Eviction is the physical removal of a tenant and their possessions from a rental home or apartment. Essentially, the landlord ends your tenancy and asks you to leave the property. However, there is a legal process that the landlord must follow with evictions, which involves filing documents with the court and providing notice in a timely manner.
There are also a series of court hearings that the landlord must attend. If your landlord does not follow the correct legal process, you can legally protest the eviction.
While it may sound like a landlord can evict tenants pretty easily — here one day and gone the next — this is not really the case. A legally effective eviction actually requires the landlord to follow a specific process, which takes longer and costs more money.
The eviction process can vary from state to state, but there are general guidelines that the landlord must follow. Some of the steps in the process include:
- Serving The Tenant With Notice: Before the landlord can go to court and plead the case for eviction, they must terminate the tenancy. Generally, a landlord can end the tenancy with or without a reason (although if the property is regulated by rent control ordinances, the landlord must have a legal reason).
- To evict a tenant without cause, the landlord must give the tenant 30 or 60 days’ notice to vacate the property (depending on your state’s laws).
- Filing an Eviction Action: After providing the tenant with notice that they must vacate the premises, the landlord must then file an action with the court to have the tenant lawfully removed from the home.
- The paperwork filed by the landlord, called a “complaint,” will outline the circumstances of the eviction and may contain a request for back rent and damages.
- The landlord must serve the tenant with the complaint along with a summons, which is a document that informs the tenant of the lawsuit.
- Allowing the Tenant to Answer: The tenant has a right to respond to the complaint in writing within a specific period of time (often noted on the summons). The tenant may use their answer to deny the landlord’s allegations or to provide a defense.
- Receiving a Judgment: After a hearing, the court will make a decision based on the evidence it has. If the tenant does not respond to the complaint, then the court will enter a default judgment for the landlord.
- Removing the Tenant: If the court enters judgment in favor of the landlord, then the tenant must vacate the property. However, the landlord cannot remove the tenant without the help of law enforcement.
- Usually local law enforcement will notify the tenant of the lawful eviction and the number of days the tenant has to move. If the tenant fails to leave the property in that time frame, law enforcement officers may physically remove the tenant.
The rules that apply to landlords and tenants can vary depending on what state you live in (and sometimes may even depend on your town or municipality). However, the rules generally prohibit certain types of evictions, such as:
- Self-Help Evictions: Self-help evictions generally happen when a landlord takes back the rental property without using the eviction process (and in some cases may amount to landlord harassment).
- Even if a tenant has not paid rent, has destroyed property, or has violated terms in the lease agreement, a landlord may only legally remove the tenant by following the established state eviction procedures.
- Retaliatory Evictions: It is also illegal in most states for a landlord to engage in retaliatory eviction (i.e., evicting a tenant as retaliation).
- For example, the landlord cannot evict you for exercising your legal rights, such as complaining to a health inspector or other responsible government entity for unsafe conditions in the rental home or apartment.
- Different states have different rules about how to determine whether the eviction was done as retaliation, so you will need to check your state’s landlord-tenant laws if you suspect this has happened to you.
A wrongful eviction is characterized by a landlord ignoring the landlord-tenant rules and taking matters into their own hands. This can take several different forms, especially in the case of self-help evictions.
Some examples of wrongful evictions include:
- Changing the locks on the home;
- Removing the tenant’s personal belongings from the home;
- Shutting off the tenant’s utilities (like water, electricity, and heat);
- Failing to provide notice of legal eviction proceedings; and
- Threatening, intimidating, or physically harming a tenant.
Of course, if the landlord engages in other activities that violate the state laws governing the landlord-tenant relationship, this behavior may also be construed as a wrongful eviction.
If you believe you have been wrongfully evicted from your home, or that your landlord did not follow the proper legal proceedings for the eviction, you can file a lawsuit against your landlord.
You may also have civil claims beyond the wrongful eviction, including trespassing, assault, battery, and other offenses. If your landlord becomes violent, threatens you, or steals your personal belongings, you may also press criminal charges as well.
If the court rules in your favor, you may receive certain types of damages:
- Economic damages, such as the cost of temporary housing (while you’re looking for a new place to live) and replacement or any damaged property;
- Non-economic damages, like compensation for pain and suffering; and
- Punitive damages, which punish the landlord. Depending on where you live, this can be two or three times the amount of your economic damages.
Again, the amount of damages in your case will vary depending on where you live and the specific details of your case. A lawyer in your area is the best resource if you have questions regarding compensation or damages for a wrongful eviction.
If the landlord has followed the legal procedure that your area requires for eviction proceedings, this can serve as a defense to a wrongful eviction lawsuit. Even if the tenant stops paying rent, the landlord is still required to follow the legal procedure for the eviction.
A tenant’s bad behavior, non-payment of rent, or other violations of the lease are not defenses to wrongful eviction.
If you believe you have been wrongfully evicted, it is in your best interests to consult an experienced real estate attorney who practices in landlord-tenant law. The right attorney can help you with you specific circumstances and give you advice about the best way to proceed.
If you do need to file a lawsuit against your landlord, your attorney can help you file the correct paperwork with the court, represent you in the courtroom, and help you obtain the best outcome for your situation.