Possiblity of court for unreturned deposit?
May 23, 2016 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Is there a limit to the time frame I can take a delinquent landlord to court for a un returned deposit he owes me? In Houston, Texas. Its been a year and a half and I am 99.99% sure he owes me the deposit. No receipts for repair expenses were given, despite his assurances he could. Thank you!
posted by Jacen to Law & Government (7 answers total)
Have you spoken to this landlord? Has he told you why he's withholding your deposit return?

Check your lease - it should specify when he has to return it to you by, and the process by which he can withhold it. Usually it's 30 days, and he has to provide a written reason for not returning it.

The problem is, if you take him to court, you'll have to pay upfront to file the claim - quick googling indicates it'll be at least $119. Since it doesn't sound like you're a lawyer, you'll probably have to hire a lawyer to file the complaint for you. I don't know what the rates are these days, but before I dropped out of law school, I was billing $125/hour for clerking. Actual lawyers in my office were billing $200/hour, and this is in small-town Ohio a dozen years ago. Even being conservative, we'll say $200/hour, and you're looking at probably three hours (initial meeting, drafting the complaint, filing and admin fees), that's probably $600 or more. These add up quickly, and it'll probably make it unreasonable for you unless you have a friend who'll take your case for free (in which case you should probably ask that person, not us). You might get some of this back if you win, but you also risk not getting any of it. Chances are, he's better at covering his ass than you are at finding his mistakes.

What I would suggest instead, if it's possible, is to have a lawyer friend write a threatening letter for you. Specify which clause(s) of the lease he's violating, and say that if the deposit is not received by a certain date, your options will include possible legal action against him. Sometimes this is enough to scare people into doing what you want them to do. There's a chance you might just have to eat your loss.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:45 AM on May 23, 2016

According to this guide you're likely to have about two years to file a small claims court suit after you've suffered damages. If it's been a year and a half, you should start moving.

I disagree with the previous poster that you need to hire a lawyer (I am a lawyer, IANAL.) Small claims cases are filed all the time over security deposits by pro se litigants and are not difficult. Many courthouses also have self-help centers that will help you get the right forms. In many cases the mere threat that you're going to file (or even actually getting service) will motivate the landlord to move quickly just to avoid going to court. Follow the guide, and check with to see local self-help centers and you can move quickly.
posted by Karaage at 12:06 PM on May 23, 2016 [10 favorites]

Check your state and city laws; it's not uncommon for there to be a timeframe and other related requirements (e.g., landlord must provide an itemized list of damages and a refund in X days after you provide him or her with your new mailing address) specified in those laws. Having been in a similar situation, it's my understanding that this is commonly handled in small claims court so the fees may be low and a lawyer unnecessary. But (as kevinbelt suggested) a clearly written letter with legal language was enough to shake my money from my previous landlord.
posted by ElKevbo at 12:09 PM on May 23, 2016

The Texas Property Code doesn't take kindly to landlords that that don't return security deposits. See Sec. 92.109. Talk to a lawyer, because you might be able to recover attorney's fees and three times the portion of the deposit wrongfully withheld. Lawyers like taking cases where the law says you can recover attorney's fees. Professional landlords in Texas know not to mess around with deposits.

You're right to worry about statutes of limitations. If you wait too long you will lose your right to recover. I'd recommend not simply "talking to a lawyer friend and writing a letter." Find a landlord-tenant lawyer (or consumer rights lawyer) very soon - they'll know the time frame you're under and will be in a position to act appropriately. And they will be interested to do so because, as I mentioned above, the landlord might have to pay your attorney's fees.

Here's the Texas State Law Library guide on Landlord/Tenant Law.
posted by GPF at 12:15 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is totally something where you can represent yourself, but I'd get the process moving. Several years ago, Harris County got rid of the small claims courts and merged them into the Justice of the Peace (JP) courts. Here is where the procedures are set out. Sometimes, an effectively written letter demanding payment sent by certified mail can be enough to get it done.
posted by *s at 1:24 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

File in Small Claims court, plan to go to court and tell your story to the judge. Bring as much documentation as you have, lease, photos, cancelled deposit check and move-in punch list.

I'll tell you what I tell everyone, call The People's Court so that they can hear your case. That way, you'll for sure get paid, plus a free trip to Stamford, CT!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:16 PM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

GPF's link makes it look similar to California's laws, and California's laws say that if they don't give you your money back, or an itemized list of deductions and the remaining deposit, by 30 days after you move out, they forfeit any claim to any of it (TX). It is extremely cut-and-dried on this count, and judges roll on autopilot about it.

I did this in California, in small claims, and won after two continuances because they didn't feel like showing up with the right papers or people. Pretty much all I had to do was bring my lease and the landlord had to prove they sent me the stuff they were supposed to send, which they couldn't, because they didn't.

They brought their children to court and offered me a settlement in the lobby right before the last court appearance. I didn't take it, I got triple my deposit back (TX), they got a judgement against them in the public record, and I got to tell them I'll have their truck sold by the sherriff if I didn't get a check toot sweet.
posted by rhizome at 4:01 PM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

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