Can I Sue My Landlord for an Illegal Eviction?

Learn tenant rights to fight an eviction.

You can sue your landlord for illegally trying to evict you—but you need both the law and the facts to be in your favor to fight and win. If you lose, you could end up hundreds (even thousands) of dollars in debt and face a negative credit rating.

Know Your State's Termination Procedures

The first step in evaluating whether you can (and should) sue your landlord for an illegal eviction is to research the termination and eviction laws in your state. Before a landlord can evict a tenant, the landlord must have legally terminated (ended) the tenancy.

Each state has its own termination procedures that detail how landlords must write and serve (deliver) termination notices. Most of the time, the type of notice the landlord must serve depends on the landlord's reason for ending the termination. For example, a termination notice for nonpayment of rent is likely to be different from a termination notice for a lease violation.

It is only after having served a proper termination notice that a landlord can legally evict a tenant.

Know What Types of Evictions Are Illegal

Landlords cannot circumvent the termination and eviction process by taking the law into their own hands—for example, by changing a tenant's locks. Kicking a tenant out of a rental through means other than the procedures laid out in state law is known as a "self-help eviction."

Each state's laws impose consequences for illegal evictions.

It is also illegal in most states for landlords to evict tenants 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 the variety of legal grounds (or defenses) you might 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—check out Nolo's section Tenant Defenses to Eviction in Your State.

Where to Turn When You're Being Evicted

If you're a California renter, an excellent resource on fighting evictions, including the legal forms you need, is California Tenants' Rights, by J. Scott Weaver and Janet Portman (Nolo). If you rent in another state, check out Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman, Marcia Stewart, and Ann O'Connell (Nolo).

Fighting an eviction lawsuit can be challenging, especially if your landlord has retained a lawyer. You will likely 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 attorneys' fees if you win in court, an attorney's help will be crucial.

Local tenants' rights groups may provide help or referrals. Also, the Working with a Lawyer section of the Nolo site includes useful articles. 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.

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