Should we take the money and run?
September 25, 2006 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Our landlords didn't give us the full security deposit and now that the hearing date is approaching, they offered to finally pay it to us in full. Should we or shouldn't we accept their offer? You just know that there is much...

My roommate and I had a one-year lease that was up at the beginning of July. We decided to find a new place and not renew, largely because we were both completely fed up with our landlords. We gave them the appropriate notice and we moved out on June 30th, one day before our lease was up.

One of our landlords (the wife) did an apartment inspection. We were still in the process of moving out so we explained that we still had to clean the place, which she understood, she did note some tack marks in the walls from the four or so posters we had up, but the apartment was in otherwise great condition.

The problem was that I had the utilities taken out of my name and the landlords / new tenants didn’t bother to put them in their name….so we had no power on the last day. That meant that we couldn’t give the place a thorough vacuuming. We left a note and fully expected to be charged something for the floor cleaning.

We had given them $900 for a security deposit that we were supposed to get back 14 days after we moved out, along with an itemized list of any deductions. This is the law that states that (along with a bunch of other relevant facts).

Needless to say, they didn’t send anything to us, so near the end of July, I filed a claim at the Burlington Housing Board of Review, per information I gathered from this excellent website.

Sometime during the second week of August, we finally got a portion of the security deposit back. It was something like $780, with about $70ish being deducted for carpet cleaning and the rest for “numerous tack holes in walls”. We cashed the check but we wrote “PENDING LITAGATION” on the back.

Also: A landlord is supposed to put the S.D. in an “interest earning account” and we are supposed to get the interest and it doesn’t look like they did that.

Last week, we finally got a hearing date of October 2nd, as well as a call from one of our landlords. She asked if we had received our security deposit and I told her that we had. She then asked “what were we expecting to receive?” I told her that after 14 days, they waived the right to make any deductions. She offered to pay us the full $900 in lieu of going to the hearing and I told her that I would have to get back to her.

My roommate is leaning towards accepting the offer because he is more hard-pressed for cash than I am…but I kind of want to go thru with the hearing. According to the law, if the withholding of the S.D was “willful”, they could be eligible for up to double the S.D., but I really don’t know what that means. Worst case scenario, we do have the $780 and I don’t see any reason why we would lose.

I think they’ve done enough improper stuff to give us a shot at some extra cash.

So what does the hive-mind think? I also tried to be as concise as possible but I can definitely give more info if requested.
posted by Diskeater to Human Relations (34 answers total)
How much is your time worth?

I think it's close to zero chance you'll get 2x the deposit, as your exit shortcomings were real, you recognize them, and 120 bux is fair for a cleaning and some repair. Debatable amount, but not too far off the mark. You'll have to work hard to establish 'willfulness' in their actions.

I'd take the 780 and move on, so to speak. You may need a rental reference later, too. How much is that worth?
posted by FauxScot at 7:44 PM on September 25, 2006

Don't do it for the extra cash, do it for the indellible record this will create for the landlord.
posted by furtive at 7:46 PM on September 25, 2006

I think a small claims judge is unlikely to award you more than the difference between what you've already received ($780) and the full security deposit ($900) plus your court costs (usually just the filing fee). Since the landord is already offering to pay the $120, I think you're best off settling. Don't dismiss the case until you've got a check for the balance in your hands. Similarly, if you do settle with the landlord, don't forget to contact the court to let them know that you have settled your case amicably.
posted by RichardP at 7:49 PM on September 25, 2006

Well, assuming you two split the deposit evenly, your roommate is only gambling with $60, and could stand to make $450. I'd play along.

You put together a pretty good description of events here for AskMe. If you can do such a good presentation in front of the board, I'd bet you get a little something for your trouble. Being concise, organized, and well-informed about your rights will get you pretty far. However, since you know that you could get double your deposit amount, you could also see if the landlords will settle for 1.5x, and save you the trouble and risk.

I am too lazy to look at the statutes you've cited, but I want to point out this issue. In Illinois, some landlord requirements only apply to landlords who rent out a certain number of units. You mentioned that your landlords are husband and wife. If they are running a small operation, you should check your local laws and see if there is a similar limitation. In IL, small-time landlords don't need to keep deposits in interest bearing accounts or give itemized lists of deductions within the time period.
posted by MrZero at 7:53 PM on September 25, 2006

Not only am I not a lawyer but I don't live in your country. But surely it's going to be bloody hard to show the withholding was 'willful' when they've now offered to give you all your money back? Particularly given that you agreed that there were a few problems with the place when you left? You told her they forfieted the chance to make deductions, she agreed and offered the rest of your money. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.
posted by shelleycat at 7:54 PM on September 25, 2006

Been there, done that, got best answer--take the money and run. You won't get double, will waste a day (or more), and come out no richer and more cynical.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:00 PM on September 25, 2006

I'm going to go against the grain here. I live where there are similar statutory penalties for nonreturn of security deposits and I had to take a landlord to court in a similar situation back in the mid-90s. It was quite easy, though I did work at home at the time and could spare the time in my schedule. There were two hearings because they sent only the handyman to the first hearing, but it only took an hour or so each time. It was roughly equivalent to two visits to the DMV. I asked for almost the maximum and got everything I asked for because the fact of the matter is that these are statutory penalties. It's like a mandatory minimum sentence, in a way.

A complicating factor in your situation is that you already accepted some of the money. I'm not sure what rights this might affect, and what attitude Vermont judges have toward cases like this, but in some ways you could be seen to have already accepted a number from them. Even so, I'd vote for pursuing this, just on the principle that from what friends tell me it seems there are a lot of landlords who bank on people not holding them to account for the law.

An addition point of similarity between our cases is that before the second and final hearing where I received a judgement against them, the landlord (who brought her children with her...gag) offered more than what I was suing them for in return to drop the case. I didn't accept it for two reasons: they might have a chance to flake on it and send me through the small claims process again if they didn't pay; and I then realized that it was worth more than the money they would pay to have a judgement against them. Judgements are a matter of public record and future tenants could find out that they had pulled this before. I thought that was worth my time and it all turned out in my favor anyway.
posted by rhizome at 8:17 PM on September 25, 2006

It's a cliché, but it's true in this case: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

If they're offering the full value of the security deposit, get a certified cheque and walk away. Sure, you might pursue them at a hearing and get a judgment, but that doesn't guarantee that they'll pay you a dime after the fact - getting a judgment and collecting on it are two very different things (the former often being easier than the former).
posted by gwenzel at 8:31 PM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: From my point of view, the law is fairly black and white. They didn’t pay within 14 days, they forfeit the right to withhold anything. We could’ve torched the place!

Trust me, I read all about cashing the check they sent us. From what I read, as long as you write something on the back of the check that indicates that you don’t necessarily agree with the sum, you are totally fine. If it comes up in court, I’ll just tell them that we needed the money ASAP to pay for rent and the security deposit on the new apartment.

My logic for pursuing the hearing is that it would seem to me that we are entitled to get something extra because if we don’t, then they essentially had close to an extra month to return our money with absolutely no penalty.

Yes, $780 is a substantial amount of the money and I am happy we have it. If the panel rules in our favor and our landlords don’t pay up, I am more than willing to go after them (whatever that means). But I’ll cross that bridge when I reach it.
posted by Diskeater at 8:59 PM on September 25, 2006

The advice so far in this thread is spot on; take the money and don't look back. But from your reply it sounds like you've already decided what you want to do and are just looking for validation.
posted by Justinian at 9:21 PM on September 25, 2006

(re-reading your last reply) Have you already decided to go through with the hearing? Why ask the question about what you should do, then?
posted by Justinian at 9:22 PM on September 25, 2006

My logic for pursuing the hearing is that it would seem to me that we are entitled to get something extra because if we don’t, then they essentially had close to an extra month to return our money with absolutely no penalty.

But you are getting something extra due to their lateness, no? If they had been timely with the check & itemized list of deductions, all you would have been entitled to would be $780.

But since they were late, they don't get the docked $120. The money would have been theirs; now it can be yours. The $120 is the "penalty."

p.s. good on you for filing a claim & pursuing your rights. But I'd take the money & be done with it.
posted by neda at 9:23 PM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: Justinian - I've pretty much decided to go through with the hearing but my roommate still needs convincing. I am looking for validation so I can point him to this thread and say, "see? We really do stand a chance."
posted by Diskeater at 9:40 PM on September 25, 2006

Having been thru this before, my best advice:

1. Take money.
2. Run.

I understand you're pissed (and rightly so), however: The double-payment penalty will be off the table the minute the judge (or, in small claims, a judge pro-tem -- usually a lawyer) asks one question: "Did the landlord offer to pay you back the full amount before this hearing?"

If you tell the truth, the pissed-off jurist will (or should) give you a lecture about wasting the court's time, and taxpayers' money. There's a reason there are arbitrators across the hall from most small-claims courtrooms.

Indeed, most judges will ask you if you can work this out in the hallway before he/she calls your case. What do you plan on saying? "My Landlord offered me my money back, but I want my day in court" just ain't gonna fly.

Note also that court-imposed penalties are NOT about getting revenge -- they're usually only imposed if the other party doesn't show up in court (as often happens in small claims), and are basically leverage for you to get the offending party to pay the original debt.

If the landlord is indeed offering you 900, and you expected to have a deduction of 70 bucks or so for cleaning, then the bottom line is that you are coming out ahead -- as the interest on your original deposit would surely have been much less than the deduction.
posted by turducken at 10:38 PM on September 25, 2006

Sorry, no validation here. It sounds like a massive pain, for not even a very good reason, and I can't imagine for the life of me why you would want to bother with it. Take the $900 and move on to more important things.
posted by boomchicka at 4:27 AM on September 26, 2006

And, might I add, if you lose and end up with only the $780, you should give your roommate $450 of that. He was happy to take the $900 and didn't ask to be dragged through this mess, so he shouldn't have to take a financial hit just because you couldn't let this go.
posted by boomchicka at 4:30 AM on September 26, 2006

In the realm of landlord-tenant disputes, this is minor. Take the full amount from the landlord and don't look back. The judge is unlikely to give you more than your 900.
posted by desuetude at 6:28 AM on September 26, 2006

Take the $780 you have, the $120 your landlords have offered to complete the $900 deposit, and abandon the hearing. I'm with neda, you are getting something extra from the landlords by accepting the $120, since you yourself admit that the landlords would have been well within their rights to withhold money for the cleaning and minor repairs had they done so within 14 days and in an itemized fashion; in that situation, you'd have somewhere around what you got, $780. That's your baseline, the sum to which you should be comparing all alternatives; the extra $120 is above and beyond that baseline. (Imagine how you'll explain your perspective if the judge says this exact same thing; if you can't come up with a suitable explanation for why you deserve even more than that, then you're dead in the water.)

And I agree with boomchicka -- if you choose to go through with the court hearing and lose, you owe your roommate whatever extra it takes to increase his share to $450 total. He wants to cut and run, and you're the one insisting on taking the chance.
posted by delfuego at 6:40 AM on September 26, 2006

well I dont know what you should do but if you agree to pay your roommate $450 whatever happens, then it stands to reason that you should get the entirity of anything the judge awards you over $900
posted by criticalbill at 9:17 AM on September 26, 2006

or even the entirety
posted by criticalbill at 9:18 AM on September 26, 2006

Best answer: It's a cliché, but it's true in this case: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

However, one of the birds in the hand are the statutory penalties provided by law. If they don't pay and itemize within the period specified by the law, they forfeit and are liable for multiples of what they owed (plus interest) in the first place. This is set in stone. All the questioner needs to do is document everything to the judge. Describe the actions they took and the situation as they saw it. The judge will then ask the landlords what their deal was, and if they did have an agreement why they didn't supply the cash and bill within two weeks. Good faith agreements with the landlords that are then broken and blown off in the face of the law aren't looked on very highly by those who uphold the laws.

Anybody who says the judge is unlikely to award damages can try this next time they have a parking ticket. Let it go past the deadline a couple times, get it multiplied into hundreds of dollars, and go to court to tell the judge you don't think you should pay anything over the original amount just because you didn't feel like paying it on time. You will then learn the meaning of statutory penalties.
posted by rhizome at 10:17 AM on September 26, 2006

Response by poster: Rhizome, that is pretty much my point. The law has to be there for a reason and it seems to me that they've done enouch things improperly for us to at least risk it. In my mind, there is absolutely no question that the panel will award us the full $900 and there is a good chance that they might give us more.

Plus, we were pretty good tenants as well. We never had the police called on us, didn't trash the place, and we did clean as best we could. More importantly, we have followed the law to the best of our ability.
posted by Diskeater at 11:28 AM on September 26, 2006

Diskeater, you've clearly made your mind up and are pretty damn likely to do as you wish. We all recognize that "in [your] mind, there is absolutely no question that the panel will award [you] the full $900..." -- but there are a lot of voices saying that that might not be the case, and that you might want to think a bit more about your convictions. But alas, that doesn't appear to be likely, so let us know how it turns out.
posted by delfuego at 3:12 PM on September 26, 2006

rhizome: Nothing is set in stone in small-claims court, and to tell Diskeater that is a grave disservice. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but your traffic ticket analogy makes no bloody sense -- you're confusing a fine with damages. The former is a statutory penalty paid to the state, usually for a criminal violation (like probation, it's in lieu of imprisonment); the latter is an award assigned to another private party at the discretion of a judge or jury in civil court. Repeat: Damages are not fines!

Diskeater: You are obviously determined to go through with this anyway, so please let us all know what happens. I'm happy to eat crow if I'm wrong, and for your sake, I hope I am!
posted by turducken at 3:12 PM on September 26, 2006

I'm a landlord, albeit just the other floor of my 2-family house. Get the money in cash and don't go to court. A small claims judgement will do nothing to deter potential renters because they'll never see a record of it. You'll tie up the court system with something that you can reasonably resolve without the court.
posted by theora55 at 4:12 PM on September 26, 2006

I would simply point out that diskeater never said "small claims court" diskeater said "Burlington Housing Board of Review"

I assume that they are not the same.

If the landlord is offering 900 she thinks she will be forced to pay 900 or more at the hearing. If you have the time you have nothing to lose.

posted by Megafly at 4:16 PM on September 26, 2006

Believe me, there is nothing more dangerous (to a litigant) than an overworked judge angry at having been made to do extra work.
What do you have to lose? Consider this: the judge asks what attempts have been made to [minimize the judge's work] settle the matter. Your landlord will say, I offered him his full security deposit, and he said [I want to take up some of the judge's time] no.
You will say, "I am entitled to additional damages because the law says I am in the event that [the judge has to spend half a day deciding that] the withholding was willful.
The judge will say: The withholding was not willful. You were wrong to leave tackholes and dirty carpets. I believe the landlord when he says that he mailed you the list of deductions in time, so it must of gotten lost in the mail, or I've decided you're lying about never having received it. The landlord has no duty to pay anything above the $780 he's already given you, and he's a fool if he's still going to do after I've finished lecturing you about wasting judicial resources.
You've already admitted that you don't know what "willful" means. Why do you think you'll be able to convince a judge of what it means? (of course, you could have a lawyer research "willful" in this context for you on lexis; it'll just cost you a good chunk of that $780).
Congratulations, you've just pissed away $120 and half a day in court.
IAAL, but I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
posted by hhc5 at 5:48 PM on September 26, 2006

Response by poster: Once again, thank you everyone for your comments. It has definitely given me a lot to think about.

I never explained this in my post, but the Burlington Housing Board of Review is not the same as small claims court. It is a special board that the city of Burlington has set up just so that Tenant-Landlord issues don't clog up small claims court.

The hearing date isn't just for us. I believe there are at least 10 other cases at that time.

I am pretty convinced that going in front of the Board is the right thing to do because our former landlords have handled this very poorly. The security deposit was supposed to be returned to us within 14 days PLUS INTEREST. Yes, that interest probably amounts to less than $20, but it is still another thing that they did improperly.

Like I said, all of the comments have given me a lot to think about so please, keep em coming. The hearing is next Monday and I'll post an update in this thread, no matter what we decide to do.
posted by Diskeater at 6:16 AM on September 27, 2006

Seriously, in the grand scheme of landlord-tenant handling-of-issues, this is "medium," not "poorly." You want to make a stink on principle, but all of these more experienced people here in the hive mind, whose advice you sought, are telling you to let it go.

Side note: Has anyone here EVER gotten this mythical interest on late return of security deposits?

The problem was that I had the utilities taken out of my name and the landlords / new tenants didn’t bother to put them in their name….so we had no power on the last day. That meant that we couldn’t give the place a thorough vacuuming. We left a note and fully expected to be charged something for the floor cleaning.

By the way, this isn't even kind of a good excuse. You shouldn't have had your utilities cancelled until such time that you wouldn't need them anymore. Landlords don't have any obligation to pay power bills on empty apartments when utilities are the tenant's responsibility.
posted by desuetude at 9:20 AM on September 27, 2006

I repeat what I said previously about the birds in the bush - even if you go to the hearing, and the board awards damages, the landlord isn't necessarily going to pay them. If anything, the landlord might just say "screw you" and not give you a dime.

Sure, there are legal ways to pursue the money you'll be owed, but they take massive amounts of time, energy, and often aren't successful. It's a far better idea, if the landlord is offering the full amount of the deposit, to take it and go.

Just because a penalty is "statutory" doesn't mean that the landlord is going to be forced to pay you anything. It's always up to a judgment creditor (the person who is owed money pursuant to a judgment) to take necessary steps to collect from the judgment debtor.
posted by gwenzel at 9:56 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: Desuetude - At this point, it doesn't matter why we didn't vacuum the apartment because they waived their rights to charge us for it. We could've just been asses and not vacuumed / cleaned at all or we could've tried...but they waived the right to charge us for the carpet cleaning and that is what matters here.

My coworker brought up an interesting point. Getting $900 awarded to us at the hearing is pretty much a guarantee. They didn't pay us in time, so we are owed the full security deposit. They know this and are just trying to avoid paying anything more.

I just think that there is a law in place for situations like this and it seems silly that a judge/panel would be bothered that they are being asked to do their job and uphold the law.
posted by Diskeater at 10:14 AM on September 27, 2006

Read the comments above: nothing is guaranteed. Your landlords may claim they did give you notice, and the board may believe them. And please note gwenzel's comments about difficulties in collecting money even after a judge has awarded it to you. These are real problems -- at worst, sleazebag judgement debtors will stash away assets that you'll never see, at best, you'll have to slog through lots of forms to get the $120 + a couple sawbucks in interest when you've already been promised, guaranteed, the $120 with no muss, no fuss [and which, had the landlords just been more on top of the statutory deadlines up in Burlington, you would not be entitled to]. Hell, now that you have your landlords thinking that you are serious about your day in court, why don't you call them back and ask for the $900 WITH interest?
Also, I've been thinking about that "willful" claim and if willfull means anything, it probably doesn't mean "I only had to ask once for my money and they said I could have it." [IAAL, but I am not your laywer, and this is not legal advice. Just common sense.]
But hey, if you feel strongly about tenants rights, and you've got the time, go ahead and fight. It'll be an interesting experience for you. But if you lose and end up w/ just the $780 you already have, do the right thing and pay your roomate his share of the deposit he would've gotten if you hadn't turned down your landlord's reasonable (balancing the tackholes and carpets v. blowing the 14-day deadline) offer.
[IAAL, but I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice]
posted by hhc5 at 4:35 PM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: Quick anti-climactic update: We went to the hearing tonight and our case was the first one to be called. It was called, they asked our landlord if they had paid within the 14 days and they said that they did not. The board said that that is the law and the ruling went against them.

$120 + interest is ours. It took 5 minutes and I was home in time to see the Eagles (eventually) beat the Packers.
posted by Diskeater at 9:58 PM on October 2, 2006

Side note: Has anyone here EVER gotten this mythical interest on late return of security deposits?

Yes. A few times.
posted by terrapin at 4:47 AM on August 21, 2007

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