Should I return the call from a landlord who ignored my dispute letters?
September 10, 2012 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Virginia rental dispute II: Disputed their damages bill into a giant vat of nothingness, and months later they want me to call them back. Should I call them or not?

This is a follow-up from my previous question Lawyer Now or Lawyer Later about Virginia landlord/tenant dispute process.

In a nutshell: they claimed the carpet required replacement, added wall/paint damages after the walkthrough inspection, and demanded $1000 on top of my security deposit.

I sent them a detailed dispute letter in which I disputed their charges, cited relevant VA laws, and requested a copy of the leases, pet addendum, and receipts for the carpet replacement (current and previous).

The comment about the 2-week deadline being a hustle was pretty accurate: ten days later, their deadline came due but I had heard nothing except for a phone message from an "unknown caller" ID with a number that connected me to a fax machine. I sent them another letter, reaffirming that I was interested in settling the disputes and re-requested the documents.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email with scans of the leases, addendum, and receipt for the current carpet replacement (which didn't specify which apartment and included charges from another apartment). They never itemized painting and wall repair.

In early August, I sent them a third dispute letter, citing my previous disputes and that based on a 5-year depreciation cycle for carpet and an assumption that the carpet was 4 years old (average of 3 and 5), I cited them a corrected balance of just under $20 more than my security deposit and included a check for that amount (said that upon remittance of the payment, I consider the matter closed, etc). About this time, the "unknown caller" left me another phone message and left a call-back number with one different digit than before (so I'm assuming it's correct this time).

The check has not been cashed.

Today, I received a third phone message from "unknown caller", stating that today is his last opportunity to discuss the matter with me before it is no longer in his office. This seems to be implying that it'll go to collections after this. I'll continue disputing it and have read some of the basics of how to deal with collections.

Should I call the guy back, or is that a bad idea? I had requested communication in writing in the initial letter, but have not received anything but that one email since, besides three voice messages.

If I should call him back, what should I expect and what should I say? What should I expect from this process?

Again, this is not legal advice, etc.
posted by bookdragoness to Law & Government (11 answers total)
I don't see a compelling reason to not call them, but I would initiate start the call by setting the agenda to discuss the outstanding items in your written correspondence to them. If you are asked any questions that are uncomfortable with or you think you may not have all the facts just politely explain that you will need to get back to them about that. Take notes.
posted by dgran at 12:04 PM on September 10, 2012

Best answer: I would call back and just ask what he called about.

Let him talk.

Reiterate, "I want it all in writing so that there are no misunderstandings."

Commit yourself to nothing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:05 PM on September 10, 2012

It doesn't go to "collections" until it goes to court and gets a judgement. You could just get your paperwork together and wait for a certified letter notifying you of the court date.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:07 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you do call him back, I'd encourage you to find a way to record the call. Virginia is a one-party recording state, so you don't need permission from the landlord (assuming you're in VA as well), but I'd inform him that you're recording the call in any event. If he balks, then say something like "I need to have a record of our communications. If you're uncomfortable with being recorded, then please contact me via mail as I originally requested. This isn't negotiable."
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:10 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It doesn't go to "collections" until it goes to court and gets a judgement.

This is an inaccurate blanket statement about an imprecise word. "Collections" gets tossed around a lot and primarily, in my experience, means handed off to a collections agency. People absolutely say it before such a time that the courts are involved. Arguing about how often it's used either way is pointless, but you should not assume the next step is a court filing.

Being handled by a collections agency isn't necessarily a bad thing. They have to abide by certain standards of behavior, including honoring your "only contact me in writing" request, which an original creditor's in-house operation doesn't. The downside is that they get paid when you write a check, so their inclination to resolve an issue is limited.

A collections agency can either be an operation working for a percentage of what they get back or they can be a buyer who purchases your debt from the original creditor and gets to keep everything they collect. I'm inclined to think it's unlikely that anyone buys this sort of debt but the world is full of surprises. Odds are they'll be working on a percentage and you'll be able to assess what their chance of success is; if you think their chance of prevailing in court is poor and want to get off the annoyance train you can then order them to stop all contact. At that point they'll either have to sue and seek judgment or give up.

Just don't do that before you're prepared to call it done and take your chances. If they violate that request you can sue them for FDCPA violations but most reputable places have gotten their act together by now.

As far as your right-now course of action, personally I'd call and record w/o indicating that I am doing so. If they're in VA you're clear, if you're in VA and they're not you're likely clear. There's been some question in the past about whether you can impeach fraud with an illegal recording, but I'd do it just so I had no chance of inaccurate recall. There's always the possibility they'll tell YOU they're recording, in which case feel free to record without asking in return; they've given their authorization for recording.
posted by phearlez at 1:19 PM on September 10, 2012

Response by poster: I called, and apparently the complex office never sent on the dispute letters I sent them, and disputes are handled by a different part of this nation-wide management company, so, as far as they were concerned, I had never responded to anything.

This has been pretty frustrating, as you can probably imagine. They tried to insist that my options were either to set up a payment plan or go to collections, but I held out, and, once I told them that I have copies of the dispute letters, they agreed to change it to "disputed".

Maybe soon I'll find out that I need to put a stop-payment on that check or something, as obviously it didn't get forwarded to the appropriate department.

Actually, the second phone message had a similar garble to the first (called a fax machine number); the one-different, now-correct number should have applied to this third message, which I left in the wrong paragraph on editing.
posted by bookdragoness at 1:56 PM on September 10, 2012

Unless there is something special about VA, phearlez is incorrect in stating that a landlord can collected a disputed deposit debt without going to court. Maybe they can bluff and posture, but if this is a civil landlord/tenant dispute and it can only be settled in housing court, or with your consent.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:05 PM on September 10, 2012

StickyCarpet : Unless there is something special about VA, phearlez is incorrect in stating that a landlord can collected a disputed deposit debt without going to court.

You missed his meaning. Companies sell their very-overdue balances to collections agencies all the time (though as you say, this may vary by state). They don't need a court settlement to do so, they just do it, nothing more "legal" than selling an outstanding AR balance for some fraction of its book value.
posted by pla at 4:40 PM on September 10, 2012

Best answer: Regarding the charges for the carpet, it is my understanding that the costs shouls be prorated over a 5 year period. For example if the carpet was 2 years old when you moved in, the charge would be 60% of the replacement cost. Make sure you see the real invoice for your unit and the invoice for the replacement before you moved in.
posted by mikedelic at 5:04 PM on September 10, 2012

Best answer: Unless there is something special about VA, phearlez is incorrect in stating that a landlord can collected a disputed deposit debt without going to court.

I am not stating that and nobody should read between the lines here and come to the wrong conclusion. Almost all debt collection requires either debtor cooperation or a court decision, though there are some exceptions for secured debts.

People you owe money to - even people who erroneously believe you owe them money - may call you on the phone, send you letters, possibly even come to your door, and ask that you pay them.

There are varying levels of protections you have, depending on the role of the person making the request, codified in the Fair Debt Collections Protection Act. There are some individual remedies you can use when some of these rules are violated which have statutory levels, which can provide you some leverage; if a collections agency does things that could allow you to collect several hundred dollars from them then you have a stick to encourage them to work things out.

When faced with these people you may choose to hand them money or tell them to pound sand. However they have no legal way to reach into your pocket or bank account and take money from you.

The exceptions to this are deposits, like the one in play above here, or secured debts, like a car loan. In the case of a property that can be repossessed there are sometimes shortcuts, like there are with cars, but sometimes even with physical property a court order is required, like with a home foreclosure.

In the case of keeping a deposit or taking back a car there are processes that need to be followed in order for it to be lawful. A security deposit can only be kept based on the state's laws and certain notification and challenge processes must be followed.

Bookdragoness has discussed some of this in the other thread and has followed the process, and this "oh we never got it" nonsense above demonstrates the value of return receipts so you can show a timeline if it ever gets to court. Either because they file or because you need to file to compel them to return your illegally retained deposit.

Sometimes it never does go to court. Bookdragoness' circumstance is complicated by the fact that there's two things in play here: a deposit which they wish to keep, plus an additional amount above that which they may wish to collect. Keeping the deposit requires one set of procedures, compelling the payment of the remainder requires another. Obviously keeping the deposit is easier in some ways because they are in possession of the money already.

The best reason for not confusing the statement that something is "going to collections" as meaning that a suit is about to be filed is the whole reason people say it rather than saying "we're going to sue." One of the protections in the FDCPA is a prohibition against stating an intention to sue (ITS) unless it's imminent. Making that threat and not following through is actionable, so for the most part nobody ever tells you they're going to sue you if you don't do XYZ. They just go ahead and file suit.

Which also presumes, lastly, that they will even involve the courts. Contractual clauses requiring arbitration are more common than ever before. However, to the best of my knowledge, even losing an arbitration will still require a court's eventual involvement to get a judgment against you.
posted by phearlez at 7:32 AM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: Mikedelic - you're correct that carpet is depreciated over 5 years. IRS Publication 946 covers depreciation cycles and carpet is on a 5-year depreciation schedule, calculated including my residency (so depreciation would factor in the age of the carpet on move-in plus the length of my residency, since that time would have passed regardless of me living there).

They have not seen fit to provide a scan of the receipt for the previous carpet replacement, so I averaged the possible carpet ages (3 and 5) to get 4, which calculation I mailed them a check for (~$20) in the hopes it would entice them to actually respond. If the carpet was 5 already, they'd actually owe me money from my security deposit, so I'm at this point figuring that if the previous receipt had increased the amount they'd get, they would have included it.

Phearlez and everyone, thanks for all the information about collections - it's pretty interesting now that I've heard them tiptoe carefully around what exactly their "collections" process entails. I've read about the "how" of disputing with collections, but this gives me more insight into the process.

In the previous thread, the advice was spot-on that "not sounding like a pushover" would get them to back down. I started quoting dates of communications that I had and had received, they asked "Oh, you have copies of your dispute letters?", and suddenly - without even mentioning the certified mail or return receipts - the account could go back into "disputed" status.

On the phone, they swore they had sent me "emails" about this in addition to "several messages". I have exactly one piece of mail (the first one, from the complex directly), three phone messages (saved in Google Voice), and after the conversation I found an "account invoice" email in my spam filter from today which was blank except for the pre-filled field labels. Classy! If they sent any previous emails, they ended up in spam more than 30 days ago.

I did get a scan of other documentation I requested directly from the complex, so you'd think maybe they'd include a "this is not the right place for these letters" at some point in this process.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:17 AM on September 11, 2012

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