Tenant Defenses to an Eviction Action in Michigan
Learn the legal grounds tenants may have to fight an eviction in Michigan.
Michigan law sets out specific rules and procedures for evicting tenants (see the Nolo article How to Evict a Tenant in Michigan for details). In many cases, a tenant will move out after receiving an eviction notice, such as a 7-day demand for nonpayment of rent. But that is not always the case. After receiving an eviction lawsuit (summons and complaint) from a landlord, a tenant may attempt to fight the eviction by making a defense argument at the eviction hearing in an attempt to stay in the rental property longer.
This article summarizes defenses a tenant may use to stop or delay an eviction in Michigan and key information landlords need to know before even starting the eviction process, in order to ensure that you have a legal claim to support the eviction action against the tenant.
Reasons a Judge May Deny an Eviction in Michigan
Michigan landlord-tenant law, M.C.L. § 600.5720, specifies defenses a tenant may raise which may prevent an eviction judgment from being entered by the judge. If, at an eviction hearing, the judge finds any of the following situations to be true, the judge will not enter a judgment in favor of the landlord (this means that the judge will not make the tenant move out of the rental property when the landlord is trying to evict the tenant).
A judge may throw out an eviction if the landlord is evicting the tenant in retaliation against the tenant’s attempt to enforce the tenant’s legal rights under the lease or rental agreement, or other laws—for example, if the tenant reported a health or safety violation to authorities, or exercised a lawful act, such as joining a tenant organization.
No Cause (Public Housing)
The judge will not order the tenant to move out of rental property that is operated by local government (Section 8, or HUD, housing) if the judge finds no cause for the eviction. There are specific reasons why a landlord may evict a tenant from Section 8 housing such as repeated lease violations, a history of disturbances to other families, or use of the rental property for anything other than a family home. These reasons for a landlord to evict a tenant are known as “cause” to evict the tenant.
Increased Tenant Obligations
If the landlord attempted to increase the tenant’s obligations under the lease or rental agreement and the tenant’s failure to comply with the changed terms was the basis for the eviction, a judge will also not enter a judgment in the landlord’s favor. Examples of how a landlord may attempt to increase a tenant’s obligations include increasing the tenant’s monthly rent (without a provision in the lease allowing the landlord to do so), or requiring the tenant to perform certain maintenance or repairs (without having this responsibility agreed to in the lease or rental agreement).
Self-Help or Improper Eviction
Finally, a judge may deny a landlord’s request for an eviction of the tenant if the landlord used prohibited self-help measures like changing the locks on the rental property, or if the landlord is discriminating against the tenant—for example, by trying to evict the tenant for having a pet when the pet is a certified service animal for a tenant with a disability.
A judge may also deny a landlord’s request for an eviction if the judge finds the landlord did not provide proper notice or service of the summons and complaint on the tenant.
Nonpayment of Rent Is Legally Justified
There may be situations when an action or inaction by the landlord excuses the tenant’s payment of rent under the law or the terms of the lease or rental agreement. Examples include a tenant withholding rent because the rental property is not fit for living due to a rodent infestation, a leaking roof causing damage inside the rental property living space, a broken furnace during cold temperatures, or the shut off of utilities, such as water or electricity, that is not the fault of the tenant. If the tenant testifies that he or she was withholding rent for one of the above reasons, the judge may decide in favor of the tenant at the eviction hearing.
What If the Tenant Asks for More Time?
The tenant may ask the judge for more time to prepare a defense or may ask the judge for time to hire an attorney. Michigan law, M.C.L. § 600.5735(6), provides that the judge may grant this request by the tenant but only for up to an additional seven days. Summary proceedings, such as eviction hearings, in Michigan are meant to be expedited legal processes so delays in the eviction hearing are not freely given.
What If the Tenant Demands a Jury Trial?
Tenants have the legal right to request a trial by jury in Michigan. This request may delay the eviction hearing for some time in order to allow for the parties to prepare for the jury trial. It is best to consult with an attorney if the tenant has demanded a jury trial.
Superseding Court Action
There is another way the tenant may attempt to delay the eviction hearing and that is to file an action against the landlord relating to the rental property in a higher court. The tenant may have a legal claim against the landlord and may file a lawsuit against the landlord in a court with higher authority than the local district court (which holds eviction hearings), like the county circuit court. If the tenant files a circuit court action before the eviction hearing date, the tenant can request the judge stay the eviction proceeding, or put the eviction decision on hold until the circuit court claim is resolved. The tenant’s lawsuit against the landlord must also involve the rental property and the issue of eviction. In order to file an action in circuit court, the alleged damages, or injury to the party filing suit, must exceed $25,000.
A demand for a jury trial or a stay of the district court eviction proceeding may result in many months of time passing before a decision on the eviction is made at the district court. As such, the landlord should ask for rent to be escrowed to the clerk of the court during the delay or stay of the proceedings. The court will order the tenant to pay the monthly rent to the court, with the landlord’s hope that this money will be released to the landlord upon resolution of the court action. Escrowed rent prevents the tenant from living rent-free during the pendency of the lawsuit. See Michigan Court Rule 4.201(H)(2) for additional details about an escrow order.
Negotiating an Agreement with a Tenant
There may come a time when the landlord is better off stopping the eviction process to work with the tenant. If the tenant has a valid legal defense to the eviction, you may need to continue the lease until you have a valid reason to evict the tenant or until the lease term ends. You may end up being held responsible for violating discrimination laws or housing laws if you push an improper eviction too far. It may also be possible for you and the tenant to agree to sign a new lease or rental agreement reflecting a new understanding between the parties, such as a reduced monthly rental rate or a shorter lease term. The tenant may also give in and agree to move out if you help the tenant relocate to a new rental property.
When to Hire a Lawyer
In many cases, landlords will want to hire an attorney, particularly if a tenant is not only fighting an eviction but also claiming damages against you. If the tenant demands a jury trial, it will be important for the landlord to hire an attorney who can present evidence and question the landlord on the stand so the jury is able to hear the landlord’s side of the facts. Landlord-tenant law is not always straightforward or simple and advanced legal knowledge may be needed in many unique situations. Nolo’s Lawyer Directory includes landlord-tenant lawyers in Michigan who may be helpful in this regard.
Resources on Michigan Landlord-Tenant Law
The Michigan Courts Self-Help Center provides useful information on evictions and taking court action. Another useful site is Michigan Legal Help, which provides advice on housing-related legal issues, including evictions, for both landlords and tenants. The Michigan Legislature’s website publishes a useful guide to landlord-tenant law in Michigan.