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Bastard Landlord steals security depsoit (with many twists involved): What to do?
August 22, 2006 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Landlord Filter: So I'm suing my landlord, help me get my gameplan/choice of action together before I meet a lawyer...

Me and two friends of mine lived in a College Park, MD off-campus apartment. The apartment building is not centeralized, each individual apt. is owned by seperate/various landlords. My landlord required a 2 months deposit for the place (came down to $1200 a piece, or $3600 total).

We payed the deposit and payed each month in full(albeit a few months were late at times, if not extremely late). He warned us that we needed to get the money in quicker, but never anything in writing. He was pretty lackidasical--more on that later).

We moved out at the end of our lease, July 1st 2006. The apartment was pretty messy, but not damaged. We had accrued nearly $900 worth of noise violation fines from the centeralized building (we had a LOT of parties). Not having the funds to pay for such, we asked our landlord to take it off our deposit (the apt. building's policy takes the fine to the landlord if the tennants don't make with the loot).

Anyways, we tried cleaning the place (it was rEALLLY messy, we lived like slobs). We worked for 2 days before our lease was out, but the chicks who moved in weren't happy with the condition (how dare they!). Aparently my landlord hired a cleaning crew one day and it was resolved.

We gave our keys directly to the new tennants because our landlord never stepped a foot in the building for the last 9 months (he lives in New Jersey, we are in College Park, MD). We called him repeatedly about our deposits, expecting aprox 2500 of the 3600 back (-900 for fines, 200ish for cleaning). He never responded.

We called him repeatedly for over a month. Finally we sent a letter FEDEX'd with sign verification, requesting to speak to him or else we would pursuit legal action. A month later (which comes to aprox. 70 days after the end of our lease), he finally sends us checks for $400 each (totally $1200), probably because of the threat of legal action in the letter. We found the sum totally unacceptable.

Researching Prince George's County law on security deposits, apparently the landlord must file any complaint on a deduction for the security deposit within 30 days. If he does not do anything within 45 days, you are granted the right to sue for the entire amount plus up to 3 times compensatory damages.

My roomates, who are very broke, want to sue for the maximum (which would be $10800, or 3x3600). We lost our copy of the lease, which could be problematic, but we do have copies of the checks we made out to him at the begining of the lease, showing the $3600 collectively up front.

Is it worth suing him, if we have to inccur legal fees? How can we get out of legal fees (free public defenders perhaps) ? Is it ethical to sue for so much, when in fact, we owe aprox $1000 dollars collectively via the fines/cleaning?

P.S. our landlord is a bastard so there is a sense of vindication; he never fixed anything in our place, we had to do it ourselves (and we didn't complain-- we're like cockroaches; we adapted). We did not damage the place and we payed way too mcuh for the going rate in the area.

We have a meeting with a lawyer on Thursday, but the lawyer smells expensive ($250 an hour) and I'm not sure if she will give us a completely unbiased opinion.

Should we try to squeeze as much as possible? Is it a viable option? Should we settle for the $400 and just find his address and impugn our own revenge (just kidding)?
posted by stratastar to Law & Government (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks a million for the help, I really appreciate it!
posted by stratastar at 1:26 PM on August 22, 2006


Okay, well, my real answer. It isn't worth suing for $1000. You guys were a pain in his ass.

Did you ask how much the cleaning crew was? $200 is a pretty low estimate.

Did he have to repaint? Steam clean carpets?

Lesson learned: if you want your security deposit back, clean the place like you've never cleaned before.
posted by k8t at 1:29 PM on August 22, 2006


No carpets were replaced, the walls were immaculate. The main issues with the cleanliness was the kitchen grime/bathroom grime.

I guess you could call us a pain in the ass via the noise violations, but he really didn't do ANYTHING so I dont see how it could be a pain in his ass?
posted by stratastar at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2006


Be glad you got away with what you did. Legal fees are going to be a hell of a lot more than the difference.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:33 PM on August 22, 2006


We sued our ex-landlord last year. After three days in court, and all sorts of legwork on our parts, we got back about 2/3rds of the deposit. The judge basically laughed at our treble-damages demand, even though we had (what we thought was) an air-tight case, witnesses, documentation, all that.

It comes down to the fact that the judge will be the one making the decision, and he won't necessarily stick to the letter of the law. Since you admit that you weren't the best tenants, I'd say go for the quick payoff, and avoid the court (and legal fees).
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2006


Your lawyer fees can easily pass whatever the deposit is if this guy fights it (which he would be wise to). Without the contract and an itemized list of repairs, etc. it is hard to say what you should do. I doubt a judge is going to look very favorably upon your behavior and I would not look at a lawsuit as a way to make money either.
posted by geoff. at 1:37 PM on August 22, 2006


You guys don't sound like model tenants, but you still deserve a detailed accounting of what, specifically, is being taken out of your security deposit.

In regards to legal fees, I think most legal aid offices (not public defenders, those guys deal in criminal matters) have an income threshold, above which they will not provide their services. It sounds like you are a college student, so I would imagine that if you are still listed as a dependent by your parents, the income requirement would be measured against your parents' income. Is your meeting with the attorney a free initial consultation? You will probably get a sense of whether you trust the person or not, and they should give you a pretty objective view of what your chances for recovering the debt are.

I would guess that a letter from your lawyer ought to get you guys back your $2500 (that you expected), as its probably more pain than its worth for your landlord to fight it. That said, most places that will rent you a place in the next few years will probably want some sort of contact with this landlord to see what kind of tenant you are, and almost all rental applications i've seen lately include some question as to whether you've ever been in a legal action against a former landlord (don't remember the specific wording, it might have been limited to legal action over unpaid rent). Having that black mark for future rental applications might be one thing to consider in determining how to proceed.
posted by buddha9090 at 1:41 PM on August 22, 2006


English student, perchance?

Let it go; you're just setting yourselves up for a fall.
posted by Leon at 1:44 PM on August 22, 2006


Let's do the numbers:

$3600 group deposit
-900 noise fines
-200 lowball estimate of apt. cleaning
--------------------------------------------------
2500 potentially owed by landlord
-1200 group deposit returned by landlord
-------------------------------------------------------
$1300 amount landlord potentially sued over ($433 each)

Jeezus. Let it go. The landlord may be awful but you folks were awful tenants too. IANAL but it will cost you more to sue than you will ever get back -- if you win. And there's no guarantee that you'll get those treble damages.

As Kenny Rogers sings:

"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

It's time to fold 'em. :)
posted by bim at 1:45 PM on August 22, 2006


You may get your money after a lawsuit, and a hellacious number of headaches, but believe me: the landlord was probably justified in taking most (if not all) of your security deposit.

The law says that apartments, before they're rented, must be cleaned to a certain level, and even repainted in many cases. Your landlord was behind the eightball, because he had to clean up your mess *and* do it so he could "turn around" the apartment to a new tenant. This probably meant paying thru the nose for clean up.

A quick turnover in real estate is crucial. Every vacancy drains money that must be applied to paying expenses, like sewer/water, heat, and loan costs.

Give the guy a break. He might not be Mahatma Ghandi, but he's trying to run a business -- one that's real tough these days.
posted by Gordion Knott at 1:51 PM on August 22, 2006


I would guess that a letter from your lawyer ought to get you guys back your $2500 (that you expected), as its probably more pain than its worth for your landlord to fight it.

This seems to be a very intelligent choice of action, based upon an overwhelmingly bleak response via the trouble and risk/rewards.

IANAL but it will cost you more to sue than you will ever get back -- if you win.

Do we incurr the legal fees or is there a system where the accused has to pay for it? Furthermore, it is more about the principle for me (the money for my friends) about his deplorable behavior towards us (we're humans too!)

English student, perchance?

However did you guess? Nice one :)

----------


Anyways, thanks again for the response, MeFites are, again, offering me a poingant alternative perspective that I cherish!
posted by stratastar at 1:52 PM on August 22, 2006


Sounds like you guys were pretty crappy tenants. That said, it also sounds like you are entitled to either the return of your deposit or an accounting of the damages. A lawyer wouldn't be worthwhile, given the cost, but small claims court doesn't require a lawyer. I don't know if small claims court is an appropriate venue for landlord tenant disputes, but I'll bet you can find out...)

English student, perchance?

Lord, I hope not...

posted by dersins at 1:57 PM on August 22, 2006


English student, perchance?

Lord, I hope not...


English honors at that :(
posted by stratastar at 2:03 PM on August 22, 2006


If it were me, I would probably just let it go.

One option to consider -- choose a less expensive lawyer, ideally with a free initial consultation, and ask how much it would cost for him/her to write a strongly worded letter on your behalf. That might shake some additional money out of the trees without exposing you to big legal fees.

If you do this --- make very sure you have a written agreement with the lawyer, that you keep in a safe place, that only authorizes him to do a ceratin amount of work for a certain fee.
posted by KAS at 2:05 PM on August 22, 2006


If you wanted to sue, it should be through small claims court. I wouldn't try going for the max, especially if you don't have the copy of your lease.

If you were crappy tenant, but it was taken out of the pay, there's no reason really why you shouldn't get the rest of it back. You paid for the cleaning, and you paid for the fines. It's not like he lives there, so I doubt he was running to and fro fixing things or even having to hear the loud noise.

However, it might be best to do some research (it can be found with a little bit of Googling) and point to the specific laws he violated (notice that he wasn't giving you all money back and detailed list as to what the costs were.. req'd for NY, don't know about MD), and threaten further legal action. He paid up the first time, so if you do some research and show that he is certainly in the wrong, you might get him to pay some more. Certified mail, of course.

Point out that if it went to court it might be more, so he should just give you what he owes.

If the landlord was justified in keeping your security deposit then he needs to follow the law and let you know (like I said not sure of landlord/tenant law in MD)
posted by unsigned at 2:05 PM on August 22, 2006


Consider what you are going to look like in court: a string of citations for noise violations, multiple late payments of rent, some extreme, new tenant complaints about condition, a professional cleaning service bill. What have you got on him? Got any documentation of his failings as a landlord? I think a judge would look at this case (particularly if you were asking for 300% compensatory damages - compensation for what, exactly?) and tell you tough luck. Assess you the landlord's legal fees if you got a mean one. Contact the landlord again and demand an itemized accounting of what he deducted from your deposit with copies of receipts and the return of whatever amount he cannot account for. Accept what you get. Don't waste any money on lawyers.
posted by nanojath at 2:06 PM on August 22, 2006


It might be worthwhile to send him a demand letter for an itemized bill noting what he's docking your deposit for...

and really... *really*: find the damned lease. You are effectively screwed if you don't.
posted by baylink at 2:19 PM on August 22, 2006


I wouldn't want to live in the same building as you, but I applaud your being an honors student. Congrats. :)
posted by bim at 2:26 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


On the other side of the coin, most universities have a legal services where students can go for free legal advice (the majority of it is probably landlord/tenant disputs).
You could get them to write a threatening letter on your behalf, which might scare him into give you a little more cash.
posted by j at 2:37 PM on August 22, 2006


Let it go.
Odds are good that you aren't going to get treble damages.
The cleaning certainly cost more than $200 and your landlord can likely document that.
At most, you'll get your original deposit back, most of which would likely be given to lawyer fees.

On the other hand, you could take it to small claims court and hope your landlord doesn't show (might be good odds with him in a different state). In which case, a summary judgement might go your way.

Oh, and the word you're looking for is "paid".
posted by madajb at 2:38 PM on August 22, 2006


Restoring an apartment from move-out clean to move-in clean, and painting, is just what landlords have to do so that I can pay them $2000 every month. If that's too much work for them, I'd be happy to trade places.

I too would encourage non-lawyer court proceedings. $1000 is worth fighting for, to many of us! A friend of mine went this route with a NYC landlord who inexplicably refused to return the deposit and was awarded it with minimal trouble. (Landlord was a no-show.)

As for trying to profit from this... I'd say you waived that bonus when you became semi-problematic tenants.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 2:43 PM on August 22, 2006


In principle, and on paper, none of that stuff regarding their status as tenants matters. What matters is the letter of the law, which the landlord did not follow by not providing notice in the appropriate timeframe. In reality, their behavior as tenants may or may not affect the outcome if it ever goes to court. Judging by their description of the landlord, I would suggest that the guy might not even show up to court, or would settle to avoid dealing with them in court.

Get a cheap lawyer, sue him in small claims court for 3X the deposit owed, and have the local sheriff serve him notice. If he's that far away, he'll do one of three things.

1) Not show up to court, which nets you a summary judgment that you can collect on. This could have significant entertainment value.

2) Settle out of court to make you go away.

3) Show up in court with a lawyer, in which case, your lawyer should be doing everything in his power to keep your ass-hattery out of the equation, since the matter at hand is whether the landlord owes you the full deposit. You'll likely get back the deposit + legal fees, if your lawyer and judge know each other well enough to keep it strictly "to the letter of the law".

You know that you were sucky tenants, and honestly, you can be right or you can be happy. Nobody says you can't try to have your cake and eat it, too. At least get a free consultation from a lawyer.
posted by Merdryn at 2:45 PM on August 22, 2006


As said upthread: SMALL CLAIMS COURT. I have a friend who favorably sued her landlord over deposit issues in small claims court. Not only do you not need a lawyer, I'm pretty sure you're not SUPPOSED to have one.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:14 PM on August 22, 2006


Obligatory "IANAL" warning

I was in a similar situation a while back. In Georgia, landlord-tenant statutes say that the burden is on the landlord to give the tenant, within 30 days, either the security deposit or a written explanation as to why it was withheld, and I (eventually) found a judge who understood that. I did win-- triple damages and all-- but it was a ridiculous bother and it took more than a year of work, filing and general frustration.

nolo.com is good for general information on the subject of landlord-tenant rights and links to state laws. Small claims court, if it comes to that, probably won't require a lawyer; the rules there are usually more lax than in other systems. Unfortunately, the enforcement rules there can be equally lax, so good luck collecting on your judgement even if you do win.

If you have the free time, and if you think the effort is worth it, and if your local laws put most of the burden on the landlord, and if (oh god, what an if) you find a judge who both knows the legal situation and gives a shit about justice as opposed to clearing the docket with maximum speed, I'd say you have a chance of winning in court, even without a lawyer-- at which point it'll probably be up to you to actually recover the money, which is a whole nother nightmare.

If that sounds worthwhile, go for it.
posted by tyro urge at 3:22 PM on August 22, 2006


If you try to sue, you will probably lose. Consider the amount of time and effort you would have to put into a suit, and then consider that all of it will be wasted when you lose.

Without the lease, you're screwed. Given that the landlord has documentation of your poor behavior, you're even more screwed.

The landlord will be able to show the judge that you guys aren't trustworthy and will probably convince the judge that everything wrong with the apartment was your fault. In fact, the landlord can probably show that any fixes/adjustments you made are an imminent threat to everyone in the vicinity, and must be repaired by professionals at outrageous cost. Hell, if the landlord is really aggressive he/she will throw in some random property damage/theft and blame it on your party attendees.

Whether this is fair or right is irrelevant. You're going to lose, and it's going to take a great deal of time and effort in order for you to lose.
posted by aramaic at 4:01 PM on August 22, 2006


Small claims will work.

In future:
Always take pictures.

Take them when you move in.
Take them when you move out (after cleaning).

Take them of any defects you find during the move-in. Itemise your found defects. Send it to the Landlord, certified mail, return receipt.
posted by meehawl at 5:21 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


To all the people saying that the OP and his friends' "character" is going to screw them: What the hell kind of judges are sitting on benches in your area that they would disregard the law when all that matters is "did the landlord provide notice of his intend to withhold the deposit"?
posted by Merdryn at 5:27 PM on August 22, 2006


The kind of judge that has to determine if he's sitting in front of a nuisance suit.
posted by mendel at 5:50 PM on August 22, 2006


Many thanks for the wide variety of posts.

I guess the issue will boil down to the judge's adherence to the law (which, disregarding the noise violations etc, is on my side via the lack of compliance by my landlord).

We will be meeting with a lawyer on Thursday and I think I'm leaning towards having a legal letterhead notice, requesting a fully proven itemization of deductions and the subsequent return of the balance.

For the supremely anal/negative Mefites who try to judge my character based upon a few loosely tied facts/typos, you are welcome to chime with your opinions/critiques, but I don't really take them to heart.

On the whole, many thanks!
posted by stratastar at 7:28 PM on August 22, 2006



"For the supremely anal/negative Small Claims Judges who won't be sympathetic based upon documents that are really, really unpleasant to read, you are welcome to chime with your opinions/critiques, but I wasn't really planning on getting any dough."

Seriously, you gonna appear in court in your grubby painting clothes? Gonna pick your nose and wipe it on the bar? I have a certain practical interest in "How do I sock it to my SOB landlord" questions, but your presentation is lacking (by which I mean, frickin' awful), and will dissuade people from caring.

Lesson: If you're gonna ask someone for help, be it AskMe or the judge, show some respect, or at least don't make yourself odious.

*makes mental note not to let friends or kids go to UM*

posted by eritain at 8:39 PM on August 22, 2006


The $1300 or so correctly calculated by bim will disappear when the landlord mentions to the judge you were often late, and occasionally extremely late with payments. The judge will NOT be happy about this at all. You can easily argue about things like how clean the apartment was, how much damage was done, or any other opinion based matter. But you will not get around the concrete facts: You were late at paying and were fined on several occasions for breaking the rules.

I don't know if the fines are paid to the government/city or not, but if they were, the landlord will countersue for the cost of his time in dealing with those fines. He will DEFINITELY countersue for the interest owed on the $900 fines that weren't paid on time. Another fun countersuit might be to try to extract from you rent money for tenants that have left because of your noise violations. It might sound stupid, but if you violated it enough, he might even be successful at turning this case HIS WAY.

I would hazard a guess that if the landlord makes an average, less than stellar case, and yours is good, you might stand to make half of the $1300 to split between you.

So, if you really care about it, sue him in small claims and don't hire a lawyer. You won't make your money if you do. However, honestly, you will not be impressing the judge at all when he hears about the unpaid fines and the reason for them. If it weren't for those, you'd probably have a way tighter case.

But it's your ball, roll it as you must...

And there's no way in hell you'll get triple damages unless you were the most perfect person in the world and he was the nastiest guy in the world. Considering he didn't report your $900 in fines to the creditors and let you pay them with your security deposit, he's starting out clean as a whistle; that means you'll have to do a LOT of work to take him down.

(No, I don't think you're a bad person/whatever, I'm just trying to show you what will be going through a judges mind: This isn't a reasonable doubt case, this is a 50/50 "who looks the best" case, and your landlord is starting out looking clean, and you are starting out looking dirty. That won't play well.)

If you plan to play the legal game in the future, some suggestions: Always consider anything you do and how it might reflect on your character in court. Always spellcheck/grammar check/legal check anything you write to the other party (and keep copies!). ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS keep dated notes. Period. Check the relevant laws and understand them thoroughly enough that you can quote them (from a copy, of course). Violating any one of those rules is enough to ruin a case.
posted by shepd at 8:58 PM on August 22, 2006



*makes mental note not to let friends or kids go to UM*


Thank you for exemplifying my point. Even if I am the most odious and undesirable person in the world, how would my university reflect upon that? Please don't attempt to judge my character on these issues; you don't have a fucking clue who I am. I think this is pretty axiomatic in regards to my comment which you aparently didn't quite get the clue.

----

I didn't post this to win respect or favor from people on MeFi. I could have easily done that by spinning a yarn of a situation ("and we tried to donate our proceeds to charity, but our miserly landlord didn't allow it..."). We did plenty of foolish things in our apartment, but it was never malicious. I didn't ask for your judgement, just your analysis of the situation.



----
p.s. I've found the copy of the lease contract. Many thanks to many of the posters who gave tips on presentation, research and order. I think for the most part, I've gained an understanding of contractual obligations and how to deal with them in a more orderly and proficient manner.
posted by stratastar at 1:02 AM on August 23, 2006


I said nothing about your character. I said you're presenting your case poorly, and if you present it that poorly in court you'll be shooting yourself in the foot.

I also formed a limited opinion, based on limited evidence, about whether the UM English Department has done much for you, and overstated it for humor's sake. I believed, based on this, that you were already secure about the incongruity that I was pointing up. You seem to have taken it as *makes mental note to keep friends and kids away from this goober at all costs*, which is not what I meant at all. Relax.
posted by eritain at 4:15 AM on August 23, 2006


Let us know what you decide after you see the lawyer. :)
posted by bim at 7:19 AM on August 23, 2006


To all the people saying that the OP and his friends' "character" is going to screw them: What the hell kind of judges are sitting on benches in your area that they would disregard the law when all that matters is "did the landlord provide notice of his intend to withhold the deposit"?
That's probably a rhetorical question, but, in fact, that's exactly the kind of judge that sits on the bench of the DC Small Claims Court. Sexist jokes, demeaning comments about plaintiffs' appearances, and a very, very loose regard for the law were, apparently, not peculiar to my case. Hence my skepticism about stratastar's chances in court--we were in a better position than he is, were pretty much model tenants, we had documentation, witnesses, stacks of research, a lawyer's advice (though not his presence in the courtroom), and it all came down to the judge's opinion about who he liked better. We "won," in that we walked out $800 richer than when we walked in (minus court costs, filing fees, certified mail expenses, etc.), but we lost in that we were owed $1200, and sued for $3600.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:29 AM on August 23, 2006


Re eritain: alright, I see your point, but I wasn't trying to be persuasive or rhetorical in my MeFi post. I simply wanted to lay-down as much of the relevant information as possible so the followup questions would be analytical (as they have been!) instead of inquisitive (e.g. "what state do you live in? Do you have x? Did y occur? etc etc)

Excuse my over-reaction, us UMD types are a bit overzealous! :)
posted by stratastar at 12:00 PM on August 23, 2006


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