You can sue your landlord—but you need the law and provable facts on your sight to fight—and win—an eviction lawsuit. If you lose, you may end up hundreds (even thousands) of dollars in debt and face a negative credit rating.
Start by checking your state termination and eviction rules. State laws set out very detailed requirements for landlords who want to end (terminate) a tenancy. Your landlord must legally terminate your tenancy before evicting you. Each state has its own procedures as to how termination notices and must be written and delivered (“served”). Different types of notices are often required for different types of situations—such as nonpayment of rent versus another lease violation, such as damaging the rental unit. For more information on this, see your state rent rules, state laws for termination for violation of lease, or state laws on unconditional quit terminations. Only after proper termination may a landlord file a lawsuit to evict you. See the Nolo article How Evictions Work: What Renters Need to Know for the basics.
Landlords can’t legally circumvent the eviction process by taking the law into their own hands (known as a “self-help” eviction)—for example, by changing your locks (so you can’t enter your apartment) because you’re late in paying rent. For details on your state law, see Nolo’s State-by-State Rules on Illegal Eviction Procedures.
It is also illegal in most states for landlords to evict you for a retaliatory reason—for example, because you exercised a legal right, such as complaining to a health inspector about unsafe conditions in your rental unit. For details on your rights against retaliatory eviction, see Nolo’s State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation.
For the variety of legal grounds (or defenses) you may have to fight an eviction in your state—such as your landlord’s illegal use of self-help eviction procedures or acting in retaliation for you exercising a legal right—see the Nolo articles Tenant Defenses to Eviction. If you’re a California renter, an excellent resource on fighting evictions, including the legal forms you need, is California Tenants’ Rights, by Janet Portman and David Brown (Nolo). If you rent in another state, check out Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).
Fighting an eviction lawsuit can be very challenging, especially if your landlord has retained a lawyer. In many cases, you will want to consult a lawyer to make sure you have a good case and get advice on how to proceed. If you have a complicated situation, or if you are confident of your case and your lease or rental agreement entitles you to attorney fees if you win in court, an attorney’s help will be crucial. Local tenants’ rights groups may provide help or referrals (see Where Can Tenants Turn for Help to get started). Also, the Working with a Lawyer section of the Nolo site includes dozens of useful articles, including How to Find an Excellent Lawyer and the basics of attorney fees.
Another useful resource is Nolo’s Lawyer Directory. Here you can find attorneys who specialize in landlord-tenant law in your state who can help defend you in an eviction lawsuit.