Landlord, give me my money back!
February 23, 2009 12:29 PM   Subscribe

My previous landlord never returned my security deposit ($1,650) last autumn. I live in Chicago. Do I get an attorney (and if so how do I choose one) or do I take it to small claims court myself? What are the pros/cons of either approach?

I have read this question already, and while that was helpful, I am wondering if anyone has any additional recommendations.

First off, I am pretty well documented. I was a tenant there for 2 years, and have copies of the deposit receipt & cleared checks. I have copies of my original lease termination letter and the demand of payment letter I sent via registered mail after 60 days. This guy was an incredibly MIA landlord (several days before repairing heater in 10° Chicago winter, incommunicado for a week after the gas co. shut off my line due to a leak, etc.)... so none of this is shocking. Other tenants had similar complaints, but to my knowledge, people rarely took him to task.

After reading up on Chicago tenant law I've seen that I am potentially owed interest and/or twice the amount of the original deposit.

Does getting an attorney increase the likelihood of getting the interest payment or does the cost of the attorney generally cancel that out? Am I better off to do small claims? (I have heard mixed things about Illinois Tenants Union, and that you pay a sizable membership fee to join before using their services.)

Thanks for any suggestions!
posted by allisonrae to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Best answer: Get an attorney. This guy needs to be uncomfortable and you need to get your money back.
posted by brandsilence at 12:33 PM on February 23, 2009

In your letter, did you threaten him in terms of saying you'd get a lawyer? Did you cite your lease in it?

My dad's friend is a lawyer and wrote a letter on his letterhead asking for the deposit back. That worked for me. Another one of my friend's boyfriend was also a lawyer and did the same thing.

Another friend just kept calling the landlord and leaving messages.

I don't know anything about actually hiring someone or going to small claims court, but I've found that just dropping a hint about getting attorneys involved is usually enough.

I hope you get your money back!
posted by patientpatient at 12:34 PM on February 23, 2009

If you do get a lawyer and win your case, they landlord will probably have to pay your legal fees. I would at least try to get a hold of one, explain your case, and see if you can hire them on retainer.
posted by delmoi at 12:34 PM on February 23, 2009

Response by poster: I did threaten legal action, yes, and I cited relevant chunks of the RLTO. It was thorough, professionally written (though no legal letterhead), and included mentions of all my documentation. I never heard a peep back. At the time, upon calling I would get voicemail. A couple times I got a full voicemail box and was unable to leave messages. I hoped he would just be sensible, but it's time to make good on the threat of action!
posted by allisonrae at 12:51 PM on February 23, 2009

Best answer: Typically, small claims precludes the use of an attorney unless you just want to use them to bounce ideas or whatever. The tenant rights around deposits are usually pretty much set in stone. My recommendation is that you go to small claims and ask for everything the laws say you are eligible to receive. This looks like it will be less than the small claims limit ($10k in IL), so get a calculator, multiply your deposit by 3 and add whatever interest the law says they are to be penalized. Then put these numbers plus the codes for the laws that stipulate these penalties into a small claims form and pay your $40 or whatever for filing, then submit it to whomever can serve the papers. It takes a little time, but it's super easy (the laws and process sounds similar to what I've done here in California) and the law is on your side.
posted by rhizome at 12:56 PM on February 23, 2009

Re: update. Don't worry about it, you've sent your good-faith inquiry. The only professional, legal document he will respond to is served papers, which you can fill out in about 20min before you go stand in line at the courthouse.

Also, since small-claims judgements are a matter of public record and can affect his ability to do business, you don't need to respond to any pressure from him to settle for anything less than the full amount. If he offers to settle, he's likely doing it to keep the judgement off the record, so you can ask for something like $20-50,000 for this benefit. Hey, it's worth a try.
posted by rhizome at 1:02 PM on February 23, 2009

If I were you I'd fill out the small claims paperwork and send a copy of it to him, certified mail, return receipt required, with a cover letter indicating that he has 72 hours to arrange reimbursal for $X or you file. Then do it.
posted by phearlez at 1:54 PM on February 23, 2009

There's good info here -
posted by jennyb at 3:01 PM on February 23, 2009

Absolutely file a claim with small claims court. You do not need a lawyer. I've had to do this twice... the court date is a bit of a hassle but this sounds open and shut. You just stand in front of the judge, explain the situation, show documentation to back up your story, and you'll get your deposit plus fine back within a month.
posted by oceanmorning at 8:53 PM on February 23, 2009

I don't live in Chicago, but in NYC I had tremendous luck getting the Attorney General's office involved. A quick Google search doesn't indicate the same level of involvement from the Chicago AG office (for example, the NY AG office includes a link to the security deposit dispute form right on their website, but there is no similar thing on the Chicago AG site), but it wouldn't hurt to give them a call to find out what the standard procedure might be. (217)782-1090
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:06 AM on February 24, 2009

Don't even bother writing to tell him that you're going to sue. Just file a lawsuit in small claims court. Generally, deadbeat landlords don't pay any attention to "I'm going to sue you" letters but will usually respond to actual lawsuits being filed. He'll probably try to say "WTF?! Why are you suing me? Here, I'll give you the money.." but don't fall for it. Sue him, have your day in court, and let him explain to a judge why he failed to return your deposit.

Be aware that it might take a while to even get on the court calendar. I had to sue an old landlord last year, and we just got the court date scheduled a few weeks ago.

Naturally, document everything that you can and make copies of everything.
posted by drstein at 11:36 AM on February 24, 2009

Response by poster: Just in case any future readers are curious, here's an update one year later: it seemed that the amount I was originally seeking (simply the deposit plus any associated legal fees) exceeded the cap for small claims. So I found a lawyer who did all my dirty work (which among other things, required a private investigator to even be able to serve the papers), and filed a suit that was much larger than I'd expected. I think the idea was to get the landlord to pursue a settlement rather than default and have this huge judgement on his record.

After months and months (during which time I'd resigned myself that this was going to go nowhere), he finally came through via his attorney, and we settled. The amount was considerably less than the lawsuit, and considerably more than the originally owed deposit. The lawyer took his fees from that amount – I never paid a dime up front apart from a filing fee or two and a modest payment for the investigator's services. I was left with a nice remainder that was still well over the original deposit. That's pretty much it!

Having been through it all, I would enthusiastically recommend getting a lawyer to anyone in a similar situation. I'd never had an issue like this before and had trouble thinking of myself as a "get a lawyer" type of person. That said, I'm a busy lady. Having all the negotiations, filings, legal biz, etc. taken care of by someone else who specializes in these cases was well worth the additional cost... and even if I'd attempted to do it myself I don't think I would have gotten the results. Just glad it's all behind me now!
posted by allisonrae at 8:35 PM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

« Older How can my friend's band promote themselves?   |   [Office Politics Filter] How long do I nag my boss... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.