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Proving a Landlord's Conduct is Retaliatory

Frustrated person calling the landlord after a water leak

It is illegal in almost every state for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant for asserting their legal rights. This is known as a retaliatory action.

Under most landlord retaliation statutes, a landlord can't evict, harass, or raise the rent of a tenant for doing something legal. A landlord may not like the renter's actions, but they cannot seek revenge.

A common retaliation tactic is trying to evict a renter after they complain to a government agency. This is called "retaliatory eviction." A landlord might also try a rent increase to push out a renter after they request legally required repairs. This sometimes is called "retaliatory rent."

What is Illegal Landlord Retaliation?

If a landlord-tenant dispute goes south and a tenant decides to inform the authorities, the tenant is protected against the landlord from certain retaliatory activity. 

The kinds of retaliatory acts covered by most state statutes include: 

  • Increasing the rent
  • Claiming there was a non-payment of rent
  • Claiming there was no security deposit
  • Ending a month-to-month tenancy or refusing to renew a lease
  • Starting an eviction lawsuit if a tenant decides to stay and fight in court
  • Petty inconveniences like draining a pool, removing laundry facilities, canceling cable access

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

State Landlord Retaliation Laws

Tenants are protected against vengeful landlords by state landlord retaliation laws. If a landlord tries to evict a tenant for informing government agencies of code violations, it is likely against the law. They also cannot be punished for requesting that the landlord make repairs and maintain the rental property in a "fit and habitable" condition.

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

  • Complain about unsafe or illegal living conditions to a governmental entity (building inspector, fire official, etc.)
  • Deduct money from the rent and use it to fix defects in the rental unit
  • Withhold the rent entirely for an uninhabitable unit
  • Join or organize a tenant union

Remember that state laws will protect you only for activities in your state's landlord retaliation statute. Not all states protect tenants from all types of retaliation. 

Be sure to check what landlord retaliation statutes your state has on the books.

The Process for Suing a Retaliatory Landlord

Landlords who try to go after tenants' rights can be stopped and sued. That said, the tenant's path to enforcing their rights may be a time and money consuming endeavor. You may be stuck in the same building and have to pay rent during the whole case. This depends on the circumstances of your case.

The process usually looks like this:

  1. The tenant's complaint is filed with the landlord
  2. The residential landlord does something to the tenant
  3. The tenant selects an attorney
  4. The attorney files a lawsuit in small claims court
  5. Both sides collect evidence and witnesses
  6. The case is presented to a judge
  7. One side wins damages (money), or possibly the landlord or tenant is removed from the property

How Difficult is it to Prove Landlord Retaliation?

If you do end up in court, the good news for tenants is that the law may presume the landlord's bad conduct was retaliatory. Many states give tenants an edge when it comes to exposing prohibited treatment or evictions.

More than 20 states have laws presuming landlord retaliation if:

  • A renter does something within their legal rights
  • The lease is ended (or services decreased)
  • The lease is terminated within a certain amount of time after a tenant exercises a legal right

The amount of time varies by state and ranges from three months to a year, but typically it is a six-month window. In these states, the landlord has the "burden of proof." This means it is the landlord that needs to prove there was another valid, non-retaliatory motive for their 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 defects, enforcing these rights is a whole different story. 

Such lawsuits are costly and time-consuming, but your chances of success increase 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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