Tenant Defenses to Evictions in Pennsylvania

If you're a tenant facing eviction, learn the grounds to fight your eviction to win the right to stay in your rental unit.

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Landlords may terminate tenancies in Pennsylvania if a tenant fails to pay the rent, violates the lease (for example by damaging the rental unit), or doesn’t leave when the lease is up and the landlord wants the tenant out. In some situations, tenants may have good legal reasons (grounds) on which to fight an eviction, and this article summarizes some of the key tenant eviction defenses in Pennsylvania.

How Evictions Work in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Act of 1951 sets out specific rules and procedures for evicting a tenant. The landlord must first send the tenant a Notice to Quit, giving the tenant ten days to move out of the rental unit. If the tenant does not move out within that ten-day period and wishes to fight the eviction, then the landlord will file a complaint with the Pennsylvania court system and the court will set a hearing date which both landlord and tenant must attend. Within twenty days of receiving the complaint from the court, the tenant must answer the complaint detailing the defenses the tenant will use at the hearing (see Penn. Code §35.35). Instead of responding directly to the landlord with arguments against the eviction, tenants need to wait until the eviction case is brought before a judge. It is the judge, not the landlord, who will decide whether a tenant has a valid reason to stop the eviction.

Keep in mind that unless you have the law and evidence backing your case, fighting an eviction may be a waste of time and money, plus have a negative effect on your credit rating. If it’s a matter of wanting a few extra days to stay in the rental unit, you may be able to work something out with your landlord. In some cases mediation may help. Many communities have free or low-cost mediation services that handle landlord-tenant disputes; local resources are available through the website mediate. com and the American Arbitration Association . The mediation faqs on the Nolo site provide more information on the subject.

Tenant Grounds for Fighting an Eviction in Pennsylvania

A tenant who has a strong case may want to fight the eviction in order to win the right to stay in the rental unit. In some cases, a court may also award a tenant court costs and fees, and sometimes even damages if the landlord acted illegally.

Here are some of the legal grounds that tenants in Pennsylvania use to try and stop an eviction.

Landlord Used “Self-Help” Eviction Procedures

Even if a landlord is justified in evicting a tenant, the landlord must follow all of the eviction procedures as set out in the Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Act of 1951. Failure to do so may result in a court ruling the eviction illegal. A landlord may not use self-help remedies, such as shutting off a tenant’s utilities or changing the front door locks, to force a tenant out. A landlord who locks out or freezes out a tenant, or otherwise takes the law into their own hands, may find their eviction case dismissed—and may be required to pay the tenant for their financial losses and damages for the illegal eviction. See the Nolo article Illegal Eviction Procedures in Pennsylvania for more on the subject, including the state law that prohibits self-help evictions.

There Were Errors in the Landlord’s Eviction Notice and/or Service to the Tenant

Pennsylvania landlords must follow specific rules and procedures for evicting a tenant. For details, see the Nolo articles Eviction Notices for Lease Violations in Pennsylvania and Eviction Notices for Nonpayment of Rent. If a termination or eviction notice in Pennsylvania, such as a Notice to Quit, is missing key information, such as the amount of time the tenant has to pay the rent or leave (10 days in Pennsylvania), a judge may dismiss the case on this ground (see Jankowski v. Orloske, 84 Pa. D&C 522 [Pa. Court of Common Pleas 1952]). The landlord would then have to restart the eviction process from the very beginning and follow proper Pennsylvania eviction rules and procedures—for example, by changing the wording of the Notice to Quit and giving it again to the tenant. If the landlord is justified in the eviction, fighting an eviction on this ground merely gives the tenant more time to remain in the rental unit. The eviction will still happen once the landlord fixes the deficiencies.

Landlord Does Not Have the Legal Justification to Evict (Nonpayment of Rent)

A tenant may have several defenses to an eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Tenant Is Paid Up in Rent

If a tenant is being evicted for not paying rent and subsequently pays the rent to the landlord during the ten-day period after receiving a Notice to Quit, then the landlord must not proceed with the eviction (see under 68 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 250.501-(b) of the Pennsylvania Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951). The tenant must offer the rent to the landlord during the ten-day period outlined in the Notice to Quit.

Tenant Is Justified in Not Paying Rent Because the Rental Unit Is Uninhabitable

Landlords must keep a rental unit maintained according to Pennsylvania state and local housing codes. For example, rental units must have a working heat source, light, ventilation, and plumbing. They must also have secure doors and windows, and adequate sanitation and maintenance. These standards are called the implied warranty of habitability (see the Nolo article Tenant Rights to a Livable Place for details). And for a more complete discussion about Pennsylvania's laws regarding the implied warranty of habitability, see Pugh v. Holmes, 405 A.2d 897 (1979).

If a landlord fails to keep a rental unit maintained according to the implied warranty of habitability because it has defects, such as a broken heater, that prevent a tenant from living in the rental unit, then the tenant may have the legal right to withhold rent until repairs are made. See Pennsylvania Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent or “Repair and Deduct” for detailsIf the landlord tried to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent in this situation, the tenant can use the fact that the premises were legally uninhabitable as a defense to the eviction. The tenant must have first followed all state and local rules for not paying rent in these circumstances—for example, by giving the landlord notice of the defect and giving the landlord an opportunity to fix it; in some cases the tenant must pay rent into an escrow account until the landlord fixes the problem. 

Landlord Does Not Have the Legal Justification to Evict (Lease Violation)

If a landlord is evicting a tenant because of a lease violation, then the landlord may agree not to proceed with the eviction if the tenant fixes a lease violation within a reasonable amount of time. For example, if the rental or lease agreement does not allow pets on the rental premises and the tenant gets a dog, then the landlord can evict the tenant. If the tenant gets rid of the dog, then the landlord can agree to stop the eviction. If the landlord agrees to stop the eviction but then continues with the eviction proceedings anyway, the tenant can use their prior agreement as a defense against the eviction.

Of course, if the landlord is falsely accusing a tenant of violating a lease violation (for example, a bad storm, not the tenant, damaged the carport), then the tenant will need to provide evidence that the lease violation was outside the tenant's control or was not caused by the tenant.

Landlord Is Retaliating Against the Tenant for Exercising a Legal Right

A tenant cannot be evicted for exercising a legal right, such as making a complaint to a housing authority about the rental unit (see 68 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 250.205 of Pennsylvania landlord-tenant law). A tenant is free to join and organize tenant unions and make complaints to state housing authorities without fear of eviction. If a landlord evicts a tenant after the tenant exercises one of these rights, then the tenant can use retaliation as a defense. See the Nolo article Pennsylvania State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation for information on retaliatory acts covered by Pennsylvania law.

Landlord Has an Illegal Discriminatory Reason for Evicting the Tenant

Under the federal Fair Housing Act, a tenant cannot be discriminated against for race, religion, gender, national origin, familial status (including children under the age of 18 and pregnant women), and disability. In Pennsylvania, it is also illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a tenant based on age (people over 40), according to the Human Relations Act. It is illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant based on any of these characteristics. If a landlord does evict a tenant in violation of the Fair Housing Act or the Human Relations Act, then the tenant can use that violation as a defense against the eviction. See the Nolo article Housing Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law for more on laws prohibiting discrimination against tenants.

Tenant Resources for Fighting an Eviction in Pennsylvania

For useful articles and videos on evictions in Pennsylvania, see the resources available on PALawHelp.org, a program of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network. Tenants who live in federally assisted housing should check out the tenant resource page at HUD.gov.

Check Out Local Legal Resources for Tenants in Philadelphia

Tenants who live in the Philadelphia area should see the Philadelphia Municipal Court’s helpful video on how to file a landlord-tenant claim within the Philadelphia Municipal Court system. The Philadelphia Municipal Court also provides a brochure with information regarding landlord-tenant cases filed within the Philadelphia court system.

Check Out Your Specific Pennsylvania County Court Website

For tenants, fighting an eviction means making sure you have the proper defense and know how to make your case. Some county courts will provide sample answer forms and other legal forms for tenants to use when responding to an eviction complaint, such as the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas.

You can find your specific county court through the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania's website.

When to Hire an Experienced Tenants’ Lawyer

If your case is complicated or the landlord has already retained a lawyer, it is probably best for you to also contact a lawyer—either to handle the whole case, or to give you advice on how to proceed. A lawyer can also let you know how likely you are to win your case. You may especially want to hire an attorney if you are confident of your case and your lease or rental agreement entitles you to attorney fees if you win in court.

For advice on finding a good lawyer, see the Nolo article How to Find an Excellent Attorney.

Also check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory for Pennsylvania lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law.

If you qualify for legal aid you may be able to get some help. See the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network for more information on resources available in Pennsylvania.

More Information on Evictions and Terminations

For more articles on the subject, see the Evictions and Terminations section of Nolo.com. If you want to learn about how tenant bankruptcy affects an eviction, see the Nolo article Bankrupt Tenants.

For more information on tenant rights, see Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).

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