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Illegal Evictions Can Get You in Trouble for Landlord Harassment

An illegal eviction occurs when a landlord uses self-help to evict a tenant. Self-help evictions happen when a landlord retakes possession of a rental property without using the legal eviction process. The use of self-help may amount to landlord harassment. Almost all states prohibit a landlord from evicting a tenant via self-help, which may lead to fines and penalties.

A state's legal eviction procedures apply regardless of what a tenant has done or how a tenant behaves. Landlords cannot take matters into their own hands. They must use their state's eviction process. They risk lawsuits or criminal penalties for wrongful evictions. In New York state, for example, unlawful evictions are a criminal misdemeanor.

This article explores illegal evictions and how to avoid them.

Legal evictions

An eviction is a legal process to remove a tenant from a rental property or dwelling unit. Since lease and rental agreements are binding legal contracts, landlords and property managers need a valid reason to remove a tenant.

Valid reasons for evicting a tenant include but are not limited to the following:

  • Nonpayment of rent
  • Engaging in criminal or illicit activity on the rental property
  • Causing severe damage to the rental property

Eviction Process

The legal eviction process begins with a written notice to the tenant advising them of the reason for the eviction and an opportunity to avoid it. Consider, for example, a tenant who owes two months' rent. Their landlord can allow them to pay the past-due rent and avoid eviction through a "pay rent or quit" notice.

Other types of notices include the "cure or quit" and "unconditional quit" notices. A "cure or quit" notice is often used for violations of rental or lease agreements. Tenants can cure the violation or vacate the rental unit.

Landlords use "unconditional quit" notices for extreme situations, like a tenant who hasn't paid rent in five months. Whereas the other notices come with a few days' notice and an opportunity to resolve the underlying issue, in this case the tenant must vacate immediately.

Eviction Lawsuit

If the tenant ignores the eviction notice, the landlord may file an eviction action in the appropriate court to regain possession of the property. In some states, a housing court is the venue for an eviction case; in others, it's a small claims court. If the landlord prevails in their legal action, the court can issue a writ of possession, returning the rental property to the landlord. The court order may also include attorney fees and court costs.

Self-Help Eviction

Self-help evictions occur when the landlord doesn't use the legal eviction process. The following are a few self-help methods landlords use to evict a renter illegally:

  • A tenant lockout by changing the locks on the unit
  • Turning off utility services
  • Removing the tenant's personal property from the rental unit
  • Threatening the tenant
  • Ordering the tenant to leave

If you are facing an illegal eviction or any of these methods, speak to a real estate or landlord-tenant law attorney. These methods can constitute landlord harassment.

Liability for Illegal Evictions

Illegal evictions open property owners, landlords, and property managers to significant liability. A tenant's behavior will not shield a landlord from liability. Instead, a court may view the landlord's unlawful actions as landlord harassment.

In many states, the tenant can get damages for the expenses of illegal eviction. This may include compensation for:

  • Temporary housing
  • The food that spoiled during the electricity shut-off

Some states allow renters to recover monetary damages such as a few months' rent or a few times the actual damages. The court may also award to the renter:

  • The option to vacate the premises and collect their security deposit
  • The return of all prepaid rent to the departing tenant

Evict Tenants Lawfully

Instead of using harassment or other illegal means to force someone to vacate a rental unit, a landlord should follow applicable state laws when evicting a tenant. Although it may take longer, and court costs may be expensive, following the process will protect a landlord from hefty damages. With the court order, the landlord can ask a law enforcement officer to remove the tenant from the property, avoiding the hint of impropriety.

Get Help

If you are facing an illegal eviction as a renter or a landlord, an experienced local landlord-tenant attorney can help. These attorneys are experts in landlord-tenant law and can give you sound legal advice tailored to your situation. Speak to a qualified, local landlord-tenant law attorney in your area.

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