Can You Sue a Tenant for Not Paying Rent?
In a state which values tenants’ rights, such as Pennsylvania, landlords often find themselves at a disadvantage in legal disputes with tenants. However, a lease is a binding legal contract and if your tenant breaks that contract, you do have recourse.
Sometimes a tenant will simply move out without notice. Other times, when a lease ends, the security deposit does not cover unpaid rent and damages. Still on other occasions, a landlord may have to deal with tenants who simply do not pay on time. All of these are lease-breaking situations.
If your lease is legal and clear and either party violates any of the terms in the lease, the contract is in breach. Sometimes these violations can be resolved through negotiation and talking. Other times, a lawsuit may be necessary.
As a landlord, you have certain obligations. You need to keep the apartment in proper repair and livable, with the caveat that your tenants cannot simply destroy the place and expect you to fix it. If a tenant does move out without notice, you are generally obligated to make a good faith effort to re-rent the apartment as quickly as possible so the courts can see that you have attempted to recover your losses.
The Security Deposit
One of the reasons for a security deposit is to cover damages or lost rent, should the tenant violate their lease. If the security deposit covers your losses, it is unlikely you will be able to sue for lost rent. If there is no security deposit, or what there is does not cover your losses, you may be able to file suit against your former tenant in small claims court.
Small Claims Court
You can take your client to small claims court and argue for the money they owe, so long as it is under a certain amount. In Pennsylvania, the maximum amount that you can sue for in this kind of court is $12,000. Keep in mind, however, that there will be fees involved. In general, many property owners find the time and expense of suing over a few months’ rent to be more costly than the loss.
If, however, you sue a tenant for lost rent and they do not appear in court to plead their case, all you need to do is state your case. If the judge finds it credible, you will generally win by default. Likewise, if the tenant shows up but does not present a defense for their failure to pay, you should win the case. Make sure you bring the lease with you, and records of the dates payment was not delivered.
The Tenant’s Defense
In some cases, the tenant may present a valid defense. This can make it more difficult to win your case. One of the most common of these is that the living space was uninhabitable. If the apartment can be shown to be unhealthy with non-functional plumbing, gas leaks, mold issues, pest problems or similar issues, and the tenant can demonstrate they were not responsible for the damage, the court may rule in their favor.
Winning a lawsuit is one thing; actually collecting what you are owed is something else entirely. Many tenants may not have the resources to pay on the judgment. While you can attempt to garnish wages or pursue other avenues, again, the fees may make it not worth it.
It is possible, in the end, to sue a tenant for lost rent, but you will need to weigh your options and see if it is the right choice, or if you should cut your losses and move on. In any case, you should contact an experienced attorney, like Maximilian F. Beier. With nearly two decades of experience, he can provide you with the guidance and counsel you need.