This past Wednesday, I had to go to court. It was my first ever experience with the legal system, and yes, I was very nervous. I was being sued by my old landlord in small-claims court, and even though I knew I was in the right, I assumed the judge would have a bias against me, as the tenant, and that I would probably end up being ordered to pay money I didn’t really owe. I even considered just blowing the whole thing off and not showing up — good thing my wife talked me out of that!
I took a job in 2006 with a stock-brokerage firm that required me to move — quickly. Thus, my wife and I put our house on the market and looked for an apartment to rent. We couldn’t be too picky — we only had six weeks until I started my new job. So when we found a gorgeous, newly built, modern-architecture duplex, with a wicked cool dvr security system and we took steps to secure it as quickly as possible.
At first, we were overjoyed with the place. Yes, it was a step down from home ownership, but our new apartment home was stunning. But it didn’t take long for serious problems to surface. In fact, it was the first day that we noticed a horrible creaking whenever someone walked on either of the bedroom floors. “Creaking” isn’t really the right word for it — it sounded like the Jolly Green Giant twisting a tree in mammoth hands, hooked up to a megaphone. And worst of all, the sound was even louder in the other parts of the house when someone was walking in the bedroom!
A couple of days later, the previous tenant of the apartment stopped by to pick up a package that had been delivered to his old address (our new one). I took the opportunity to ask him about the creaking.
“It’s horrible isn’t it?” he said. “I woke up my wife every night when I got up to use the bathroom.”
“The landlord told me it was due to the humidity. Does it get better when the humidity dies down?” I asked.
“Is that what he said? Let me tell you something; that guy is a crook. I’m taking him to small-claims court to get my security deposit back. He nickel and dimed me to get the whole security deposit, not a penny more.”
Fast Forward 11 Months Later
We’ve had tons of problems by now, and we’re planning on finding a new place when our lease is up. But one day in late April, we reach our breaking point. It was one of the first nice days of the year in Michigan, so we took our baby daughter out to play — for the first time ever, mind you. My wife noted that the grass was “kinda sticky,” but I didn’t seem to notice.
We came inside after about an hour, and then my wife went out to the store. Upon arriving home, she was freaking out. “Call the landlord, right now!” she demanded. On either side of our driveway, at least fifty feet away from our apartment, there were little white flags indicating that the lawn had been sprayed with pesticides. There were no signs in the backyard. Our daughter, just eight months old at the time, had ingested harmful chemicals.
I called up the landlord and berated him. “Are we supposed to look out the front window every time before we use our backyard?” I asked. Yes, we were, according to him. I hung up on him and went on to compose a letter informing him we would be out of the apartment by June 1st, and that we would not be paying rent for the month of May. I requested that our security deposit, equal to one month’s rent, be applied toward the rent, and gave him a forwarding address to reach me at with any damages that could be negotiated. I wasn’t going to let him steal my security deposit as he did with the previous tenant! Also critical: I told him to contact me if he had any problem with this. He didn’t.
We moved out on the last day in May. During our packing, I put a hole in the wall trying to move my computer desk, and we were unable to move a glass tabletop and a couple of broken shelves. I took full responsibility for the costs associated with fixing the hole and getting rid of the junk items, leaving my landlord a handwritten letter that said, “Here is a check for $75 intended to be settlement in full. If this $75 is not sufficient, do not cash this check, and instead, return it along with an itemized bill of damages. By cashing this check, you agree that settlement has been made in full.”
He cashed the check, and I thought I was pretty slick. Case closed! He only got $75 of my money, which he deserved — not $850 that he didn’t. But then about a month later, I got an itemized list of damages and a demand to pay or “face legal consequences.” The list included:
- $220 for a pair of sliding doors that were broken when we moved in
- $89 for a water bill that I had already paid
- $20 for the dishwasher and garbage disposal, both in need of repair, but which were his responsibility, not ours
- $30 for “cleaning cat hair, despite the fact that pets are prohibited by the lease” — there was no cat hair — we had the apartment professionally cleaned before moving out — and he had agreed to let us have a cat… This was just a shady trick to make us look bad in front of a judge, if it got that far
- $36 for repairing the hole in the wall (fair)
- $20 for getting rid of the shelves and the glass tabletop (fair)
- Worst of all: A $180 “late fee” for “not paying rent” in May: We paid May’s rent with our security deposit!
All in all, it added up to $595 minus the $75 check he had cashed, for a balance of $520. I thought the whole thing was so ridiculous that I wadded up the letter, threw it away, and promptly forgot about it. But then another month later, I had a knock at the door — it was the Sheriff’s Department serving me with papers! I was being sued for $520 and I needed to show up for court at 8:30 A.M., August 22.
The first thing I did was go to my online banking and try to print a copy of the check my landlord had cashed — the one for $75 that said “payment in full” in the ledger. It was nowhere to be found. Had I hallucinated that he cashed it? I assumed I had. Now I realize I should have gone to the bank and asked about it, but at the time, I assumed I was wrong and that he hadn’t cashed the check.
The only evidence I had was the letter I wrote to my landlord in late April, and a receipt from the water company indicating I had paid long ago. He came to the courtroom with a binder full of papers. We actually made small talk before our hearing, and I asked him if he had been through this before. “At least once a month,” he said. Oh no. I was up against a pro.
“You know, I really wish we could have worked this out outside of the courtroom,” I said.
“You know, Jase, I tried to be fair. But you just cannot alter the terms of the lease. The lease is the law,” he said.
Finally, at around 9:00 A.M., we were called into the courtroom. Since this was a small-claims case, we didn’t actually have a judge, but a magistrate — small claims also means there are no lawyers. The magistrate asked me if I agreed I owed the money. “No sir, it is in dispute,” I said, not knowing whether to call him “your honor” or not. With that, he sent me and my landlord back outside for one last chance to reach an out-of-court settlement.
As we exited the courtroom, my landlord had a smirk on his face. “There’s no way I’m going to settle with you,” was what he was saying, non-verbally. But I decided to use my words: “What I really object to is this $180 late fee,” I told him.
“Hey, it’s right here in the lease,” he said.
By now I was getting really frustrated. “Okay, look — if the magistrate awards you $520, I’m not going to pay you. You will have to fight me, at your own expense, to ever see a dime, and I’ll make it as difficult for you as I possibly can. Alternatively, I can give you this check for $251. That’s everything, minus the $75 I’ve already paid, the $89 for the water bill I’ve already paid, and the $180 for the late fee which I don’t really owe. I shouldn’t have to pay for those doors that were broken when I moved in, or the ‘cat-hair removal’ that was non-existent, but I’m willing to settle with you.”
He thought for a minute. “Okay, I’ll meet you half-way on the late fees. Make me out a check for $341.”
I was tempted to take the offer, but by now I was fuming mad. I refused.
“Well,” he said with another egotistical smirk, “we’ll just see what the judge says.”
Back in the Courtroom
Upon re-entering the courtroom, the magistrate asked for our stories. For the most part, there was no disagreement. Yes, I had been a tenant. Yes, I had moved out prior to June 1. Finally, the dispute — did I or did I not pay rent for May?
As “evidence” against me, my landlord supplied a copy of the letter I had written in late April. The magistrate read it in its entirety and then said, “I’m going to throw out the $180 late fee.” My landlord was shocked! The magistrate explained: “The defendant asked you to apply his security deposit towards his last month’s rent, and asked you to contact him if you had a problem with that. You didn’t contact him. No late fee.”
Next was the water bill. I supplied my receipt. Now we were down from $520 to $251 — exactly what I had offered my landlord outside.
Then came a list of charges I did not dispute: The hole in the wall and the removal of junk. “In fact, I took full responsibility for those items. I left Mr. Landlord a check for $75 along with a handwritten letter apologizing for the damage and the inconvenience and asking him to accept the check as payment in full,” I said.
The magistrate’s eyebrows raised. “Do you have a copy of the check?” I didn’t. But by now I knew that my landlord had cashed it — he had admitted so outside. “How about the letter?” the magistrate asked.
Then, to my complete and total surprise, my landlord provided the magistrate with a copy of the handwritten letter that clearly stated the $75 was to be considered “payment in full.” The magistrate read the letter and said, “I’m going to have to dismiss the case.”
My landlord was outraged! He had turned down an offer of $251, and now he was going to get nothing. In fact, he was so mad that he actually tried to argue with the magistrate — as if he was going to change his decision!
I exited the courtroom feeling like I was the hero of a John Grisham novel, winning the biggest case in the history of the legal system. My wife and I went to Chilis to celebrate.
If you’re a tenant:
- Don’t let your landlord bully you — know your legal rights and don’t be afraid to use them
- Get everything in writing. Make sure you get a copy of your lease, for example. And document any complaints you make against your landlord. Save all receipts!
- Be a little pickier when it comes to choosing your apartment or house!
If you’re a landlord:
- Just because you’re a landlord, it doesn’t mean the law is on your side. Your lease can be overridden by subsequent “contracts” — including cashing a check clearly intended to be settlement in full
- If your tenant proposes something you’re uncomfortable with — such as using his security deposit as last month’s rent payment — notify him that it’s unacceptable and let him know what the penalties will be. You cannot try to bill him for late fees after the fact!
- Do not take cases to small-claims when your time is more valuable than the money you hope to recoup, and make sure you actually have a case before wasting your own time. Will you be able to collect even if you win? If not, then why bother?