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How Does the Tenant Prove that the Landlord's Conduct Was Retaliatory?

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

It is illegal in almost every state for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant for exerting their legal rights. Under most landlord retaliation statutes, a landlord can’t evict, harass or raise the rent of a tenant for actions such as complaining to a government agency or requesting legally-mandated repairs.

Landlords who try to go after tenants can be stopped and sued. That said, the tenant’s path to enforcing their rights may be a time (and money) consuming endeavor, depending on the circumstances of their case.

What is Illegal Landlord Retaliation?

If a landlord tenant dispute goes south and a tenant decides to inform the authorities, the tenant is protected from certain retaliatory activity. A landlord is not permitted to go after the tenant in a number of ways. The kinds of retaliatory acts covered by most state statutes include:  

  • increasing the rent;
  • ending a month-to-month tenancy or refusing to renew a lease;
  • firing off an eviction lawsuit if a tenant decides to stay put and fight in court; and
  • petty inconveniences like draining a pool, removing laundry facilities, cancelling cable access, etc.

A tenant must prove that these actions were retaliation, of course. That is where state laws against landlord retaliation come into play.

State Landlord Retaliation Laws

The state landlord retaliation laws protect tenants from vengeful landlords. If a landlord tries to evict a tenant for informing government agencies of code violations, or for requesting that the landlord make repairs and maintain the rental property in fit and habitable condition, it is likely against state law.

It is illegal in almost every state for a landlord to retaliate against you for acting within your legal rights by:

  • complaining about unsafe or illegal living conditions to a governmental entity (building inspector, fire official, etc.);
  • deducting money from the rent and using it to fix defects in the rental unit, or even withholding the rent entirely for an uninhabitable unit; or
  • joining or organizing a tenant union.

Remember that state laws will shield you only for those activities that are laid out in your state’s landlord retaliation statute. And not all states protect tenants from all types of retaliation either. Be sure to check what landlord retaliation statutes your state has on the books.

Proving Landlord Retaliation

So how difficult is it to prove landlord retaliation? If you do end up in court, the good news for tenants is the law sometimes assumes that conduct was retaliatory. Many states give tenants an edge when it comes to exposing prohibited treatment or evictions. In fact, more than 20 states’ laws state that the landlord is presumed to be retaliating if a tenancy is ended (or services decreased) within a certain amount of time after a tenant exercises a legal right. The amount of time varies from 3 months to a year, but typically it is a six-month window. Thus, in these states, the landlord has the burden to prove there was another valid, non-retaliatory motive for his actions.

Get Legal Help with Your Landlord Retaliation Claim

While it's illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you for reporting unsafe conditions or other conditions, enforcing these rights is a whole other story. Such lawsuits are costly and time-consuming, but your chances of success are increased when you have the right legal representation. If you believe that your landlord's conduct was retaliatory, it's a good idea to discuss your particular situation with a skilled landlord-tenant lawyer who can explain how the laws apply to your case and advocate on your behalf.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified real estate attorney to help you navigate any landlord-tenant issues.

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