Fake landlords
May 27, 2010 3:41 PM   Subscribe

My friend, renting a room in a house, has found that the people he was renting from didn't actually own the house. He came home to find an eviction notice on his door and the locks changed. The fake landlords have moved all of their stuff out, changed their phone number, and are gone without a trace. Now my friend can't get to his stuff.

My friend is in North Carolina and I'm in New England, so I can't help him out in person, unfortunately.

He came home after work a couple of days ago to find the eviction notice on his door and the locks changed. He stayed the night at a friend's. He went back the next day and briefly ran into a person who appears to be the real landlord. The real landlord didn't want to have anything to do with him: wouldn't let him into the house and didn't really want to talk to him except to suggest that he arrange a meeting between himself, the fake landlords / subletters, and the real landlord. He hasn't been able to get in touch with the fake landlords at all.

He went to the police. The police seemed to confirm that the real landlord is genuinely the owner and had my friend fill out a report on the incident but they didn't appear to be able to offer any real help.

The contents of the room are all of his personal possessions: a couple of pieces of furniture, a laptop, personal paperwork such as a copy of his birth certificate, copies of his US military records, and correspondence addressed to him like bank and credit card statements, and sundry other items. The object is to get all of this stuff back.

Obviously the ideal situation would just be to get ahold of the fake landlords and persuade them to help in getting it all back but assuming that is not possible: I would expect that the real landlord has no incentive to help him and in fact may have disincentives because some of the remaining stuff in the house might belong to the fake landlords; by letting it go the real landlord might be giving up leverage over the fake landlords if they still owe rent or might be letting my friend steal something if he is lying or had a fight with the fake landlords, et cetera. And I would expect that the police are in a similar position and anyways may not even have any legal standing to intervene in the situation as it is now.

So my guess is that the appropriate next step is for my friend to contact a lawyer who can construct a legal incentive for the real landlord or the police to help him get his stuff back.

Questions: Is that correct, is there any recourse other than getting a lawyer involved? My friend is concerned about the expense of getting a lawyer involved - is there any way to guesstimate or set an upper limit on the cost? Any suggestions for particular things he should have the lawyer do? And do you have any advice on selecting a lawyer with the appropriate skills and background for this?

You Are Not His Lawyer and all that, of course.
posted by XMLicious to Law & Government (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing I would do, is to contact the police and see if an officer could escort him to the apartment and ask the landlord to let him get his things out. The landlord doesn't have to comply, however he may be more likely to with a police officer present (plus it may make him feel less liable in case he thought your friend didn't really own the stuff inside). Either way, he should definitely make a police report to cover his behind if/when he needs to take further action against the fake landlord (if he can track them down) and the real landlord (if he needs some kind of court order to get his stuff back). Next, I would contact a lawyer if the landlord won't let him into the apartment to remove his belongings.
posted by 1000monkeys at 4:21 PM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is so highly dependent on the city they live in that you should be asking for local pro help. Your friend should be going to the housing court to contest this (most cities have free legal advice for this), and your friend should be dealing with the real landlord and not the fake ones. Most eviction proceedings would make the landlord retain all possessions in storage, to be made available to tenant once disputes are settled.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 4:23 PM on May 27, 2010

I'd contact the real landlord and tell them that I will be getting in touch with a lawyer today if he can't make arrangements to give me access to - or at least discuss the future of - my stuff. Giving the landlord one last chance to behave decently while stating immediate intentions to escalate might be the gentle nudge they need.

Then if that didn't work, I'd go back to police and do whatever I could think of to get some interest.

And if I was still hitting brick walls, then I'd get a lawyer. Coz I'm not one.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:27 PM on May 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

i'm guessing that the fake landlords also took your friend's stuff--at least the valuable stuff. i'd go back to the house, call the cops, and explain to the officer that shows up, and see if he can't convince the real landlord to turn over some of his stuff.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 4:31 PM on May 27, 2010

Nthing talking to local tenant help. HUD has some links and info.

That said, I'd call the cops and demand they let me into my home. While it's unfortunate that the proper owner has been taken advantage of, your friend should try to assert his rights to his home. After all, he acted in good faith.

Usually there's some period of time between when an eviction notice is served and when people can actually be forced out. If that period of time has not passed then your friend may be being deprived of his lawful rights. Again, he needs local help familiar with the local laws.

What an awful situation to be in.
posted by phearlez at 5:14 PM on May 27, 2010

In general landlords don't get to keep your stuff when they evict, and each state has their own laws that govern this process. You should be able to find what you need on state websites.
posted by jeffamaphone at 5:21 PM on May 27, 2010

Contact HUD and the police and see if there is a local tenant's rights associations. Most states have them. Your friend needs to show up and talk to the landlord with police present. The landlord needs to work out *some sort* of deal. What's he need to turn over the guy's stuff? Is he missing back rent? How much? If he approaches him, with law enforcement with an attitude of finding a solution that may cause the landlord to back down. You don't need to have anything to do with the other guys though if you (your friend) has contact info for them, he should turn that over to the cops.

Man, I don't know. He needs authorities that know what is and isn't allowed.
posted by amanda at 5:23 PM on May 27, 2010

Not overly helpful, but this exact scenario happened to a former employer of mine (a small 6 person outfit). We were informally subletting space, our landlord didn't pay his lease on time, and we got evicted. Showed up for work one day to find the locks changed and all our stuff inaccessible, including PCs, servers, files, personal effects... everything.

Eventually, my boss worked something out with the guy doing the evicting. Basically, we paid our "rent" to him, and he let us in for a day to get our stuff out. I think it ended up such that we paid rent twice (once to our scuzzy landlord, and again to his landlord), and we were pretty much blackmailed into doing that, since he was apparently in his legal right to liquidate the contents to help pay for the total unpaid rent - our subletting wasn't his problem. We would have to deal with our landlord through the court system. It was cheaper to just pay an extra months' rent and get the hell out. Those were good times, let me tell you...
posted by cgg at 5:54 PM on May 27, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the responses so far. One thing I should note is that I'm not sure if we can rely on a solution involving tenant's rights because my friend was not actually a tenant of the real landlord; someone who is more versed in the law can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that the situation is more analogous to the fake landlords having stolen my friend's possessions and given them to the real landlord. But I guess once we're in contact with the lawyer, he or she will know.
posted by XMLicious at 6:13 PM on May 27, 2010

Good grief, how awful for your friend. I would start to address this way back before previous commenters, though - has he changed his driver's licence to the new address (or does he have any other legit ID with that address), and does he have a front door key as well as a key to his room? If both these conditions are met he should phone a locksmith first and foremost and get into his house and his room and retrieve his stuff. If these conditions aren't met he should contact a friend with a dodgy locksmith mate and get his shit out of there asap, find a place to stay then start looking to get his bond back through tenant's rights associations etc.

If none of the above works then he needs to file a police report and an insurance claim for what he's lost, and he will have learnt for future such house-sharing situations (get insurance! and legitimise your address asap).
posted by goo at 6:14 PM on May 27, 2010

One thing I should note is that I'm not sure if we can rely on a solution involving tenant's rights because my friend was not actually a tenant of the real landlord;

Don't assume this until you've been told so by a lawyer. Since your friend was living in the house, he almost certainly has more rights than you are assuming. The way the landlord handled the eviction may have been illegal; there are often requirements about how long of notice one must give prior to eviction and changing the locks, etc. The cops should know this procedure, so I'd be surprised if they couldn't help him out then and there if the correct procedure was not followed.
Your friend has a legal right to his stuff, and no amount of landlord issues can change the fact that it is his stuff.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:01 PM on May 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmmm. Well, one of the pamphlets linked to by phearlez above does say that a tenant has ten days after his possessions have been "padlocked inside the house" to retrieve them. So I guess we'll have to look for some way to prove he's a tenant; another question to ask the lawyer. Thanks again.
posted by XMLicious at 8:19 PM on May 27, 2010

You need to contact the police and housing authorities. Your friend probably has a lot more rights than he thinks. Hell, you can break into a house and say you've been living there for a while and cannot be lawfully kicked out. I would stick to the story of that's your home, you've established residency, and you cannot be kicked out of your home without notice period. If you don't pay rent, my understanding is that you can't just be kicked out and have the locks changed, anywhere!
posted by xammerboy at 8:19 PM on May 27, 2010

This is not in a jurisdiction of which I have any real knowledge but nowhere is it legal to slap an eviction notice up and change the locks straight away.

It appears that in North Carolina a court summons has to issued first. Serving this and the eviction notice (and padlocking the place ) have to be done by the sheriffs department, not the landlord, so it might be worth contacting them to see if this is the case. It also looks like they are who you should be dealing with to retrieve possessions.

Legal Aid of North Carolina (http://www.legalaidnc.org/Client/default.aspx) can provide free legal assistance.
posted by tallus at 10:28 PM on May 27, 2010

Your friend needs an attorney, right now. As xammerboy says, he may actually be entitled to residency if he was not properly noticed, even if the "real" landlord was unaware of his existence. For starters, the property is covered by NC Gen. State § 42-25.9, and evictions ("summary ejectment") are § 42-3.

What your friend needs to do is find out if there is an eviction hearing scheduled, and attend it, preferably with a lawyer. It is even possible that the landlord will be responsible for legal costs (although in NC tenants are only entitled to actual damages -- in my state, they would be entitled to double damages as a penalty). Still, this means that the cost of an attorney may not be an issue. Not attending this hearing may mean loss of some rights.

It may, however, be sufficient just to have the landlord contacted by an attorney suggesting that he cooperate to avoid a lengthy or expensive court process. A smart landlord will consider this option very strongly. This is especially true if your friend just wants his stuff back.

NC Bar Assn Lawyer Referral, first hour of business, tomorrow.
posted by dhartung at 10:33 PM on May 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

One suggestion - an approach to take with the real landlord. (and it probably doesn't eliminate the need for a lawyer, but might speed retrieval of your friend's stuff.) Contact the real landlord with a message along the lines of: "I'm in trouble, and I need your help. You and I have both been conned by the same sleazeballs, and it's put me in a terrible bind. I don't know what to do."

You'd have to be Dick Cheney not to feel SOME sympathy.
posted by wjm at 3:30 AM on May 28, 2010

>In general landlords don't get to keep your stuff when they evict

More to the point: In general landlords don't get to lock you out when they evict. They have to give you notice and a chance to contest the eviction.
posted by yclipse at 7:09 AM on May 28, 2010

While he's looking for a lawyer, tell him to talk to the local VA office. They have a relatively new mandate (or at least, a more recently emphasized one) to help veterans stay off the streets. They may be able to hook him up with a lawyer as well.
posted by Etrigan at 7:49 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your friend rented from people renting the house, if I understood your question correctly. If so, then your friend had a sublease, which is a legal arrangement as long as the 'real landlord' gives his tenants the right to sublease.

The problem is that the tenants didn't let your friend know they were getting evicted.

If your friend has any sort of documentation from the tenants (a sublease) then that should stand up in court. Of course, odds are that your friend doesn't want to wait for a small claims court settlement to get his stuff, but sharing a copy of that document with the landlord should help and I'd send a detailed list of the contents of the room. If he still won't let your friend get his stuff, a formal letter threatening a small claims suit should help, along with a threat that you will contact the local newspaper.

If your friend did not get a sublease, then your best course of action is probably to go through the police. His situation then is more like a visitor who left his stuff at in an apartment and is not allowed to get it back. If he frames it as a theft case, he should get some police involvement. He shouldn't have to follow through on prosecuting the crime...a call from the police to the landlord should be enough to get the ball rolling.
posted by cmccormick at 6:13 AM on May 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who responded. Here's what happened:

We got in touch with a lawyer in Raleigh who specializes in Tenant Law. He didn't know anyone local to refer us to but he quite kindly spent a good half hour giving us various kinds of advice, primary among which was to try to get an office interview to speak with the local magistrate who presided over the eviction action.

(I actually did end up flying down to help my friend out with this for a few days.) It took us a solid day to navigate the courthouse bureaucracy and figure out how to ask the question in just the right way so as to get an audience with the magistrate. But after explaining everything in detail to the magistrate she said that my friend did not have the rights of a tenant and that he was "just an occupant" of the house. She noted that he could try to retrieve his possessions, or at least their dollar value, by going through the process as through they were stolen goods that had come into the real landlord's hands, but that would result in a court date 30 days out at best. I point blank asked her the question, "So after the ten-day post-eviction waiting period, can the landlord legally dispose of my friend's possessions?" and her answer was "Yes".

Part of this seemed to hinge on the opinion that my friend couldn't prove that the stuff in the house was his. Though it seems odd to me that he would need to prove that things like the copy of his birth certificate and the checkbook for his checking account and other personal papers were his, at least.

The Raleigh attorney was again kind enough to have a chat over the phone about these results. He was of the opinion that the magistrate was basically being an asshole. He advised us that a local lawyer who already practiced in the District Court and had a good relationship with the judge could probably still get something done in the short term on the premise that my friend's possessions were stolen goods. But my friend didn't want to incur the expense and risks of blindly choosing a local attorney and getting mired in a court process.


Now after all this we actually did end up getting his stuff back, at a price. After a few more days the real landlord gave us a call and told us to call him back on the day after the ten-day post-eviction waiting period ended. (At which point, if the contents of the house had belonged to the absconding fake landlords, the real landlord would legally have the right to dispose of whatever they'd left behind.) But he refused to promise anything at that point or say what would happen.

When we called the landlord back on that date he agreed to let my friend into the house and take the stuff in exchange for paying rent for the circa one month my friend had lived in the house, which amounted to about $1200. (Now remember, my friend had already paid rent to the fake landlords as well as lost a security deposit to them, which the real landlord knew.) My friend, who by this point was of course completely fed up with everything, accepted this proposition, paid the money, and we moved him out that day.

By accepting rent from my friend I'm pretty sure that the landlord acknowledged that he was genuinely a tenant and therefore this made it certain that what the landlord had done was completely illegal: as I mentioned above by North Carolina law during the ten days after an eviction a landlord must give a tenant access to the property left in the residence and beyond that there's another law that makes it explicitly illegal for a landlord to hold a tenant's possessions hostage and demand money in exchange for them like this.

So I urged my friend to twist the landlord's arm into giving us a receipt specifying that the payment was for rent (so he couldn't claim that he was just selling the stuff to us) and then sue the guy's brains out for putting us through all this. But again my friend was fed up with it all and tired and just wanted to be done with it, so he didn't. Oh well. Now hopefully he can just put it all behind him.
posted by XMLicious at 8:08 AM on June 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

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