Landlords in Washington can evict tenants for a number of reasons, such as not paying rent or violating the lease or rental agreement. A tenant being evicted may have at least one defense available with which to challenge the eviction. This article will outline the most common defenses available for tenants who are being evicted.
Eviction Process in Washington
The Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, part of the Revised Code of Washington governs eviction proceedings, called unlawful detainer lawsuits, in the state. Landlords must follow specific procedures when evicting tenants and must ultimately receive a judgment from the court before forcing a tenant to move out of a rental unit. To begin the whole process, a landlord must provide the tenant with notice. The notice requirements differ depending on whether the tenant is being evicted for not paying rent or for violating a portion of the lease or rental agreement.
Notice Requirements for Not Paying Rent
If a tenant does not pay rent on time, the landlord must first provide the tenant with a three-day notice that notifies the tenant to either pay rent within three days or move out of the rental unit. If the tenant does not pay the rent within that time period or move out of the rental unit, then the landlord can begin the eviction lawsuit (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.12.030(3)).
Notice Requirements for Violating the Lease Agreement
If a tenant violates any portion of the lease or rental agreement, the landlord must provide the tenant with a ten-day notice. This notice must inform the tenant that the tenant has either ten days to fix the violation, if possible, or move out of the rental unit. Lease violations include subletting the apartment when subletting is prohibited, having pets when none are allowed, or parking in an unauthorized parking space.
If the tenant does not fix the violation within the ten days or move out of the rental unit, then the landlord can begin the eviction lawsuit (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.12.030(4)).
If the tenant has not complied with the notice or moved out of the rental unit within the appropriate time period, then the landlord can file a complaint and summons with the court to begin the eviction lawsuit (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.12.070). The tenant will receive a copy of the complaint and summons and will have about a week to respond to the complaint. The complaint will have a date stamped on it telling the tenant when the response is due to the court. If the tenant chooses to challenge the eviction, the tenant must respond to the complaint before the deadline. The tenant's response should contain all the defenses the tenant wishes to make to the eviction.
The tenant will also likely receive paperwork that informs the tenant of an upcoming hearing. This paperwork is called an Order to Show Cause. In addition to filing a response with the court, the tenant must attend the hearing in order to fight the eviction. At the hearing, the judge will listen to both the landlord and the tenant and make a final decision about whether the tenant should be evicted from the rental unit (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.370).
For more information on the eviction process, see the article Eviction Process at Washington's TenantsUnion.org.
Eviction Defenses in Washington
When faced with an eviction, a tenant in Washington may have at least one defense available.
Landlord Evicted Tenant Through "Self-Help" Means
The only way a landlord can evict a tenant in Washington is by receiving a court order. It is illegal for a landlord to try to force a tenant out of the rental unit through any other means, such as shutting off the utilities or changing the locks on the rental unit. Forcing a tenant out in this manner is often referred to as a "self-help" eviction. If a landlord tries to evict a tenant through one of these unlawful means, the landlord could be liable to the tenant for damages (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 59.18.290 and 59.18.300). The Nolo article Illegal Eviction Procedures in Washington has more information on "self-help" evictions.
Landlord Did Not Follow Proper Procedures When Evicting Tenant
The landlord must carefully follow all the rules and regulations set out by Washington law when evicting a tenant. If the landlord does not follow all the rules, the tenant may be able to use that as a defense against the eviction. For example, a landlord must provide notice to the tenant before filing the paperwork with the court to start the lawsuit. If the landlord does not provide the tenant with notice, then the tenant could use lack of notice as a defense against the eviction lawsuit and possibly get the case dismissed. However, if the landlord is justified in evicting the tenant, the landlord will need to just start the process over again, this time following all the rules. The tenant can still be evicted after the landlord fixes the problem. This option just gives the tenant more time to remain in the rental unit.
Landlord Is Evicting Tenant for Not Paying Rent
If a tenant is being evicted for not paying rent, the tenant may have at least one defense available.
Tenant Paid Rent in Full
Washington law requires a landlord to give the tenant a three-day notice before filing the eviction lawsuit when the tenant has not paid rent. This three-day notice gives the tenant three days to either pay the rent or move out of the rental unit. If the tenant pays the rent during the three days, then the landlord must not proceed with the eviction lawsuit. If the landlord proceeds with the lawsuit anyway, the tenant can use proof of the rent payment as a defense against the eviction (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.12.030(3)).
Landlord Did Not Make Necessary Repairs to the Rental Unit
According to Washington law (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.060), a landlord has the responsibility to keep the rental unit habitable. This means that the landlord must perform the following maintenance:
- maintain the rental unit in accordance with all applicable codes, statutes, ordinances, and regulations;
- maintain the structure of the rental unit in good repair, including roofs, floors, walls, etc;
- maintain the common areas so that they are free from hazards or defects; and
- maintain all electrical, plumbing, heating, and other appliances supplied by the landlord in good working order.
If the landlord does not maintain the rental unit according to the requirements set out by the law, the tenant must first provide notice to the landlord of any repairs that need to be made. The landlord could have up to ten days to make the required repairs (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.070). If the landlord does not make the repairs during the applicable time period, then the tenant has the right to arrange for the repairs to be made by a professional and then deduct the amount of repair from the rent (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.100).
If a repair needs to be made on a defect that materially affects the tenant's health or safety, then the tenant must provide notice to the landlord. If the landlord does not make the repair, then the tenant can request an inspection from the local government to verify the danger of the defect in the rental unit. The tenant can also petition the court to create an escrow account that the tenant will deposit rent in until the defect is fixed, rather than pay rent to the landlord (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.115).
If the landlord tries to evict the tenant for not paying rent in either of these situations, then the tenant can use the landlord's failure to make a necessary repair as a defense to the eviction. See the Nolo article Washington Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent or "Repair and Deduct" for more information.
Landlord Is Evicting Tenant for Violating a Portion of the Lease Agreement
The landlord must provide the tenant with a ten-day notice before filing an eviction lawsuit based on a violation of the lease or rental agreement. The tenant then has ten days to either fix the violation or move out of the rental unit. If the tenant fixes the lease violation within the ten-day time frame, then the landlord must not proceed with the eviction lawsuit. If the landlord files the eviction lawsuit anyway, the tenant can use evidence that the violation was fixed within the appropriate time frame as a defense against the eviction (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.12.030(4)).
Landlord Is Evicting Tenant for Exercising a Legal Right
A landlord cannot evict a tenant for exercising a legal right. This is called retaliation, and Washington law makes it illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant within ninety days after the tenant has complained in good faith to a government agency regarding the landlord's failure to comply with applicable codes, statutes, ordinances, or regulations. It is also illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant after the tenant, in good faith, has asserted any legal rights or remedies allowed to the tenant under law. If the landlord evicts a tenant in retaliation, the tenant can use that as a defense to the eviction (see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 59.18.240 and 59.18.250). See the Nolo article Washington State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation for more information.
Landlord Evicts the Tenant Based on Discrimination
The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal for a landlord to discriminate against a tenant based on race, religion, gender, national origin, familial status (including children under the age of 18 and pregnant women), and disability. The tenant can use discrimination as a defense if a landlord is attempting to evict for a discriminatory reason. See the Nolo article Housing Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law for more on laws prohibiting discrimination against tenants.
Is Fighting an Eviction Always the Best Option?
Unless the tenant has a strong defense, it might not always be in the tenant's best interest to challenge an eviction. A tenant who loses might have to pay for the landlord's court and attorney's fees. The tenant could also receive a negative credit rating and could be turned down for future housing. The best option for the tenant might be to try to talk to the landlord and negotiate a deal outside the court system. 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.
Eviction Resources for Tenants in Washington
There are many resources available to tenants who are facing an eviction in Washington. TenantsUnion.org maintains a website dedicated to tenants' rights in Washington. The Washington State Attorney General also maintains a section for Residential Landlord-Tenant Resources & Links. In addition, WashingtonLawHelp.org, a legal aid website, has published a packet entitled Eviction and Your Defense that also has more information for tenants. Tenants who live in federally assisted housing should also check out the tenant resource page at HUD.gov.
It is important for a tenant facing an eviction lawsuit to be familiar with the local court where the eviction lawsuit will be tried. The Washington court system has an online directory that can help you locate your local courthouse.
When to Hire an Experienced Tenants' Lawyer
If you have more specific legal questions about your eviction case or the landlord has already retained a lawyer, you should probably also contact a lawyer. A lawyer can handle the whole case or 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 Washington lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law.
More Information on Evictions and Terminations
For more information on tenant rights, see Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).