Tenant Defenses to Evictions in Tennessee

Facing eviction? Learn if you have any legal grounds to fight your eviction in Tennessee.

A landlord can evict a tenant in Tennessee for failing to pay rent or for violating a portion of the lease or rental agreement. A tenant facing eviction for one of these reasons may have a defense available to fight the eviction.

This article examines the eviction process in Tennessee and some of the most common defenses available to tenants being evicted for failing to pay rent or violating the lease.

Tennessee’s Eviction Process

The Tennessee Code provides all the laws related to landlord-tenant relations in Tennessee. To evict a tenant for failing to pay rent or violating the lease, a landlord must file a lawsuit with the court to receive the eviction court order. However, before filing the eviction lawsuit, the landlord will usually have to give the tenant notice.

The notice requirements are slightly different depending on the size of the county in which the rental property is located. The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, or URLTA, provides laws for counties that have over 75,000 residents (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-102). All other counties are regulated by the regular Tennessee Code, and the sections pertaining to landlord-tenant relations are spread throughout the entire code.

Notice Requirements in Counties with More than 75,000 Residents

Under the URLTA, notice requirements for failure to pay rent or violation of the lease are the same. Unless expressly waived in the lease, a landlord must provide the tenant with a 14-day notice that details the reason for the proposed eviction. The notice must state that the tenant has 14 days to fix the deficiency, by either paying rent or correcting the deficient behavior causing the violation, including providing payment to fix damages, if necessary. If the tenant cannot or chooses not to correct the deficiency within 14 days, the landlord can then proceed with the eviction lawsuit.

If within six months of receiving the notice and correcting the deficiency the tenant commits the same act again, the landlord is only required to give the tenant a seven-day notice specifying the deficient behavior. The landlord does not have to allow the tenant to fix the deficiency this time. At the end of the seven-day period, the landlord can go ahead and file the eviction lawsuit (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-505).

Notice Requirements in Counties with Less than 75,000 Residents

Under the regular Tennessee Code, a landlord must provide a tenant with a 14-day notice if the tenant has not paid rent, has damaged the rental unit beyond normal wear and tear, or has intentionally committed a violent act or threatened the health, safety, or welfare of another person in connection with the rental unit or property. The tenant will have 14 days to either pay the rent, provide payment for damage to the property, or stop the threatening behavior. If the tenant does not do what is required, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit at the end of the 14-day period.

If the tenant has committed any other lease violation, the landlord must provide the tenant with a 30-day notice, in which the tenant will have 30 days to fix the violation or the landlord can proceed with the lease violation.

A tenant cannot waive right to notice under this law (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-7-109).

Eviction Process

If the tenant has not paid rent or fixed the lease violation within the 14-day time period, the landlord can terminate the rental agreement and file an eviction lawsuit in the general sessions court. The landlord will file a summons and complaint, and then the tenant will receive a copy of both. The summons will have a date and time on it for a hearing before a judge. At the hearing, the judge will listen to both the tenant and the landlord and come to a decision regarding the eviction.

The tenant may find that challenging the eviction is not always the best option. If the tenant loses, the tenant might have to pay 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 Defenses in Tennessee

Tenants being evicted for failing to pay rent or for violating the lease may have at least one defense available with which to challenge the eviction.

The regular Tennessee Code is silent regarding most landlord-tenant issues. Unless otherwise noted, the information that follows will be from the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, or URLTA. For more information regarding any of these topics, contact the legal aid association in the county in which the rental property is located (see the map provided by Justice for All, a Tennessee Supreme Court Initiative).

Landlord Used a "Self-Help" Eviction Method

The only way a landlord can evict a tenant is by receiving a court order. It is unlawful to try to evict a tenant through any other means, such as shutting off the utilities or changing the locks at the rental unit. This type of unlawful eviction is often referred to as a “self-help” eviction, and the URLTA specifically makes it illegal. If a landlord does try to evict a tenant through unlawful means, the tenant can sue the landlord for damages and for possession of the property (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-504). The article Illegal Eviction Procedures in Tennessee, published by Nolo, provides more information on “self-help” evictions.

Landlord Did Not Follow Proper Eviction Procedures

A landlord must carefully follow all required laws when evicting a tenant. If the landlord fails to follow proper procedures, the tenant may be able to use that as a defense against the eviction. For example, in Tennessee, a landlord is required to give a tenant at least a 14-day notice before filing an eviction lawsuit. If the landlord gives the tenant a shorter time period, such as three days, and then files the lawsuit, the tenant could use lack of sufficient notice as a defense to the eviction. This would require the landlord to stop the lawsuit and give the tenant a new notice with the proper 14- or 30-day time frame. This type of defense does not completely stop a justified eviction, though; it simply delays it. The landlord merely has to correct the deficiency in procedure and then can proceed with the eviction lawsuit.

Landlord Evicted Tenant for Not Paying Rent

A tenant may have a few options if being evicted for not paying rent.

Tenant Paid Rent in Full

Under both the regular Tennessee Code and the URLTA, a landlord is required to give a tenant a 14-day notice to pay rent before filing an eviction lawsuit. If the tenant pays the rent within the 14-day period, the landlord must not proceed with the eviction lawsuit (see Tenn. Code Ann. § § 66-7-109 and 66-28-505). The tenant should ask for a time-stamped receipt when paying within the 14-day time period. That way, if the landlord proceeds with the eviction lawsuit anyway, the tenant can use the receipt as proof that the rent was paid within the appropriate time frame.

Landlord Failed to Maintain the Rental Unit

Under regular Tennessee Code, a landlord must simply maintain the rental unit in a habitable condition, according to each county’s health codes (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 68-111-102).

The URLTA gives a little more definition to a landlord’s duties. According to the URLTA, a landlord must maintain the rental unit in a habitable condition. This specifically means the landlord must:

  • comply with all building and housing codes that affect health and safety
  • make all repairs required to keep the rental unit habitable and in fit condition
  • keep all common areas clean and safe, and
  • in rental properties with four or more units, provide trash receptacles and arrange for removal of all trash.

The landlord and tenant can agree in writing for the tenant to perform any of these obligations, but only if the agreement is made in good faith (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-304).

Under the regular Tennessee Code, if a landlord fails to maintain the rental unit in a habitable condition, the tenant can write a complaint to the appropriate city or county building inspector. The building inspector will inspect the property and give the landlord thirty days to make any required corrections to the building’s condition. If the landlord does not make the required corrections within thirty days, the tenant can start paying rent into an escrow account held by the court. If the landlord still does not make the corrections within six months of receiving notice, the tenant will receive the rent back, minus court fees (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 68-111-104).

Under the URLTA, if the landlord fails to supply an essential service to the tenant, the tenant must give the landlord notice specifying the specific failure and then the tenant may choose one of the following options:

  1. The tenant can arrange to receive the essential service and then deduct the cost from the rent.
  2. The tenant can recover damages based on the reduced value of the rental unit because of the failure to receive the essential service.
  3. The tenant can temporarily move somewhere else until the landlord supplies the essential service. If the tenant chooses this option, the tenant is not required to pay rent until the landlord provides the essential service.

See Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-502.

In any case, if the landlord tries to evict the tenant for not paying rent during this time, the tenant can use evidence that the rental unit was not in habitable condition as a defense against the eviction. The Nolo article Tennessee Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent or “Repair and Deduct” has more information on the topic.

Landlord Evicted Tenant for Violating the Lease Agreement

Under the URLTA and the regular Tennessee code, a landlord is required to give a tenant a certain period of time to fix a lease violation (either 14 days or 30 days, depending on the nature of the violation). If the tenant fixes the violation, or provides payment to fix any damages caused by a lease violation, then the landlord is prohibited from proceeding with the eviction lawsuit (see Tenn. Code Ann. § § 66-7-109 and 66-28-505). If the landlord proceeds with the eviction lawsuit anyway, the tenant can use evidence that the violation was fixed or paid for as a defense against the eviction.

Landlord Evicted 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. In addition, Tennessee has enacted the Tennessee Human Rights Act which adds creed as another protected class. If a landlord tries to evict a tenant based on any of these characteristics, the tenant can use the discrimination as a defense to the eviction. See the Nolo article Housing Discrimination Prohibited by State and Local Law for more on laws prohibiting discrimination against tenants.

Additional Resources for Tenants in Tennessee

Because the law may differ drastically from county to county, a tenant facing eviction should check with a lawyer or a legal aid society in your county if you have specific questions regarding landlord-tenant relations. Justice for All, a Tennessee Supreme Court Initiative, provides an online directory with resources available in each county for tenants. Tenants who live in federally assisted housing should also check out the tenant resource page at HUD.gov.

Finding Your Local Courthouse

Evictions are typically filed in the general sessions court of the Tennessee court system. The Tennessee court system maintains an online directory with court information for each county.

When to Hire an Experienced 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 Tennessee lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law.

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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