What are the legal ramifications of my friend breaking her lease, and should the leasing company have to take her mental illness into consideration?
March 15, 2010 10:03 PM   Subscribe

My mentally ill friend signed a lease impulsively, in a very distressed mental state. We're wondering what legal ramifications apply if she breaks the lease, given her illness.

She is Bipolar, currently fully disabled and constantly seeking treatment.

The big stressor: she recently learned that her relatively stable living situation with two friends had to come to an end (because the two friends recently got married and want a home to themselves now, understandably). She went into some kind of manic freak out and very impulsively rented an apartment that same day, without even looking into other options.

After talking to friends, and her therapist, she realized the apartment just wasn't right for her for several reasons. She realized it was a choice made out of desperation and panicked thinking, and that she should probably try to get out of the lease. To this end, she obtained a letter from her therapist attesting to her condition, suggesting that she be allowed to terminate the lease without penalty due to her distressed state of mind at the time.

My friend took the letter to the leasing office the very next day and was very apologetic, explaining her condition and what had happened and and asked to be let out of the lease.

First they told her there would be a penalty of $1300. Then they brought the amount down to two month's rent, $850, I believe. I guess it's nice that they're trying to work with her. The problem is, my friend is on Social Security, so her income is so limited as it is. She pays for a lot of her own therapy out of pocket. $850 would be really hard for her to manage.

Her main concerns/questions:

If she can't pay, can they sue her?
If she can't pay, how badly can this damage her credit?

Personally, I want to know if there are any legal protections from penalties like these for people like my friend, who are not entirely responsible at the time a lease is signed.

Your thoughts and ideas would be greatly appreciated.
posted by apis mellifera to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. She signed a contract, right? If not a lawyer, a tenant resource center/advocate would be a big help.
posted by Madamina at 10:09 PM on March 15, 2010

Her therapist may need to put her in contact with local social services, who can probably find her a stable housing situation and possibly handle the rental company too.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:24 PM on March 15, 2010

As always with legal questions like this... where is she located?
posted by brainmouse at 10:49 PM on March 15, 2010

Your best bet is to make an appointment to see your local tenants rights organization, as they will have the most knowledge on your particular locality's rental laws and can get into more detail regarding your friend's particular case.

That said, around these parts (San Francisco), it is fairly easy to break a lease. In writing, you inform your landlord that of your intention of breaking the lease, providing as much or little justification as your feel comfortable in relating. In the same letter, or very shortly thereafter, you present your landlord with a number (three?) of tenants who all meet or exceed any qualifications your landlord had you meet to qualify for the apartment. This means they should all be in as good or better financial circumstances as you are and have the same status as a good tenant as you did when you signed the contract.

Under law, the landlord has the duty to mitigate any damages that might result from you breaking the lease. This means that they can't just sit around and make no effort to find a new tenant and still expect rent from you. So, you in effect, do the work for them, undercutting their argument that you caused them damages. You are then only responsible for any rent accrued while the place is vacant (almost always zero here in San Francisco because of the insane demand) and any costs the landlord runs across re-renting the apartment, such as ads (which are almost always zero here in SF with Cragislist).

More specific to your friend's particular case: She should check her lease to see what it says happens in the event of breaking the lease. That $1300 penalty that was magically reduced to two months rent seems very very fishy. Again, she shouldn't really do anything, especially not pay anything, until she sees a tenants rights organization.

So short answer: See a tenant's right's organization. If your friend needs a lawyer, they will refer them to a tenant-friendly rental law savvy one. Most people in similar situations don't need lawyers, but again, your tenants rights organization is best equipped to help your friend make that decision.
posted by flamk at 10:55 PM on March 15, 2010

IANAL but I don't think there is a concept of temporary insanity relative to civil contracts. If, overall, your friend is not competant to enter into contracts then she should have a court appointed conservator to act on her behalf. That doesn't sound like her situation. So, she has the same status as anyone else who a good excuse for making an impulsive mistake. So, the landlord might be reasonable and cut her a break. Or she may have other options, just like any other tenant. Nthing a local tenant's group. Also, check the local Center for Independent Living for help finding low-cost housing for people with disabilities.
posted by metahawk at 11:11 PM on March 15, 2010

Second lawyer up. While the letter from the therapist was a good gambit that could easily have swayed any number of landlords, it may take a letter from a lawyer indicating your friend's intention to break the lease by going to court with this defense. Whether this would really work or not is immaterial; the leasing company needs to know that they will have to choose between letting her go or paying their own attorneys to take her to court.

While I think a TRO may well know their way around landlord-tenant law better than an average lawyer not experienced with same, it is more likely that an attorney experienced in mental health issues will be able to help her (and potentially in the future). If there is an official diagnosis of bipolar -- and federal disability -- that is significant, as mania is a known factor in things like spending sprees and impulsive purchases. In short, I would skip the TRO. They would be unlikely to do better than the letter from the therapist.

If your friend is frequently prone to manic episodes, she may want to look into having a trusted relative appointed representative payee for her disability income. In some cases, a local non-profit may be able to serve this role, although generally the ones I know of are for people with developmental disabilities.
posted by dhartung at 11:19 PM on March 15, 2010

Hi there. Thanks for the responses so far. She lives in Washtenaw County, Michigan. She has already found another apartment (more affordable and closer to where she receives treatment, etc.) so now it's just a matter of dealing with this lease at the apartment that she doesn't want.
posted by apis mellifera at 12:42 AM on March 16, 2010

Your best bet is to make an appointment to see your local tenants rights organization, as they will have the most knowledge on your particular locality's rental laws and can get into more detail regarding your friend's particular case.

Failing that, or maybe in addition: see if you can look up a local mental health advocacy service. These kinds of things tend to be nonprofits / staffed by idealistic law students / etc.

They'd have a better grasp on whether or not - in your jurisdiction - a person with her particular mental health issues can legally enter into a valid contract. The situation of somebody in a manic or hypomanic state entering into inadvisable contract-like agreements would be very familiar to anybody with any experience in the area.

But do not, on any account, submit easily to the demands of the leasing agent. They're just trying to keep their true customer - the landlord - happy, and will tell you any old shit if they think your friend will pay up. They can wait until all the legalities have been properly sorted out.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:36 AM on March 16, 2010

PS - the agents are probably more used to dealing with regular people who have changes of mind.

If you mention (informally) that you have reason to believe that your friend was not mentally competent to enter into a contract, and that you're seeking legal advice on this, then from the agents' point of view it turns into an equation of whether hiring their own lawyer would be worth the $850 that they currently hope to recoup.

Just a point to be aware of, in any further dealings with them.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:50 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tell her to contact Washtenaw County/Ann Arbor Legal Resource Center and tell them she needs to do an intake for landlord-tenant representation. Tell her to tell legal aid that she suffers from a mental health disorder and has only disability income.
posted by The Straightener at 5:34 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

IAAL, though not in Michigan and not yours. But one of the elements of a legally-enforceable contract is capacity, i.e. both parties must have the legal capacity to enter into a binding agreement.

Not everyone has this capacity. Minors, for example, may not be held to any contract they sign if they choose to renege, though they may affirm any contracts they have entered into once they reach majority age.

Similarly, a business entity which is not properly formed or for which the formalities are violated can be held to lack the capacity to enter into a contract. The obligations usually devolve on the owners of the entity in their personal capacity.

But mental state is also a possible way of attacking capacity. A person who is mentally ill can indeed lack capacity to enter into a binding contract. So if this person is indeed bipolar, it is entirely possible that the contract could be voided by a court on that ground.

Obviously, this is something she will need legal help to accomplish, and the recommendations to get a lawyer and contact legal aid are sound. While she's at it, she should probably use the opportunity to set up a more stable legal framework for herself, including appointing someone else as the trustee for her affairs. If she's given to signing significant legal documents in obviously unbalanced states, she's in no position to be responsible for herself.
posted by valkyryn at 5:55 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Check into "right of rescission" laws for your state. Many States have laws that basically say "you have three days in which you can change your mind about a contract". Here in Maine, that basically means you can change your mind about any contract within 72 hours of signing it, but of course the laws are different for each State. Your Secretary of State's office should be able to easily fill you in on the details for your state.
posted by anastasiav at 6:00 AM on March 16, 2010

Just a reference point-

I had a friend who had bipolar disorder (he is unfortunately no longer with us), but he was pretty famous for making big purchases while in a manic state. Among other things, he signed a lease, bought a car (actually convinced a Pontiac dealer to basically give him a Solstice), spent about $5,000 at Best Buy, and randomly flew to Florida.

In every case but the Florida trip, it was a matter of notifying the lending/leasing agencies that he was in a legally proveable state of mental distress and they released the obligations. Best Buy were the biggest pricks, but in the end they somehow released the obligation and gave him $1100 in gift cards....pretty sure that was an error on their part.

This was in WV, but we're not known for having great consumer protections or mental health assistance. I would honestly start w/ the doctor and the highest-up person @ the leasing agency you can find, and convince them it's in their best interest to drop the lease instead of pursing a legal case against someone who is quite clearly not in his or her right mind.
posted by TomMelee at 6:22 AM on March 16, 2010

Getting a lawyer is important, but it is equally important that your friend gets the supporting documentation she needs from her doctor. Her doctor will need to explain (probably in a note) that your friend has a condition where such impulsive purchases are possible (they'll use more specific language related to her illness, but hopefully you get what I mean).

It also helps if the pdoc specifies how long this problem has been going on, details the symptoms, and describes what sorts of treatments she is taking. Get as much ammunition as possible.
posted by hiteleven at 8:26 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Listen to the Straightener! In my experience, landlord-tenant issues for people on fixed income are the bread and butter of legal aid clinics (the U Mich law school might have one too). There may also be a mental health advocacy group who can assist.

If she only has SSD as income, though, and no real prospect for future income or earnings, she may be what is typically referred to as "judgment-proof," which means that even if they sue and win, they still wouldn't be able to collect. This is another area where a lawyer's opinion would be useful.

posted by AV at 9:31 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

A landlord has a duty to mitigate his damages when a tenant breaks a lease. In your friend's case, it sounds like she asked out of the lease within a day or two of signing, meaning the landlord can and should go right back to trying to rent out the unit just like they presumably were the day before the lease was signed. In that case, the damages to the landlord are virtually nil. Her landlords are not being "nice" and they're not "trying to work with her", they're just trying to take advantage of someone who they now know is disabled.

I would suggesting contacting a local legal aid or disability rights organization, if there is one, and seeing if they can intervene, perhaps through a letter, or at least provide you with some more accurate advice.
posted by mahamandarava at 1:59 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nitpick: the agent has a duty towards the landlord to try & maximise the landlord's income, which includes mitigating any losses if the lease is broken.

(they probably also have financial incentives - ie a commission on rental earnings)

The landlord - as owner of the property - doesn't have any kind of legal duty towards themselves.

posted by UbuRoivas at 3:51 PM on March 16, 2010

In your friend's case, it sounds like she asked out of the lease within a day or two of signing, meaning the landlord can and should go right back to trying to rent out the unit just like they presumably were the day before the lease was signed. In that case, the damages to the landlord are virtually nil. Her landlords are not being "nice" and they're not "trying to work with her".


I come from a landlording-type family. This is a minor inconvenience. The property management company are being craven fuck-weasels. Get a lawyer.
posted by echolalia67 at 8:35 PM on March 17, 2010

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