Can my landlord withhold my lease?
October 6, 2007 8:55 AM   Subscribe

My landlord is trying to force me out of my lease. What are my legal options?

I'm in North Carolina. My fiancee and I moved into an house a few months ago owned by a friend of a friend. We signed a two-year lease at move-in. The landlord had only brought one copy of the lease, but promised to get us a copy in the next few days, and we (foolishly) said that would be fine. Now it's three months later, she still won't get us a copy of the lease (she keeps claiming she can't find it, and hasn't returned my calls for about a week now), and she's telling us now that she's changed her mind and wants us to move out in six months. I do have voicemails recorded from her telling me she's going to be getting me a copy of the lease, so I'm not too worried about her going to court and claiming it doesn't exist, but I still don't like not having it in hand. So:

1) Can I legally compel her to cough up my copy of the lease?

2) If I can't make her give me the lease, am I screwed?

3) Should I hire a lawyer now, or wait and see what her next move is?
posted by EarBucket to Law & Government (20 answers total)
3) Yes.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:07 AM on October 6, 2007

You are a tenant at will. Unfortunately as far as the court is concerned, you and the landlady have not reached any agreement regarding the lease, so you have no rights and can be forced out by one month's written notice. You'll have to chalk this one up as a learning experience.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:33 AM on October 6, 2007

Obviously if there is a written lease (and there are voice recordings to prove this), Earbucket is not a "tenant at will".

Get a lawyer.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:45 AM on October 6, 2007

It's easy to join the "get a lawyer" chorus, but the time and expense of forcing this into court would be staggering and there's no guarantee the voicemail is even admissible. The best one can hope for is intimidating the landlady, but that's brings the risk of getting kicked out right away. There's nothing wrong with spending $100 to see a lawyer though, but the writing is on the wall as far as this is concerned.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:55 AM on October 6, 2007

IANAL - This is not legal advice.
I strongly disagree with rolypolyman's comments above which indicate that you are in a weak position. From what you describe above, it sounds like you signed a contract at move-in which binds both you and your landlady to its terms. The fact that you were not provided a copy doesn't make its terms any less binding. Your landlady could be on the hook for damages resulting from breach of the contract, so it looks like you've got the stronger bargaining position. A lawyer could better assess the strength of your situation.
If she continues to refuse to provide you with your copy of the lease, or if she takes any action end your lease early, a simple demand letter from a lawyer that spells out your legal position and the amount of damages for which she could be liable would probably be more than enough to end her shifty behavior. She'd probably be unwise to litigate the issue, unless there were a very profitable reason for her to want to get you out of the lease.
In the meantime, keep your voicemail recordings in a safe place just in case you need them.
posted by Dr. Zira at 10:33 AM on October 6, 2007

I've got to agree with rolypolyman.

But I'd add: Who wants to spend their time living in a space where you've had to 'intimidate' someone to let you remain? It's a screwed up situation, and technically you have a right to be there per the verbal agreement, but I'd have to ask myself if, psychologically speaking, I wanted to remain in a place where the atmosphere is charged with antagonism, ill feelings, threats, etc. I hate moving more than anything human activity on earth (next to cannibalism) but I'd get my shit together and split.
posted by zenpop at 10:47 AM on October 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you signed a contract, and can prove that contract existed, I don't see how a judge wouldn't enforce that contract. The difference hinges on if she's asking you to leave under terms of the contract. You should be proactive in going to the management office, or where ever this landlady keeps her paperwork, and just politely ask for a copy. Its a lot easier to tell someone you can't find it when they're on the other side of the phone.

It does appear, by her behavior, that she's attempting to have you leave for reasons not allowed in the lease agreement. So, find a lawyer, if you seriously want to remain in your present apartment/house with a hostile landlord. If not, start looking for a new place. Six months is plenty of time to find somewhere not operated by a looney landlord.
posted by Atreides at 10:58 AM on October 6, 2007

I am a lawyer and I have done some eviction work, mostly related to large commerical property.

As soon as she tries to get you out and files a UD action against you, hit her with written discovery that asks for "any and all papers relating to the lease of this unit, including all contracts, documents, photographs, recordings, videotapes, notes, ledgers, journals, receipts, government documents, etc."

She is now required by law to hand over the contract as part of discovery on the UD motion.

You can get this done for next to free at a local tenants' rights organization, and you probably won't need a lawyer.

Once you get the written discovery, either she will comply, or she will be in contempt, and you can get sanctions. Either way, IF THE FACTS ARE AS YOU HAVE PRESENTED THEM, I think a judge is going to get very upset with your landlord and deny the UD. But either way with the discovery request, you are ENTITLED to a copy of the contract, and you've got her pinched.

Problem being, this idiot might try to resort to "self-help" and lock you out or otherwise try to do a "constructive eviction" by making you so miserable you'll move out.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 11:09 AM on October 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

OK, so I called her and made some noise about getting a lawyer. She called me back almost immediately, repeated that she can't find the lease, and offered to come over and sign a new copy. Should I take it, or should I hold out for the original?
posted by EarBucket at 11:29 AM on October 6, 2007

She is attempting to defraud you. Don't sign a damn thing.

posted by sondrialiac at 11:51 AM on October 6, 2007

I think zenpop has given the best advice, unless housing is scarce and crazy expensive in your area. Why stay two years in a situation that could turn very hostile and potentially make you miserable? Besides, she sounds completely unprofessional and, at best, hopelessly unorganized, and no one I'd want for a landlord.
posted by 6550 at 11:54 AM on October 6, 2007

I would be very, very nervous about signing a new lease. You've already signed a lease; I think there's a good chance she could be up to something shifty. I suppose there's no harm in having her bring it over and look at it (particularly: make sure it's for two years and not for six months, and make sure it's the same lease you signed before, and not something new that she's cooked up). Maybe have her drop it off and then spend some time combing through the fine print to make sure you're not doing something really stupid.

I think you might want to talk to a tenant's-rights organization or a lawyer before you sign anything; rather than signing a new lease, what you might want to get signed is some sort of memorandum of understanding that the lease was previously signed. I say that just in case there's some way that she might use the new lease against you (check state laws, maybe she can force a tenant out within a certain amount of time from the signing of a new lease? I have no idea but the whole thing is suspicious).

Also, buy a photocopier or something so that if you do sign anything, you don't get into this situation again. Never let the other party walk away with the only copy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:02 PM on October 6, 2007

1) Yes. 2) No, you have the voicemails. (Smart!) 3. Yes.

I would definitely have the second lease checked over by a lawyer before you sign. Just say it's to protect both parties. If she objects, well, you know something is up.

You could self-help through a TRO but when there's a question of fraud I think you need somebody backing you up.

rolypolyman is absolutely wrong. The landlord is trying to place you in that weak position. You signed something, though, so your landlord is in breach of contract, and it is she who is in the weaker position should you go to court. In some states there are substantial penalties for this sort of bait-and-switch behavior.

In any event, zeopop has a good point. Consider it a lesson learned and agree on a moving-out date. Be forewarned that she sounds like she might be the type to invoke the lease she's denied exists, and force you to pay for any months the place is vacant.
posted by dhartung at 2:49 PM on October 6, 2007

I wouldnt sign anything new if you have already signed a lease, even if she cannot find it. If she brings you a copy of the new lease and it is identical to what you signed before have her put a clause in at the end saying that she was the one who lost the original lease, that at least confirms the existence of an original lease which she lost if things get ugly.
posted by outsider at 3:22 PM on October 6, 2007


This very well could be your chance to sign a lease on terms more favorable than they were originally.

Or get your original lease memorialized at the very least.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 11:23 PM on October 6, 2007

btw horrible advice on this thread.

especially from rolypolyman.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 11:23 PM on October 6, 2007

Awesome. She refused to sign a new copy that didn't include a clause saying that she had 90 days to change her mind. She's now threatening to sell the house out from under us. As I understand it, she can't do that unless it's to someone willing to take over the lease, yes?
posted by EarBucket at 8:49 AM on October 8, 2007

As I understand it, she can't do that unless it's to someone willing to take over the lease, yes?

Yep. If she sells the house, she sells it with you as tenants. Unless there's something in your (original, written) contract that allows her to terminate the lease if she sells the house. I'm not a lawyer, but I am pretty sure that the buyer would be held to the contract just as the seller would have been.
posted by oaf at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2007

If she "can't find" the original lease and is now threatening to sell the house from under you, it sounds like you're in a pretty good position. Depending on what your lawyer would say, I'd just sit back and wait for her to make the next move. If she's crazy enough to sell the house because she can't change your lease, then the next owners would undoubtedly be better at any rate.
posted by rhizome at 2:05 PM on October 8, 2007

Also, having an unleased tenant would surely cause the house to be a sticky sale. What is she going to tell prospective purchasers on disclosure, "I lost their lease and now they won't leave?"
posted by rhizome at 2:07 PM on October 8, 2007

« Older Classy behavior?   |   cost of having a prenup Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.