If you are in law school, chances are pretty good that you’re renting an apartment or a condo, so you are already somewhat familiar with this area of law even if it is not formally taught in depth at your law school. In my experience, property law classes tend to focus heavily on ownership rights and very little on leasehold rights.
As a renter, you are entitled to certain benefits, and your landlord is required to fulfill certain obligations. If either party fails to perform as necessary, there are various levels of consequences.
Landlord-tenant law not only encompasses residential property but also pertains to commercial property. Most consumers are not readily aware that the vast majority of places where they shop, eat, and enjoy entertainment are rental units. Those business owners typically rent space from a commercial landlord who owns the commercially-zoned building and leases it to various business tenants.
One thing to always keep in mind about landlord-tenant law is that, at least on the tenant side, these are people’s homes and businesses. On the landlord’s side, this might be someone’s income. Because of the sensitivity of someone’s home or livelihood being involved, these cases can be emotional. That’s what makes them difficult, but it is also what makes these cases rewarding.
Law Governing Landlord-Tenant Matters
Landlord-tenant matters, like most areas of law, have well-established common law principles that apply to most jurisdictions. In fact, many states drafted their landlord-tenant statutes based upon either the Model Residential Landlord-Tenant Code, or the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA). However, state law and the lease contract itself, will also inform the legal issue.
For some specific instances like in the case of discrimination by a landlord against a tenant, federal statutes may be applicable as well.
Tenant And Landlord Duties
When a tenant leases a property from a landlord, that tenant has a temporary interest in the property lasting as long as the lease states.
Generally, tenants have a duty to maintain the property in good condition. Tenants are not allowed to trash the property or fail to keep up with normal maintenance such as sweeping, mopping, dusting, and normal wear and tear.
However, the landlord is usually responsible for major repairs and must provide what is considered an environment of habitability. This is otherwise known as an “implied warranty of habitability.” This means essentially that the property must be habitable during the entire lease period. There must be heat during the winter. Drinkable, running water. A working bathroom. A sanitary environment (no bugs or infestations).
Consequences Of Failing To Fulfill Landlord Or Tenant Duties
In a perfect world, landlords would always provide habitable environments for their tenants. And, tenants would always pay their rent in full and on time. However, as lawyers, we especially know that things don’t always go as they should.
For tenants who fail to pay their rent on time or who violate some other material part of their lease, they may face eviction. Eviction is where the tenant is removed from the property and barred from reentry. This process usually occurs in one of two ways: sue the tenant or self-help.
In most cases, we think of landlords suing for eviction. In this instance, the landlord will typically need to file a complaint for eviction with the appropriate court, present their case, and allow a judge to decide whether the tenant should be evicted. If the judge rules in favor of eviction, law enforcement fulfills the judge’s order.
Landlords may also physically remove tenants themselves, in most jurisdictions (self-help). However, there are steps and procedures that must be followed, and landlords may only use a reasonable amount of force. The majority of jurisdictions do not typically allow landlords to use self-help when dealing with a tenant.
Sometimes, it is the landlord who fails to uphold their obligations. In cases where the premises are not deemed habitable, the tenant may claim that the landlord has constructively evicted the tenant, meaning the tenant has no choice but to leave the property, because they cannot safely live there.
In legal terms, lawyers argue that the landlord’s actions (or inactions) were such that they materially interfered with the tenant’s agreed-upon use of the property.
Tenants may usually either deduct from their rent expenses for repairs that the landlord was obligated to complete, or if the problem persists long enough, the tenant may quit the property and sue for constructive eviction.
Is Landlord-Tenant Law Right For Me?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this. And, unless you practice in a metropolitan region where you can make this area of law your sole practice, you may find that you take on a few landlord-tenant cases each year. It doesn’t have to be your main practice.
From a business perspective, there are always rental units in every community, which means there is always a need for an attorney to represent either a landlord or a tenant.
From an emotional perspective, representing people who are facing losing their homes or who have lived in deplorable conditions can be difficult. However, it can also be extremely rewarding to win a case for a wronged landlord or tenant.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.