Here's what you can do if your landlord is retaliating against you for asserting a legal right, such as complaining to the building inspector about an unsafe apartment
Rare is the tenant who, having asserted her rights, has not been rewarded with a landlord payback—whether in the form of petty harassment, a rent hike, or an all-out termination and eviction. The good news for most of you is that landlord retaliation is illegal in most states—landlords who engage in it can be stopped and sued, sometimes for big bucks. The bad news is that asserting your rights can be a hassle, involving court fights and lots of time. As much as it’s possible, you’ll do far better to choose your landlord wisely in the first place.
But suppose now that, despite your best efforts to live in a well-run building managed by businesspeople of integrity, your request for repairs has been met with the sudden loss of your parking spot; or your efforts to organize other tenants into complaining about security have earned you a termination notice. Here's what you can do about it.
State Laws Against Landlord Retaliation
In almost all states, it is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you for acting within your legal rights--for example, if you have:
- complained to a building inspector, fire department, health inspector, or other governmental agency about unsafe or illegal living conditions
- exercised your First Amendment rights to assemble and present your views collectively, as in joining or organizing a tenant union, or
- availed yourself of self-help strategies allowed by your state or local law, such as deducting money from the rent and using it to fix defects in the rental unit, or even withholding the rent entirely for an uninhabitable unit.
It’s important to understand that the antiretaliation laws will shield you only for those activities that are mentioned in your state’s statute. Not all states protect tenants for all three types of actions mentioned above. To see what's covered, see your State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation. For example, in Washington, DC, a tenant who circulates a petition demanding better services cannot be retaliated against; but that same activity would not be protected in Florida, since “exercise of a legal right” isn’t included in Florida’s statute.
Also, keep in mind that eight states—Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming—do not have statutes or court decisions protecting tenants against retaliation.
What Is Retaliation?
Once you know your legal rights, you need to know what your landlord cannot do in response to your exercising a legal right. The kinds of retaliatory acts covered by state statutes include:
- terminating a month-to-month tenancy or refusing to renew a lease, and following up with an eviction lawsuit if you decide to stay and fight
- increasing the rent, and
- decreasing services, such as locking the laundry room, draining the pool, removing cable access, or canceling the security service or doorman.
Of course, few landlords are dumb enough to announce a retaliatory plan. Chances are that they will cloak their real motives in a cover-up, such as the sudden need to rent to a long-lost aunt or their financial inability to keep up with the just-decreased service. It’s up to you to prove that it's retaliation.
How to Respond to Landlord Retaliation
If you’re the object of your landlord’s nasty realiatory actions, two few responses are possible, depending on what the landlord has done:
- If the retaliation consists of a termination and eviction, you may want to stay and fight, defending yourself against eviction by proving to the judge that the real reason for the termination was illegal.
- If the retaliation is a rent hike, a reduction in services, or any other negative treatment, you may want to take the offensive by filing suit in small claims court. In your suit, you’d ask the judge to prohibit the rent hike, order the services reinstated (or a rent reduction to compensate you for the loss), or take other appropriate measures.
Sometimes you’ll have a choice. For example, if the retaliation consists of a rent increase, you could refuse to pay and force the landlord to terminate and evict, banking on your antiretaliation statute as your defense. Or, you could immediately file suit in small claims court as soon as you get notice of the increase, hoping to resolve the issue before the increase kicks in. We strongly advise choosing the latter course whenever possible—if you lose, you can leave on your own terms, when and if you want to, without an eviction lawsuit going onto your credit report. On the other hand, if you force an eviction lawsuit your credit report will include this fact. Even if you win, this is not good news for any prospective landlord or employer.
By far the most common kind of retaliation, however, is of the petty sort. Before filing papers in small claims court, ask yourself if the issue is really worth your time and money to fight. And, unfortunately, many intensely annoying ploys are just not that big a deal to a judge, either.
Is the Retaliation a Big Deal?
If you think a rent hike or other negative treatment is motivated by your assertion of a tenant’s legal right, you may decide to fight back. But before you do, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you covered? Check your state statutes to make sure that you have antiretaliation protection for what you’ve done. Not everything is protected (plus several states have antiretliation statutes).
- Have you exercised your legal rights in good faith in order to be protected? If you withhold rent with no valid reason, circulate a patently scurrilous petition about your landlord, or file endless, groundless complaints with government agencies, no judge will prevent a landlord from taking appropriate action (such as not renewing your lease or terminating your rental agreement),
- How soon after your action did the rent increase or negative treatment come? Obviously, the shorter the interval between your exercise of a legal right and the date of the increase, the more suspicious it becomes.
- How large was the increase; how onerous was the mean move? Judges are more likely to view a large rent increase (rather than a small one) as the landlord’s way to punish or drive away a troublesome tenant. Ditto with reductions in services.
- Does the rent increase or nasty move affect you alone, or does it apply to many others? Your chances of proving a retaliatory motive will be greatly increased if you can show that you alone, but not tenants in similar units, received the negative treatment.
- Is your landlord known for repeatedly and seriously trampling on tenants’ rights? Your landlord’s reputation is certainly a relevant factor if you contemplate challenging a rent increase. You can learn whether the landlord is a frequent visitor to landlord-tenant or small claims court by asking the local tenants’ organization or even your fellow tenants. The judge may tell you that this information is irrelevant and won’t be considered—but you may want to share it anyway, then listen politely while the judge gives you a little lecture on the rules of evidence.
- How disruptive or expensive, from the landlord’s point of view, was your exercise of a legal right? It’s easier to win the cases in which you can convince a judge that the landlord has a strong motive to get even. Did you cause the landlord considerable time, expense, aggravation, or embarrassment? For example, if you complained to the local health department that your housing is uninhabitable because the roof leaked, and the department ordered your landlord to put on a new roof, that’s an expensive job that your landlord might resent highly. This anger could well prompt a retaliatory rent hike, you’ll claim. Similarly, an accusation of discrimination against your landlord, even if he ultimately defeats it, could easily generate strong feelings of bitterness and retaliation. On the other hand, your isolated request for a necessary and inexpensive repair is far less likely in the eyes of a judge to motivate serious landlord revenge.
Keep in mind that you don't need to be perfect. An honest mistake made during an otherwise valid attempt to exercise your rights usually won’t deprive you of the protection of your state’s antiretaliation statute. For example, suppose that in response to a broken heater in the winter you withhold rent without complying strictly with your state’s notice requirement. Your angry landlord is likely to call you on your error and demand the rent. If you pay it, can he then terminate your tenancy? Assuming that the heater was truly broken and your mistake relatively minor, you’ll be in a good position to argue that you still deserve the benefit of your state law. Of course, you’d be far better off to follow the withholding rules carefully in the first place.
Proving That It's Retaliation
If you’re determined to fight back by filing suit or hunkering down and defending against an eviction, there’s one more issue you need to think about. How do you prove your landlord is trying to retaliate against you? In the real world, landlords are rarely so foolish as to say directly, “If you complain to the housing department, I’ll evict you!” Instead, they’re likely to stick it to you for a trumped-up reason, hoping to mask the fact that the real motive is to get rid of a tenant whom they regard as a troublemaker. Common examples of cover-ups that are really retaliations are:
- an unexplained termination that follows hard on the heels of a long-term tenant’s legitimate decision to withhold the rent
- a refusal to renegotiate a lease following a tenant’s complaint to the health department, and
- sending a termination notice alleging misuse of common facilities after a tenant has used the common room to bring tenants together to fight a proposed rent increase.
Fortunately, however, many states give tenants an edge when it comes to unmasking illegal reasons to end a tenancy. In 21 states, the landlord is presumed to be retaliating against you if a tenancy is ended (or services decreased) within a certain amount of time after your exercise of a legal right, typically six months but sometimes 90 days or one year. This means that it will be up to the landlord to prove to the judge, should you end up in court, that his motives were not retaliatory.