Tenants tend to file retaliation lawsuits after receiving a notice to vacate, an eviction notice, or a notice of changed lease terms. No matter how hard you try to keep your tenants happy, some tenants would rather spend their time and money suing their landlord than acquiesce to changes they don’t like.
If you haven’t been a landlord for long, you probably haven’t considered the potential for a retaliation lawsuit. However, it’s a real possibility, no matter how great your tenants are now.
Some tenants seem ideal until you make changes they disagree with; then they start retaliating. The most common method of tenant retaliation is trying to pin their landlord for retaliation through a lawsuit. Unfortunately, many tenants win unfounded retaliation cases.
Many landlords legitimately retaliate against their tenants. However, if your tenant hits you with a lawsuit alleging false claims of retaliation, you could end up in big trouble, even if you’re innocent.
Here’s what you need to do to avoid getting hit with an unfounded retaliation lawsuit in Houston, Texas.
1. Document every change you make, including a reason
Develop the habit of keeping a handwritten log of every change you make to a tenant’s lease, along with the reason you’re making the change. Always document your plans to change lease terms before giving your tenant their official notice. Be sure to date each entry, so it’s clear you didn’t just change lease terms on a whim.
You’ll stand a better chance in court when you can prove your lease changes were reasonable, planned, and logical. Having a consistent log detailing your planned changes, with reasons, will help you prove your lease changes were not retaliatory. This documentation is critical since you – not your tenant – will bear the burden of proof in court.
Unfortunately, most courts require landlords to prove their actions weren’t retaliatory and will automatically side with the tenant under certain circumstances. If a tenant claims you changed the lease terms to drive them out of their home, and you can’t prove otherwise, you might lose your case.
2. Get familiar with retaliation statutes
In most states, retaliation statutes declare certain landlord actions to be seen as automatically retaliatory within 90 days to 6 months of a tenant asserting his or her rights.
In Texas, when a tenant performs one of four protected actions, the landlord will be presumed to be retaliating if they evict, deny use of the premises, decrease services, increase rent, or end the lease within six months of the action.
The four protected actions are:
- Participating in a tenant group or union
- Filing a complaint with a government agency (like the HUD/Fair Housing or the Attorney General)
- Requesting a repair
- Engaging in lawful behavior or behavior allowed by the lease
If there’s a good reason for making changes to the lease, document your thought process. You might need to make a change within the time period that would normally be protected. If that change is absolutely necessary, you’ll need hard proof that it was unrelated to a protected action taken by your tenant.
To be safe, anytime you want to make changes to a tenant’s lease, review the protected actions to make sure your tenant hasn’t performed any of those actions in the last six months. If they have, then you should wait whenever possible. If the lease changes aren’t urgent, it’s not worth the risk.
3. Give tenants enough time to comply with lease amendments
Always give your month-to-month tenants ample time to comply with lease amendments. Making demands and not giving tenants enough time to comply could make you look guilty of retaliation.
Some changes will require more time than the 30 days required by law. For instance, if you give a tenant 30 days to remove an RV from the property, they’ll probably need more time. They’ll need to decide to sell it or store it and then arrange for someone to tow it away.
Consider giving your tenant an extension for major changes. If they end up suing you and claiming retaliation, your additional grace period will show the court that you were really trying to help your tenant.
If something is urgent, like a health hazard or physical danger that requires immediate attention, that’s different. Certain changes can be required immediately if there is a hazard. However, most lease amendments require at least 30 days’ notice.
4. Be willing to work with your tenants
Being willing to work with your tenants on lease changes will show the court that you’re not just making changes to inconvenience your tenant. You don’t need to compromise beyond your level of comfort, and you don’t need to work with tenants on major problems. However, if there’s a reasonable compromise, try to make the situation work for everyone.
For instance, say your tenant’s dog is digging up the yard, killing the grass, and behaving aggressively toward neighbors. It’s not the dog’s fault, but you have the right to ask your tenant to either change the way they manage their dog or rehome their dog.
Nobody wants a destructive dog, but even destructive dogs can be a tenant’s best friend. Consider first that your tenant might have a strong bond with their dog and try to work out a solution. If they can’t afford a professional dog trainer, require the dog to be leashed when outside and confined to a certain part of the yard. You could also require your tenant to replant the grass when they move out.
You could even collect a grass replanting deposit from them to ensure you aren’t left to foot the bill when they move out. In most states, it’s perfectly legal to request new and additional security or cleaning deposits from your tenants in the middle of their tenancy, provided they’re on a month-to-month lease. However, before requesting an additional deposit, review Texas security deposit laws and speak with your attorney.
5. Give tenants alternatives when rejecting an accommodation request
One of the most common ways tenants win unfounded retaliation lawsuits is when their landlord rejects a reasonable accommodation request and doesn’t offer an alternative. For example, say your tenant requests a designated front row parking spot so they don’t need to walk very far.
If you can’t accommodate their request, offer an alternative like an apartment swap or the ability to move into a unit closer to a parking spot you can designate for them. If you reject their request without offering alternative solutions, a judge might interpret the rejection as retaliatory.
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