A tenant can sue a landlord for failure to make required repairs. The tenant must request repairs according to the proper local process, and give the landlord reasonable opportunity to respond. If the landlord hasn’t made repairs after that time, the tenant can sue.
What Kinds of Issues Let a Tenant Sue?
Tenants aren’t allowed to sue for every possible type of issue with a property. They can only do so if the landlord has failed to fix a required issue after proper notice. As a general rule, landlords have a legal duty to fix any issues which could cause health and safety problems on the rental property.
There are some limitations on the scope of this rule. Tenants must fix damage they cause themselves, and damage to their own personal property. They also can’t sue for most minor issues that don’t threaten health and safety, like worn carpet or a scratched wall. Landlords can refuse to fix such things.
What Can a Tenant Receive From Suing a Landlord?
Tenants have a number of remedies that may be available when suing a landlord. The options usually are some combination of money, court order, and lease modification. The legal terms for these are damages, injunction (sometimes called specific performance), and rescission.
Damages is a payment of money from one party to another in a legal case. There are two types of damages, actual and punitive. Court costs and attorney fees represent a third, separate category of payments.
Actual damages are the costs a party has actually suffered. Out of pocket expenses are actual damages, but so are things like the cost of missed work or reduced profits. The most common remedy in a lawsuit is actual damages.
Because actual damages aim to restore costs paid, parties must give clear proof of costs. Documentation of expenses often is critical to a full measure of actual damages.
Some statutes provide a minimum dollar amount that a winning party can recover (usually 1-2 months’ rent). In such states, proving the full amount of damages isn’t necessary, as long as costs are below this minimum. These laws are most common in retaliation cases.
Punitive damages are payments awarded as a way of punishing misconduct. They are rarer than actual damages, since they generally require proven bad faith.
Punitive damages don’t require documented costs, just proof of misconduct. However, the amount of punitive damages is often multiplied from actual damages (for example, 200% of actual damages). Proof of actual damages therefore remains important even in context of punitive damages.
Court Costs and Attorney Fees
By default, each party in a legal case pays their own attorney fees as well as court costs (such as for filing, etc.). Court costs and attorney fees do not count toward a measure of actual damages.
There is a slow trend over time toward having the losing party in a court case pay for all attorney fees. Some jurisdictions will therefore award attorney fees to the winner. This is most common in statutes related to landlord retaliation.
Injunction (Specific Performance)
Injunction is when a court orders a particular action. An injunction to enforce a contract or other binding promise (like a warranty of habitability) is called “specific performance.”
Injunctions are common in a landlord-tenant context. They are usually either to stop harassment, or else to force the landlord to uphold a duty like the duty to repair.
Rescission is when a judge strikes certain terms of a contract. This is typically to help make the terms fair, when one party performs in good faith and the other party doesn’t.
In a landlord-tenant context, rescission is almost always about letting the tenant out of the lease. In some more complex cases, it can also involve things like modification of the rental amount.
Other Tenant Options When Timely Repairs Aren’t Made
Tenants may have other options than suing if a landlord fails to make timely repairs, including the following: