Illegal Eviction: Protecting Tenants' Rights and Understanding Landlords' Responsibilities

This article addresses the critical issues surrounding illegal evictions, highlighting both tenants' rights and landlords' responsibilities. It offers practical advice on recognizing, responding to, and preventing illegal evictions, underlining the importance of legal compliance and the consequences of failure.

By
Gemma Smith
|
Last Updated
February 23, 2024
Illegal Eviction: Protecting Tenants' Rights and Understanding Landlords' Responsibilities

Wondering if you’re a tenant who's been illegally evicted or looking to avoid committing an illegal eviction as a landlord? This pressing concern affects both sides of the rental relationship, with significant legal implications for both.

In this guide, we'll help you understand what actions constitute illegal eviction, how to respond to one legally, and the penalties that may ensue from such violations.

This article will empower you to tackle illegal eviction head-on, so let's get started!

Understanding illegal eviction practices

Navigating the complexities of legal and illegal eviction practices can feel daunting. However, it’s possible to strike a balance with a clear understanding of these practices. At the core, illegal eviction occurs when landlords attempt to regain property possession without following legal procedures, such as using self-help measures or creating intolerable living conditions. Moreover, discriminatory reasons for eviction are deemed illegal.

The distinction between legal evictions and wrongful eviction has real-world consequences. For tenants, wrongful eviction can lead to upheaval and distress. For rental property owners, it can result in penalties, lawsuits, and a damaged reputation. The key to preventing such situations? Knowledge and adherence to the rules of the eviction game.

Defining illegal evictions

Illegal eviction occurs when a landlord attempts to regain possession of a property from a tenant without adhering to the legal eviction process. As straightforward as it sounds, many landlords fall into the trap of illegal eviction out of ignorance or frustration with legal process.

Self-help measures, such as changing locks or removing tenant’s belongings without court proceedings, are considered illegal eviction tactics. Any action attempting to displace a tenant without following the prescribed legal procedures constitutes wrongful eviction. So, think twice before you decide to take matters into your own hands.

Recognizing signs of unlawful eviction

So, what should tenants look for if they suspect unlawful eviction? There are several red flags to watch out for. Unlawful eviction can be recognized through such actions as:

  • Changing locks.
  • Boarding up a property.
  • Placing tenants' belongings on the street.
  • Refusing necessary repairs.
  • Entering a tenant’s home without permission (except in emergencies).
  • Shutting off utilities.
  • Disturbing the tenant’s possession of the property without a legal basis.

It’s not just physical actions that can be considered unlawful. Creating intolerable living conditions intentionally, such as by causing loud noises, unpleasant odors, or other nuisances to force a tenant out, also indicates the likelihood of an unlawful eviction.

Legal tenant eviction

What, then, is the protocol for a lawful eviction process? This varies depending on the state, so let's take Michigan as an example.

In Michigan, the law mandates a series of procedures that landlords must follow to evict a tenant. The eviction process begins with serving the tenant a written notice, setting the stage for legal action if the tenant refuses or fails to comply.

The duration of the eviction process in Michigan ranges from two weeks to two months, depending on the situation. It includes specific steps such as notice provision, lawsuit filing, and court-ordered eviction. This process ensures due process and protects tenants' rights, so skipping steps could land landlords in hot water with local authorities.

The role of eviction notices

Eviction notices play a pivotal role in the legal eviction process. Still using Michigan as an example, landlords can issue either a demand for possession or a notice to quit, with the former being used for nonpayment of rent, illegal drug activity, property damage, or compliance in a mobile home or subsidized housing, and the latter for lease violations or to request at-will tenants to vacate.

An eviction notice must be in writing, state the reason for eviction, specify the time allowed to remedy the issue, and include proper addressing and dating. It can be served in person, to a family member, mailed, or emailed if agreed to in writing. The notice period ranges from 24 hours for illegal drug activity, to 7 days for nonpayment of rent or creating a health hazard, to up to 30 days for lease violations or when a fixed-term lease has ended.

However, no eviction notice is required in situations involving squatting, trespassing, or when the tenant stays after the lease ends under certain conditions.

Court involvement in lawful evictions

The court’s role is paramount in lawful evictions. Typically, a landlord must obtain an eviction order from the eviction court to evict a tenant lawfully. This process starts by issuing the appropriate written notice to the tenant and filing an eviction complaint in the justice court where the property is located.

A summons and complaint must be delivered to the tenant by a court official at least three days before the scheduled eviction hearing. Once an eviction order is granted, it must be enforced by a court-authorized law enforcement officer, such as a sheriff, sheriff’s deputy, or court bailiff.

After winning the eviction case, the landlord is given a Writ of Restitution, and the tenant must move out within 10 days or be removed by law enforcement. The entire eviction process, from the issuance of notice to physical eviction, can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months. The process itself can vary depending on the state in which your property is situated.

Responding to illegal eviction attempts

Being targeted by an illegal eviction attempt can be deeply unsettling. However, tenants are protected from landlords using the following tactics during eviction attempts:

  • Force.
  • Unauthorized entries.
  • Property destruction.
  • Unauthorized lock changes.
  • Utility interruptions.

It is illegal for landlords to force tenants to move out or cut off services before the court issues an order to evict.

Actions involving threats or intimidation by landlords can also constitute illegal eviction procedures. For tenants who suspect they are illegally evicted, seeking legal advice and representation is crucial.

Seeking legal advice

When confronted with illegal eviction, tenants must seek legal counsel, particularly in complex scenarios like conversion claims. Tenants seeking legal assistance for an illegal eviction case have local resources at their disposal. Additionally, low-income tenants may be eligible for free legal services or can consider limited-scope representation to manage costs.

Limited scope representation allows tenants to hire a lawyer for specific parts of their case, making it an affordable option for legal assistance, which is always welcomed when considering the high cost of attorney fees. It’s like hiring a guide for the trickiest parts of a journey, ensuring you won’t get lost in the legal wilderness.

Documenting the landlord's actions

As a tenant, documentation is one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal. Tenants should keep meticulous records, such as receipts and photos, to prepare for any disputes regarding illegal eviction or issues related to paying rent. Creating a detailed timeline of events, with specific dates and descriptions, is essential to document any unauthorized actions by the landlord.

Legally obtained audio or video recordings of interactions with the landlord can be admissible in court, along with saved emails, text messages, or written notices. A well-documented case can be the difference between a successful claim and a lost cause.

The consequences of wrongful eviction for landlords

Illegal eviction is not only distressing for tenants, but it also presents a legal quagmire for landlords.

Landlords who take control of a tenant’s possessions without legal right can face claims for conversion, potentially tripling actual damage costs plus attorney’s fees. The consequences of illegal eviction for landlords vary by state, illustrating the imperative need to be aware of and comply with the specific legal eviction process required by state laws.

Financial repercussions

Again, referring to Michigan as an example, landlords may face lawsuits if they evict tenants without a court order, allowing tenants to sue for actual damages or $200, whichever is greater. When a Michigan landlord uses force to evict a tenant, the tenant may claim three times their actual damages or a minimum of $200 if the actual damages are less.

Actual damages that landlords may need to compensate include costs for alternative housing, property damage, emotional distress, and embarrassment caused by the illegal eviction.

Moreover, Michigan landlords may owe a minimum of $200 per lockout occurrence if actual damages are less and triple the damages for forced or self-help evictions. Tenants may also be entitled to triple the actual damages if their belongings are seized unlawfully, plus recovery of attorney’s fees.

Legal ramifications

As if the financial penalties weren’t bad enough, property owners also face legal ramifications for wrongful eviction. Landlords engaging in illegal or wrongful evictions using force or threats could face criminal penalties. Tenants have the right to use illegal eviction actions as a defense or counterclaim in an eviction case, potentially leading to civil lawsuits against the landlord.

To legally evict a tenant, landlords must follow the Summary Proceedings process for eviction — this cannot be bypassed. Agents acting on behalf of landlords, such as the rental unit owner, lessor, or licensor, are subject to the same legal consequences for illegal evictions in Michigan.

Tenant remedies and recourse

Once the turmoil of an illegal eviction has passed, how can tenants begin to rebuild? In Michigan, tenants who are locked out by their landlord without a court order have the right to re-enter their homes and may elect to stay in the rental until the end of the lease. If a tenant is illegally evicted, they must file a lawsuit within a specified period or when they realize reentry is prohibited to regain possession.

Tenants can sue for actual and punitive damages incurred due to illegal eviction, including the cost of alternative housing, emotional distress, and other wrongful eviction tactics. In cases of unlawful interference with tenants’ possessions, tenants have the right to move back in and seek compensation for any losses or damages suffered. An eviction lawsuit may arise from these circumstances.

Filing a claim in small claims court

Small claims court can be a powerful recourse for tenants who believe their damages from an illegal eviction are $7,000 or less. They can file their case in this court without needing a lawyer but must do so within one year of the landlord’s unlawful actions.

To sue for actual damages, tenants must compile evidence of damages to property, money spent due to the eviction, and emotional stress, documented with material such as photographs and repair estimates.

Upon winning the case in small claims court, the judge may award the tenant actual damages or $200 per lockout occurrence, whichever is greater, and may include court costs. In cases involving physical force by the landlord, tenants may be entitled to three times their actual damages.

Pursuing temporary housing solutions

After an illegal eviction, finding a new place to live can feel like a daunting task. However, there are resources available to help. Tenants who have been illegally evicted can seek emergency shelter options through local homeless shelters and community organizations.

Legal aid services offer advice on tenant rights and resources, and some organizations may have partnerships with shelters to assist in finding temporary housing for those facing unlawful eviction.

Furthermore, housing assistance programs, including those provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, may offer emergency funds for temporary housing for evicted tenants.

Preventative measures for property owners

Property owners must adopt a proactive approach to steer clear of potential pitfalls associated with illegal eviction.

An eviction notice should include a clause from the lease that the tenant has violated, and it must allow them the chance to amend the issue, complying with state eviction laws. To avoid wrongful eviction liability, landlords must strictly follow guidelines and procedures mandated by the specific state and jurisdiction in which their property is located.

Adherence to state laws and regulations

Strict compliance with local and state laws and regulations is a must for landlords. In the case of a fixed-term agreement, landlords must have just cause to evict a tenant mid-lease. However, if the tenant has a month-to-month rental agreement, landlords may evict without cause, though some states and cities may still require just cause for eviction.

A valid written eviction notice must include the following information:

  • Tenant’s name.
  • Property address or description.
  • Reason for eviction.
  • Timeframe to remedy the situation.
  • Date of notice.
  • Signature of the landlord.

Landlords who fail to follow applicable state eviction laws risk incurring hefty damages.

Proper handling of a tenant's belongings

An essential aspect for landlords to consider is the proper management of a tenant's belongings. Laws in many regions allow landlords to dispose of a tenant's belongings left behind after eviction, typically after a specified period, which may vary by location. Landlords should include a clause in lease agreements that clearly outlines the procedure for handling a tenant's belongings after eviction.

Before removing a tenant's personal belongings, landlords should consult with an attorney to ensure compliance with applicable laws and avoid legal disputes. Disposing of items considered as trash may be permissible, but valuables require careful handling.

Preventing illegal evictions

Understanding tenants' and landlords' rights and responsibilities during eviction proceedings is imperative. Whether you’re a tenant facing an eviction notice or a landlord navigating the complex eviction process, knowledge is power.

By being aware of the legality of eviction practices, recognizing signs of illegal eviction, understanding the consequences of wrongful eviction, and knowing the available remedies and preventive measures, you can confidently navigate the stormy seas of eviction.

Illegal Tenant Eviction FAQs

What is considered an illegal eviction in New York State?

In New York State, illegal evictions include threatening harm, disturbing the tenant's peace, and throwing out the tenant's possessions. These actions are prohibited by law.

Can a landlord evict you without going to court in NY?

In New York, a landlord cannot evict you without going to court and obtaining a judgment of possession. It is unlawful for the landlord to use force or unlawful means to evict a tenant.

What is an illegal eviction in SC?

An illegal eviction in South Carolina includes attempting to remove a tenant by shutting off utilities or changing the locks, known as a "self-help" eviction, which can lead to a lawsuit against the landlord.

Gemma Smith

With 7 years in property management, Gemma serves as a key content strategist at Azibo.com. While excelling in writing, editing, and SEO, she also enhances Azibo's social media presence. Passionately, Gemma educates others to make informed real estate investment decisions in the ever-changing market.

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