Landlord Retaliation Laws

Last Updated: June 7, 2024 by Roberto Valenzuela

Find out the laws defining landlord retaliation, where it’s illegal, and which tenant actions (if any) are protected from landlord retaliation.

What is Landlord Retaliation?

Retaliation happens when a landlord tries to harm a tenant for asserting a lawful right. There are many types of retaliation. The most common is an eviction or rent increase after the tenant reports an issue on the property.

Which Actions by a Landlord Are Considered Retaliatory?

The definition of landlord retaliation varies widely, but a majority of states protect against at least these three most common retaliatory actions (usually after a tenant reports an issue with the rental property):

  • Increased Rent. Landlords aren’t allowed to increase the rent as a way to get back at a tenant.
  • Decreased Services. Tenants have a right to expect the same services they to agreed in the lease, even after they legally take an action that the landlord doesn’t like.
  • Eviction. Almost every state will dismiss an eviction action if the tenant proves the landlord has a retaliatory intention.

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Where Are Tenants Protected Against Retaliation?

Tenants have some protection against retaliation in 46 states. The most common protections against retaliation are based on the model of the 1972 Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (“URLTA”):

Renters in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have no legal protection against retaliation. While North Dakota courts have signaled they might accept retaliation as an eviction defense, there are no cases yet on the topic.

What is Not Landlord Retaliation?

These are some major items landlord retaliation laws do not usually cover:

  • Nonpayment of Rent: Missing a rent payment usually stops a tenant’s retaliation claim. This applies even when the landlord maintains substandard housing. Reduced rent payments count as missed rent by default. Tenants must prove careful compliance with rent reduction laws.
  • Lease Violations: Retaliation laws don’t excuse tenants from the terms of the lease. For example, a landlord can evict a tenant who keeps a dog in defiance of a no-pets policy. It doesn’t matter whether the tenant has recently complained about health and safety.
  • Fair Cause: When a landlord can show a good-faith reason for taking an action, it’s usually not retaliation. For example, a landlord might raise the rent to reflect recently increased property taxes. This isn’t retaliation, even if the specific timing triggers an anti-retaliation law.
  • Crime: Retaliation and crime are separate issues. This applies to both the landlord and the tenant. It’s not retaliation for a landlord to deal with a tenant who commits crimes on rental property. Likewise, it’s usually a police matter for a landlord to commit crimes against a tenant, not a retaliation claim.

What Tenant Actions Are Protected from Landlord Retaliation?

To count as retaliation, the landlord has to retaliate against a tenant’s legally protected action. Standards depend on local laws, but these actions usually get protection:

  • Complaining about health and safety issues to the landlord or the government.
  • Participating in a tenant organization, like a tenants’ union.
  • Asserting a right that’s described in the law or the lease.

Who Has the Burden of Proving Landlord Retaliation?

When a landlord evicts (or otherwise negatively impacts) a tenant who’s taken a protected action, the law usually assumes it’s retaliation, unless the landlord can show otherwise.

Most anti-retaliation laws give the tenant a window of protection (typically 3-6 months) after doing something that might make the landlord retaliate. Courts presume retaliation when a tenant takes a protected action within the time limit.

This presumption is not absolute. The landlord gets a chance to show good cause. For example, a court will presume a landlord is retaliating if eviction gets filed one month after a repair request. However, if the landlord shows the tenant hasn’t been paying rent, the court will reject the retaliation defense and continue the eviction.

What Is the Process for Responding to Landlord Retaliation?

Retaliation almost always ends up involving a lawsuit. This is the usual sequence of events in a case of landlord retaliation:

  1. Tenant Takes a Protected Action. The tenant does something that’s covered under the anti-retaliation law, like reporting a safety issue.
  2. Landlord Retaliates. The landlord does something that seems like retaliation, like filing eviction or raising the rent. The tenant often has to make an emergency court filing at this stage. Because of the impact an eviction can have on things like credit rating, there’s a high risk of immediate harm in most cases. Tenants usually request a temporary restraining order (TRO).
  3. Tenant Claims Retaliation. This is where courts get involved.
    1. If the landlord HAS filed for eviction, the tenant can usually claim retaliation in defense at the hearing. Not all states allow this. Sometimes the tenant can only sue for retaliation after an eviction case ends.
    2. If the landlord has NOT filed for eviction, many states let the tenant sue the landlord for retaliation directly. Otherwise, the tenant must refuse the landlord’s demands and then wait to see if the landlord takes legal action.
  4. Landlord Responds. The court usually gives the landlord a chance to explain their actions. For example, a landlord might try to show that lease violations are the cause for eviction, not tenant complaints.
  5. Conclusion. The court looks at the evidence given by the landlord and the tenant, and makes a decision. If the court finds retaliation, this cancels any evictions. A retaliating landlord often has to pay fines and fix issues with the rental property.

    How Much Can a Tenant Sue a Landlord for Retaliation?

    Penalties for landlord retaliation are very different state by state. See the following table for which states assess a civil penalty (punitive damages) versus only covering direct tenant costs (actual damages):

    State Damages Recoverable Attorney Fees?
    Alabama Actual Damages or 3x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    Alaska 1.5x Actual Damages Yes
    Arizona 2x Actual Damages or 2x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    Arkansas None No
    California Actual Damages, Plus Up To $2000 Punitive Damages Per Retaliatory Act Yes
    Colorado 3x Actual Damages or 3x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    Connecticut Actual Damages No
    Delaware 3x Actual Damages or 3x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) No, Only Court Costs
    District of Columbia Actual Damages Yes
    Florida Actual Damages Yes
    Georgia Actual Damages, Plus (If Retaliation Was Deliberate) Punitive Damages No
    Hawaii Actual Damages Yes
    Idaho Actual Damages Yes
    Illinois Actual Damages No
    Indiana Actual Damages Yes
    Iowa Actual Damages Yes
    Kansas Actual Damages or 1.5x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) No
    Kentucky Up To 3x Monthly Rent Yes
    Louisiana Actual Damages, Possibly Plus Punitive Damages Yes
    Maine Actual Damages No
    Maryland Up To 3x Monthly Rent Yes
    Massachusetts 1x-3x Monthly Rent Yes
    Michigan Actual Damages No
    Minnesota $1,000 per occurrence of retaliation Yes
    Mississippi Unclear No
    Missouri Unclear No
    Montana Actual Damages or 3x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    Nebraska 3x Monthly Rent Yes
    Nevada Actual Damages Plus Up To $2500 Yes
    New Hampshire Up To 3x Monthly Rent No
    New Jersey Actual Damages No
    New Mexico 2x Monthly Rent Yes
    New York Actual Damages Yes
    North Carolina Actual Damages No
    North Dakota Unclear No
    Ohio Actual Damages Yes, With Proven Damages
    Oklahoma None No
    Oregon 2x Actual Damages or 2x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    Pennsylvania Actual Damages or 2x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    Rhode Island Actual Damages or 3x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    South Carolina Actual Damages or 3x Monthly Rent (whichever is greater) Yes
    South Dakota 2x Monthly Rent Yes
    Tennessee Actual Damages Yes
    Texas Actual Damages, Plus Punitive Damages of Rent + $500 Yes
    Utah Actual Damages Yes
    Vermont Actual Damages Yes
    Virginia Actual Damages No
    Washington Actual Damages Yes
    West Virginia Actual Damages No
    Wisconsin 2x Actual Damages Yes
    Wyoming None No