Can a Tenant Break a Lease Early Due to Landlord Retaliation?

Last Updated: October 9, 2023 by Phil Ahn

A tenant can break a lease early when a landlord retaliates against a tenant’s protected action, such as filing a complaint against the landlord or reporting health code violations.

What Qualifies as Landlord Retaliation?

Landlord retaliation refers to actions taken by a landlord in response to a tenant exercising their legal rights. For example, a landlord who tries to evict a tenant or raise their rent after the tenant reports unsafe conditions would be guilty of landlord retaliation.

Not all states have laws governing landlord retaliation. However, most states define retaliation as:

  • Increasing rent
  • Terminating a lease
  • Evicting a tenant
  • Pursuing eviction if a tenant stays to fight against retaliation
  • Decreasing services or access to amenities

Although protections vary by state, a tenant generally must first have done one of the following:

  • Exercise or attempt to exercise their rights under the law
  • Report to the Board of Health a suspected violation of any health or building code
  • Withhold rent due to the landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs or provide services 
  • Complain to any board that regulates residential premises about a violation with the property

What is Not Considered Landlord Retaliation

Although there are certain actions that are considered landlord retaliation, there are certain actions that are not. These actions include:

  • Nonpayment of Rent
  • Lease Violations
  • Fair Cause
  • Crime

How Do Tenants Prove Landlord Retaliation

A tenant may prove landlord retaliation by first showing documentation of the rights the tenant exercised under law, such as a copy of a complaint filed with a governmental agency. A tenant may also use a copy of an eviction proceeding or altered lease to prove landlord retaliation.

The landlord is not liable for retaliation if the landlord proves that the action was not taken for purposes of retaliation. To do so, the landlord must have evidence that they intended to take the same actions prior to the tenant’s actions. 

A landlord may also show that they exercised certain lawful rights through any of the following:

  • Increasing rent under an escalation clause in a written lease for utilities, taxes, or insurance
  • Increasing rent or reducing services as part of a pattern of rent increases or service reductions for an entire multi-unit building
  • An otherwise valid eviction or lease termination because the tenant is delinquent in rent, intentionally damages property, or materially breaches the lease

How to Terminate a Lease Due to Landlord Retaliation

To terminate a lease for landlord harassment, a tenant must get court permission. To do so, the tenant must file a complaint or petition with the District Court in the jurisdiction in which the tenant lives. 

After the landlord files an answer to the complaint, the court may set a hearing. If a court finds that landlord retaliation occurred, the tenant may terminate a lease and the landlord may be liable for monetary damages. 

For example, in California, a tenant may recover one month’s rent plus $500, plus court costs and reasonable attorneys fees as well as moving costs (less any delinquent rents).