What Are Your Rights When a Landlord Wants to Break a Lease?
March 11, 2013 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a couple of friends living in Washington, D.C. They signed a lease and put down security deposits to rent a two-bedroom condo with move in on Saturday. The guy just called them and said that he's changed his mind, and he doesn't want to rent the place anymore and he is currently living there. What can they do about it since they haven't actually moved in yet?

**All responses assume that You Are Not My Attorney and your advice is not representative legal advice**

I've already tried looking around on the DC tenant's website, but I haven't yet found anything about what you do when it's the landlord rather than the tenant who wants to pre-maturely break the lease.

-Can the landlord even do this? He threatened to lawyer up, but not sure what claim he could possibly have.

-Is it even worth it to go through legal trouble if he is willing to pay back full deposits as well as whatever costs they've incurred? I feel like the landlord has already shown himself to be pretty nutty, and I would be very hesitant to move in at this point myself.

-The dude has their deposits, so unless he gives them back expediently they won't be able to fork out for a new place. Would getting their deposits back from the guy do anything to void their lease/claim to incurred expenses from the landlord?

-The guy is still currently living there, so what to do about that if he doesn't want to move out? Could he be evicted?
posted by forkisbetter to Law & Government (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Frankly, the letter of the law is not that important here -- they dodged a bullet and it sucks and it may be against the rules but frankly they don't want to start evicting their landlord so that they can live in his house, that's just begging for future trouble.

Tell the dude that it's fine but they will need a cashier's check for the amount of their deposit today (or if he hasn't deposited their checks, just the checks back), as well as copies of something to sign voiding the lease (so that he can't go after them later for not paying rent or something with this signed lease in his hands, though that would be a hard sell with him still living there). If he won't give the deposit back then obviously small claims court immediately.

But regardless of the legality and even the moral high ground, they should just walk away from the idea of living in this place.
posted by brainmouse at 10:04 AM on March 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

IAAL, IANYL (or your friends' lawyer), TINLA. I do some landlord/tenant.

Your friends would never be able to sue to kick the landlord off his property so they can live in his condo. A lawsuit could only award them money damages. In this case, they are certainly entitled to the return of their deposit. If they have any non-refundable moving expenses, they could probably get those, too. If the guy promptly returns the deposit, they should just chalk this up as a "bummer" and find a new place to live.

Of course, no one here has seen the lease. The answer to your question of "what are your rights" is "what the lease says". (unless superseded by your landlord/tenant act)
posted by Tanizaki at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2013

I have taken one or two law classes in school, but IANAL.

My impression is that whenever one party suffers damages from another party's failure to live up to a contract, that party is entitled to sue for damages. If the breach of contract was accidental or unavoidable, the amount of money awarded is usually equal to what the damages were worth (although mitigating factors may reduce this based on the percentage of blame that the court estimates fell on the defendant). If the breach of contract was deliberate, then you are also entitled to punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages - essentially meant to punish the person for willfully breaking contract.

In this situation, the "damages" your friends are entitled to is the additional cost incurred from suddenly having to change their plans at the last minute and find a new place to live, which will probably be not as nice and more expensive. Since the landlord is breaking the lease knowingly and without any justification, they can probably get him for punitive damages too.

What you need to consider is how much evidence your friends have against him. If they have only a copy of the lease, he can say that they forged it. If they have an e-mail thread too, or some additional proof of his actions, then this landlord may be in more severe trouble.

Your friends will not be able to resolve a court case in time to move into the house. But if they find a decent attorney (make sure that the attorney will work on a contingency fee rather than on retainer) then they can probably cost this landlord a lot of money with minimal effort and expense on their part. This will help them recoup their losses and teach a valuable lesson to the landlord about his legal obligations.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2013

As others have noted, your friends are generally entitled to the benefit of their bargain, subject to the specifics of the lease and D.C.'s statute and caselaw.

This means that theoretically, if a comparable two-bedroom would cost way more than the landlord was going to rent it for, he may be on the hook for the difference. If it takes them a few weeks to find a comparable apartment, he could theoretically be liable for their reasonable hotel bill in the meantime.

It's theoretical because unless he is willing to hand over the money voluntarily, which sounds unlikely, they would have to sue him. The judge would have to agree with them and award a judgment, and then they would have to collect on the judgment. Out of whatever they recovered, they would have to pay their lawyer.

They probably should just focus on getting their deposits back. If he doesn't return the deposits ASAP, a strongly worded letter from a lawyer on letterhead shouldn't cost them too much.
posted by payoto at 10:35 AM on March 11, 2013

Best answer: The people at the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate may be helpful. I recommend showing up at the office for a walk-in over calling and leaving a message.
posted by juliplease at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2013

One: DC Office of the Tenant Advocate. They should bookmark it. Laundry list of other good resources here, maintained by Georgetown U.

Two: I agree with Brainmouse; avoiding living under a whackadoodle landlord is a huge win, even if the cost is inconvenience.

Three: Any civil claim has at its basis the concept of making things right for the party who is harmed. So you get into questions of whether they're harmed, how to quantify the harm, how to offset the harm.

There's really nothing you're going to get done between now and Saturday. In their shoes I'd simply demand he immediately fedex or transfer the full funds they're owed.
posted by phearlez at 10:37 AM on March 11, 2013

IAAL (sort of; I'm an articling student) who does a lot of landlord and tenant work for low-income tenants - BUT in a different country. This is not legal advice.

they can probably cost this landlord a lot of money with minimal effort and expense on their part.

That's wrong. At best they will get their costs back - this will be the security deposit, and any costs they couldn't avoid due to the his keeping the place. That'll vary based on when they signed - if they signed on Friday and he just called, they won't get much compared to if they signed a month ago.

If he's willing to give back the deposits ASAP as well as give them a few hundred towards their costs (possibly on verification of those costs), they should count it as a win and not try to take him to court. In the meantime, they absolutely need to look for a new place and not count on winning a case against him.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:39 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: They signed the lease and paid their deposits over a month ago, already ended their current leases, and have already vacated their old apartments while staying with friends until their move-in date.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:48 AM on March 11, 2013

Best answer: Get the Deposts back and find a new place. Make notes of, and keep any receipts pertaining to extra expenses incurred because of their "Detrimental Reliance" upon the lease.

Once they're all settled, they can bring a case for anything they had to pay extra for because he broke the contract.

Here are some things:

1. Putting items in storage
2. Temporary housing
3. Car for pets
4. Extra moving expenses due to having to put stuff in storage.

You get the idea. They can sue him at a later date for anything over and above what he's paid.

You can't get pain and suffering, or compensated for aggrivation, (I watch A LOT of People's Court on the treadmill.) But you don't have to come out of this behind the 8-ball.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:50 AM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

What an aggravating situation. Just want to add to Ruthless Bunny's list of possible damages to sue for: time off from work to find another apartment.

I don't know how the "temporary housing" part will work given that they're staying with friends (presumably for free?). Given that either the friends will have houseguests for longer than they bargained for, or your friends will need to find another place to stay, those are damages as well, though. Maybe they could use the "fair market value" (based on CL or AirBnB) of putting up 2 people for the additional days.
posted by Asparagus at 11:00 AM on March 11, 2013

If the breach of contract was deliberate, then you are also entitled to punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages - essentially meant to punish the person for willfully breaking contract..Since the landlord is breaking the lease knowingly and without any justification, they can probably get him for punitive damages too.

No punitive damages for breach of contract. (unless the act of breach also constituted some class of tort e.g. a fraud in the inducement)
posted by Tanizaki at 12:31 PM on March 11, 2013

Are you sure he is currently living in it or will continue to do so? What if he decided (illegally, perhaps?) to pull this in order to give it to different tenants? That too may be an issue worth bringing up with the tenant advocate. I don't know the effect on this situation just wanted to raise it as a possibility. Threatening to lawyer up reads to me like he knows he could be on the hook for something here, I am hoping the DC tenant office can help you decide what to do.
posted by citron at 2:47 PM on March 11, 2013

I would like to revise my answer - I talked to a lawyer I trust about this (just out of curiousity) and I was incorrect - punitive damages are off the table when it comes to breach of contract. The law will at best "make you whole to the degree that you were before the dispute occurred." My apologies if my original answer accidentally misled you.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:38 PM on March 12, 2013

As a warning, DC tenants generally have far fewer rights if they're renting from a landlord that only owns one or two rental properties.

Before pulling the trigger on legal threats, make sure that the relevant sections of the code actually apply to them.
posted by schmod at 1:21 PM on March 22, 2013

Response by poster: So after my friends consulted with a DC tenant law organization they were told that for their situation there really isn't anything they can do and all they're entitled to is the prompt return of their deposits.

They were encouraged to take the guy to small claims court to try to collect on the expenses they incurred from having to find new digs at the last minute.
posted by forkisbetter at 11:54 AM on April 19, 2013

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