How to Build a Case Against a Negligent Landlord

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Recently,  I experienced a long ordeal with a property management company that had failed in many areas to provide proper maintenance.

The most recent issue involved a leaking roof with two affected areas in the apartment. They continued to grow worse over the course of a little over three months due to the property management company’s failure to address the issue in a timely manner. After a court dispute the case was settled to the satisfaction of both parties, but while there I was surprised to see just how unprepared some people were for their cases. I have also been equally surprised to find just how prevalent negligence in maintenance can be in property management companies, especially that serve poor and urban neighborhoods. For this reason I felt this was an important issue to discuss. For educational purposes I have prepared some tips that may hopefully help those living through similar maintenance nightmares and court disputes with landlords. Building a truly strong case takes time and the following of very careful steps and while I can’t tell you everything here are some things to consider.

Always “Do the right thing” As a Tenant

It’s important to know exactly what your lease states you can and cannot do and what rights you are entitled to as a tenant under the law.  It’s important to always honor the terms of your lease and faithfully pay your rent to establish a positive track record and relationship with your landlord or property management company and you may find they’ll be more reasonable to work with. It also never hurts your case in court to be free from fault or violation to establish yourself as an excellent tenant who deserves some consideration.

Document Everything

If you begin to see problems with maintenance in your apartment or in the common areas of the building make sure to document them early on and track the progress of the situation. Take photographs of everything and take multiple photographs if problems become worse. The more information you can present in court the better.

Keep track of dates as well. The timeline of events is very important and can establish some very important facts in your case. One good way to attach hard evidence of a date to a photograph is by emailing yourself the photos when you take them. The dates of the emails you keep copies will provide a good timeline for the court to follow in making its decision.

Keep notes and screenshots of any steps you have taken as a tennant to resolve any issues you intend to bring to litigation. Save emails, voicemails, and any communication at all between you and your landlord or property management company. If your landlord provides an online portal system for things like payments or requests for maintenance utilize it and take lots of screenshots.

Save any emails, paperwork, bills, payments and rental receipts and all correspondences and communications between you and your landlord or property management company to bring to court if need be. If you receive any advice or promises from a landlord or property manager make sure to get them in writing. If you receive voicemails save them.

If you really want to seal the deal with a guarantee your landlord property manager gives you or advice they divulge you may ask them to make a notarized statement, offering to pay the notary fee. Still, an email to show a judge in court should do the trick.

Over all, just keep track of EVERYTHING. Most judges prefer a “show don’t tell” approach when hearing someone’s case.

Pro-tip: If you use a PC there are many free softwares that allow you to screenshot internet documents and correspondences. I recommend Bandicam.

Mind the Paperwork

If you’re pursuing the path of litigation it’s important to know the what and how of filing your court paperwork. Failing to file a complaint may prevent you from making it in court. You’ll also want to make sure they are served, so if possible you may want to utilize certified mail and a constable. If courtpapers aren’t served a case will easily be thrown out.

If your landlord or property management company is suing or evicting you and you want to file a counter complaint against them you may be required to do so before the hearing. If you have multiple complaints as a plaintiff file them all rather than bringing them up later. Something as small as court filing may seem trivial but it can make or break a case.

Don’t Withhold Your Rent (Alone)

When your property is suffering severe negligence the gut instinct of many is to simply withhold rent. “Fix my problem or I’m not paying.” and it does seem fair to demand that if one is paying to live on a property the property should be taken care of. Depending on the laws of your jurisdiction and the individual situation you may be able to get away with this, but most likely not.

In some situations this step may not be necessary. Instead you may simply file a complaint in court or with your local code enforcement to demand the problem fixed, hopefully after exhausting other options. Pursuing this as a last resort will help build your case in court to show you made attempts and provided opportunities for the situation to be addressed. You may be able to get what you need done through litigation alone.

In some very rare cases it may be lawful to withhold rent if a dwelling place is uninhabitable. Proving this claim is no easy task and usually only severe situations apply. Some might include no running water, electricity, or heat in the winter.  Major pest infestations like rats (not mice). If the situation is severe enough the building may be condemned and your landlord or property manager may be required to provide you a new dwelling place of equal or greater value to your rent at the same rate you’re paying now.

If you must withhold rent you may do so through a middleman. You may be able to go to your bank or a private company to set up an Escrow Account. Whatever rent you’re holding pending your landlord or property manager addressing your concerns you deposit into the account. A third party will hold the funds until your demands are met. This in some senses allows a third party withhold the money while proving you are still making payments and acts as a show of good faith guaranteeing the money will actually be disbursed when the demands are met.

Always Bring Hard Evidence

One young lady I witnessed in court failed in her case when she provided the defense that she hadn’t paid her rent because the property manager told her she didn’t have to because of a maintenance problems. Not only did she follow bad advice, but when she told the judge this all he could say was, “You’re not showing me any proof!”

I also saw an owner of a property management company fail to convince the judge of his claim that the work done by an electrician he was suing was disapproved by the city codes. The judge asked if he had anything from the city and the man indicated he “didn’t think I had to…” because of something someone from the city told him. Once again there was “no proof”

Always bring photographs, printed documents and written statements along with printed emails and other written correspendences. Print any screenshots you take. Most courtroom rules indicate you may not have a cellpone powered on during court. Exceptions might be made if its for the presentation of evidence or rules are less strictly enforced. That may depend on your local court and what the judge allows. It’s always better to have something physical to present.

Pro-tips:
Walmart and pharmacies like CVS allow you to upload photos to their website and pick them within an hour at a location near you. They also may allow you to upload your photos to be printed on location from a flashdrive. It will cost some money,  but the investment may prove worth it when the evidence saves your case.
If you don’t have a printer at home you may be able to print out paper documents and other correspondences at your local library. They may charge something like 25-50 cents per paper your print. Alternately you could always “phone a friend” who has a printer of their own.

Make a Good Impression on the Court

Always show up for your hearing, even if a property manager or landlord tells you that you don’t have to. Failing to arrive at your hearing will more often than not result in a ruling against you whether you’re the defendant or the plaintiff. Show up on time. Many times courts will file a number of hearings at the same time, but the times are not exact. You should still show up on time as these matters can often be resolved quickly and you may miss your chance to present your case. A judge may still hear your claims if your late, but it still creates a poor impression and may shift the decision in a close case.

Always be polite and respectful, follow the rules and courtesies of the courtroom, and remember to dress well. Very poor courtroom attire may result in your removal, but dressing well shows that your serious about your case and respectful of the court system. It may tip the scales when a judge is on the fence.

If at First You Don’t Succeed

Don’t give up on your first try. You may be able to file for an appeal to a judge’s ruling to a higher court. This doesn’t just give you a chance to seek a second opinion but may give you time to build a better case and learn from previous mistakes.

 

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed attorney and do not dispense legal advice, laws and procedures may vary by state and local jurisdiction. This article is for educational purposes only.

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