the chapter on Fair Housing
- Improper eviction paperwork, process, or notices followed
- Any other actions forbidden by state or local statute
- Taking any of these illegal actions is called “self-help” which means that the landlord took matters into their own hands and did not follow the proper legally approved procedures. So most people say that a landlord who has exercised self-help has done a wrongful eviction
- Something that is significant about wrongful eviction cases in many jurisdictions is that the landlord cannot use as an excuse that you were not paying rent, were damaging the property, having loud parties or acting obnoxious. Essentially they do not have an excuse to use your behavior as a reason for illegally evicting you. They have to follow the proper procedures, dotting every I and crossing every T, before you can be evicted
- Most of the examples above are obvious things that the landlord cannot do. They are very clear violations of the process. Most landlords and property managers are not so unprofessional that they do these things. But there are many more subtle violations of the statutes that can cause a wrongful eviction. Let us take one quick example. The landlord gives a four-year-old child in your unit a notice to pay or quit and tells the child “Give this to your daddy.” You initially do not think about the fact that the notice was given to someone improper (children cannot receive notice of lease violations or pay or quit notices)
- The eviction goes full process and you are evicted. You are out of town when the eviction occurs and all your possessions are put on the street where scavengers carry them off and you lose all your possessions. You later learned that the notice was given to a child and you have a way of documenting that. Since the landlord improperly followed the rules of serving the notice, everything that followed was improper. This is potentially a wrongful eviction lawsuit
- Another version of the wrongful eviction is a constructive eviction where the actions of the landlord make the rental unit uninhabitable and the tenant has to vacate the unit. In this situation the landlord has not followed the proper procedures to get rid of the tenant. Tenants in these situations often will bring a wrongful eviction lawsuit
There is usually a statute of limitations on wrongful eviction. You may have a short window of time to file a wrongful eviction lawsuit, perhaps a year or less