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How to Sue an Apartment Complex

Camila Lopez - Security Deposit - June 6, 2024

Start by sending your apartment complex a free demand letter.

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Contents

    Can you sue an apartment complex that has breached a lease term, wrongfully evicted you, or rented out an unsafe or hazardous apartment? Generally, the answer is yes. You can sue an apartment complex for a variety of reasons. 

    In this article, we discuss the most common reasons to sue an apartment complex, how to sue an apartment complex in small claims court, and how the small claims process works. 

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to an apartment complex? This is usually the first step before suing the apartment complex. Check out our demand letter tool.

    Examples of Small Claims Lawsuits Filed Against Landlords and Apartment Complexes  

    Case Facts

    Case Outcomes 

    A Los Angeles small claims lawsuit was filed against a landlord for failing to return a security deposit

    The ex-tenant was seeking a total of $9,000, which included the total amount of the security deposit, plus additional damages for “bad faith” violations under California Civil Code section 1950.5.  

    The court awarded the ex-tenant a total of $3,550, plus an additional $75 for court costs.

    The court allowed cleaning fees, and pro-rated carpet costs to be deducted from the total amount of the security deposit and did not award additional damages for bad faith under California Civil Code section 1950.5.  

    A Los Angeles small claims lawsuit was filed against an apartment complex for failing to return a security deposit, and not providing itemized receipts and invoices for work done (presumably to the rental property, but not clear)

    The ex-tenant was seeking a total of $1,500, which includes the security deposit and damages for bad faith retention of the deposit under California Civil Code section 1950.5.  

    The court awarded the ex-tenant the total $1,500 they were seeking an additional $150 in court costs

    A Riverside small claims lawsuit was filed against an apartment complex for failing to return a security deposit

    The ex-tenant was seeking a total of $2,000, which encompassed the full security deposit amount, as well as additional expenses incurred while searching for funds to secure a new apartment complex, including time, effort, and difficulty.

    The court awarded the ex-tenant a total of $1,600, plus an additional $135 in court costs. It is unclear from the court’s decision why they awarded that amount.

    *Please remember, each small claims case is unique, and the outcome of a particular case cannot be guaranteed. Ultimately, it will be up to the judge to decide how responsible a landlord or apartment complex is for your damages and how much they owe you.


    Common Reasons to Sue an Apartment Complex 

    You Have a Dispute Over the Security Deposit

    Failure to return a security deposit is a common reason to sue in small claims courts. These lawsuits usually involve an apartment complex that refuses to return all or a portion of a security deposit or that has charged additional fees beyond the security deposit. 

    All 50 states (and Washington D.C.) provide very specific security deposit laws that state by when a security deposit needs to be returned to a tenant who has moved out, how much an apartment complex can charge for a security deposit, and more. 

    Be careful when suing an apartment complex for a dispute about your security deposit. You want to make sure the apartment complex is the right entity to sue (make sure they have control of your security deposit). 

    Your Car Was Illegally Towed by an Apartment Complex

    Most states have towing laws that discuss when an apartment complex can request that a car be towed within that property. For example, California Vehicle Code Article 22658(a) discussed the requirements necessary for an apartment complex to tow a car, which includes having clearly displayed signs on the property that says when cars will be towed. 

    • Your lease may also discuss when an apartment complex can and can’t have your car towed. Make sure the apartment complex clearly follows the terms of the lease and any state or local laws when towing your vehicle. 

    • If your car was illegally towed (in violation of local towing laws or lease terms), sue the apartment complex in small claims courts for how much you had to pay to get your car back. 

    • Please note, most small claims courts only award money damages. This means if you win your case, the court won’t force the towing company to return your car. 

    Your Apartment is Uninhabitable 

    Many clients ask us if they can sue their apartment complex for things like mold, pest infestations, etc. The answer is yes. You can sue an apartment complex for unsafe and hazardous living conditions or for violating your state’s implied warranty of habitability

    An implied warranty of habitability, as the name suggests, requires apartment complexes to keep their property “habitable,” even if the lease does not explicitly cover certain things. For example, your state’s implied warranty of habitability may require your apartment complex to cover repairs not discussed in your lease. Further, what is deemed “habitable” or “safe” will vary from state to state. 

    Here are some common examples of what constitutes unsafe or hazardous living conditions: 

    • Mold or asbestos. 

    • No proper heating or hot water. This could be because your utilities need repairs and the apartment complex refuses to provide the necessary repairs or because the apartment complex has shut off your utilities. 

    • Pest infestations. Things like mice, cockroaches, etc., have persistently been a problem in your rental unit and that you have complained about to your apartment complex. 

    • No waste disposal or nonfunctioning waste disposal. 

    If you are suing for something like mold or asbestos, you may want to speak with a Tenants’ Rights lawyer, as some of these cases are bigger than small claims court. If you are suing for back rent for the time you stayed in the unsafe apartment, small claims court may be the appropriate court. Many times attorneys take landlord-tenant cases on a contingency and will offer a free consultation. If you have any doubts about where to file your lawsuit against an apartment complex, consult with an attorney. 

    You Were Wrongfully Evicted From Your Apartment 

    You can sue an apartment complex in small claims court for wrongfully evicting you or for not following the correct procedures for disposing of your property after an eviction.  

    However, before suing in small claims court, check if there is a Housing Court near you that is better suited to handle these types of claims. For example, in New York City, there is a Housing Court that handles evictions and can help you get back into your apartment. 

    If you were evicted and aren’t able to go back to your apartment and retrieve your belongings, there are a couple different actions you can take to get your property back

    Your Apartment Complex Was Negligent 

    Negligence is a legal term that refers to the failure to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm or injury to a tenant or their property. Further, negligence can occur in many different contexts and can encompass acts that lead to some of the claims discussed above. For example, your apartment was uninhabitable due to mold, and you develop asthma because of the mold. You had repeatedly informed the apartment complex about the mold, but the apartment complex negligently chose not to handle the problem on time. You can sue for negligence in small claims court. 

    Here are some additional examples where the apartment complex MAY BE considered to have acted negligently: 

    • The apartment complex didn’t ensure your apartment was properly secure and protected (maybe your front door didn’t have a lock), and your apartment was broken into.  

    • The apartment complex negligently repaired the stairs you use to go up to your apartment, and you fall and broke a leg. 

    • The apartment complex gave you the wrong leased unit, and when you asked for the right one, other tenants were still living there. You ended up paying more for a unit you didn’t intend to lease out. 

    To note: if you are bringing a negligence action in small claims court, you will be required to prove certain elements in addition to damages to the judge. Negligence law is quite nuanced and can become even more complicated depending on the facts of your particular case. Consider consulting with a Landlord-Tenant or a lawyer that specializes in negligence if you have any questions or doubts concerning an apartment complex’s negligent behavior. 

    Do You Need to Move Out Before Suing an Apartment Complex? 

    You don’t need to move out to sue your apartment complex in small claims court. 

    • However, most of the time, people do move out before suing, especially if they are suing for uninhabitable conditions in the apartment or for the return of their security deposit (review deadlines your landlord has to return your security deposit). 

    • If you didn’t move out before suing the apartment complex, you can sue for rent payments and other expenses you had to pay out-of-pocket to make your situation livable. For example, your lease stated the apartment complex would provide heating throughout your apartment, but when winter comes, your heating unit doesn’t work. You don’t move out; instead, you buy a heating unit for $1,000. You can sue the apartment complex for the $1,000 you paid out-of-pocket. 

    • Keep in mind, if you are looking for a judge to order a landlord to make repairs, then your state may have another type of court, usually called Housing Court, where you would need to file. In general, small claims courts only provide money damages and can’t force someone to do something.  

    Are There Federal Laws that Protect Tenants Against Apartment Complexes? 

    Yes, there are a couple of federal laws that protect tenants against things like harassment and housing discrimination.

    The Fair Housing Act 

    • The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when partaking in anything to do with housing, like renting apartments, on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. 

    • The Fair Housing Act also makes it illegal to harass tenants on the basis of their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. 

    • Besides suing in court for violations of the Fair Housing Act, you can also file a complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD).  

    The Fair Credit Reporting Act

    • The Fair Credit Reporting Act protects information collected by consumer reporting agencies such as credit bureaus, medical information companies, and tenant screening services.

    • Under this act, tenants are protected in a variety of different ways. For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act states apartment complexes cannot require a co-signer on the rental agreement or lease when it is unnecessary. Additionally, under this act, apartment complexes cannot require a larger deposit or higher rent payments from you than they do for other applicants and tenants. 

    • Learn more about the Fair Credit Reporting Act on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website

    Also, there are usually state landlord-tenant laws that may apply to your situation and provide you with additional protections against an apartment complex

    What To Do Before Suing an Apartment Complex

    Communicate With the Apartment Complex 

    We recommend that you reach out to the apartment complex if any issues arise during your tenancy. 

    • You may be able to figure out the problem without resorting to legal action and having to pay legal costs. 

    • The apartment complex may not be aware there is a problem, so your first step should always be to make sure the apartment complex knows you are having issues with your apartment. They may be very open to resolving your issue, as their reputation in the community is probably important to them (they want to make sure people keep renting their apartments!) 

    • Further, a law or your lease may require that you first inform the apartment complex of any problems with the apartment before suing them in court. Make sure to fulfill this requirement by communicating directly with the apartment complex or sending a demand letter (discussed below). 

    Review Your Lease 

    If you are considering suing an apartment complex for any of the reasons stated above, take a look at your lease and see what it says about the apartment complex’s responsibilities as well as your responsibilities as a tenant. 

    If you end up taking legal action, you can use the lease as evidence of the apartment complex’s failure to perform as contracted under the lease. It can also serve as evidence of how long your lease was for, how much you paid in rent and security deposit, etc. 

    Gather Evidence 

    It is essential that no matter your claim against an apartment complex, you have evidence to prove any damages in court. Evidence is one of the most important things (if not the most important) you will need to win your case against the apartment complex. 

    Here is a checklist of potential things that can be used as evidence: 

    •  Photos. It is always a good idea to take photos before and after you move into an apartment. For example, if you are moving out and receive a bill from the apartment complex for charges due to stains or holes in the walls that were there before you moved in, it is extremely helpful if you took photos on move-in date that illustrates the apartment was like that before you moved in.  

    • Your lease or rental agreement. As discussed above, this can be useful as evidence for many different reasons. 

    • Receipts or estimates of repairs. If you had to make repairs or pay out-of-pocket expenses to make your apartment liveable, make sure to save any receipts for these expenses or estimates from contractors. 

    • Correspondence between you and the apartment complex. For example, if your apartment complex refuses to return your security deposit and they sent you a text message saying, “I don’t want to return your security deposit because I don’t think you deserve it,” save this and show it to the judge at your small claims hearing. 

    Reach Out to Tenant Rights Groups 

    Consider reaching out to a Tenants Right Group or your local Legal Aid Society in case you have legal questions about your rights as a tenant against an apartment complex. For example, the non-profit organization JustFix gives tenants tools to help assert their rights, like a database to find out who owns buildings in NYC.  

    These types of organizations are able to assist tenants in a variety of ways: 

    • They have free legal resources for tenants that can’t afford to speak with an attorney or need help conducting their own legal research online. 

    • Sometimes, these organizations offer free workshops for tenants. For example, I attended a Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles’ Tenants Affirmative Small Claims Webinar when I had questions about renting in Los Angeles. The webinar gave me a basic understanding of tenant rights in Los Angeles. The webinar also had a question-and-answer segment where I could ask questions about my particular situation with an apartment complex. 

    • Oftentimes, these organizations hire lawyers or have volunteer lawyers that are able to answer a limited amount of legal questions for free

    Keep in mind that some Legal Aid Societies offer particular services to individuals within a certain income range. However, webinars like the one I attended are for the general public. 

    Consider Consulting With a Lawyer 

    Our clients often ask us what type of lawyer they should be looking for to help with their particular dispute. 

    • In the case of a tenant v. an apartment complex, consider consulting with a Landlord-Tenant lawyer or a Tenant's Rights lawyer

    • Sometimes Real Estate lawyers also help tenants, but usually, these types of lawyers are transactional lawyers that work on home-buying contracts. 

    • Note that some types of Landlord-Tenants lawyers will only handle either tenant issues or landlord issues exclusively. 

    • Check out the lawyer's website or call to confirm they help tenants who have disputes against apartment complexes. 

    Send a Demand Letter  

    We recommend that you send a demand letter before suing your apartment complex in small claims court

    • A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests and gives notice to the apartment complex of your intent to sue

    • For example, if your apartment complex refuses to make necessary repairs to your apartment, you can send a demand letter requesting the repairs you need. In the demand letter, say that if they don’t fulfill your requests within a certain deadline, you intend to sue. Learn how to write a demand letter to a landlord or apartment complex with our article here

    • Sending a demand letter can lead to you settling the problem you had with your apartment complex without having to take legal action (and pay legal fees!).  

    You can also send a complaint letter to the apartment complex if you don’t want to include language about filing a lawsuit in your letter. 

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to an apartment complex? Check out our demand letter tool.

    How to Sue an Apartment Complex in Small Claims Court 

    Once you have decided it is appropriate to file your claim against an apartment complex in small claims court, we have provided the general steps to file a small claims lawsuit. Remember, if you have any doubts about where to file your lawsuit, reach out to an attorney or legal aid organization, as discussed above. 

    Generally, these are the 4 steps to suing an apartment complex in small claims court: 

    1. Prepare the lawsuit.

    2. File the lawsuit. 

    3. Serve the lawsuit. 

    4. Prepare for the hearing. 

    Below, we break down each step. 

    People Clerk can help you prepare and file your small claims lawsuit against your apartment complex.

    Preparing Your Small Claims Lawsuit 

    To be able to actually file a small claims lawsuit, you will need to gather some necessary information first. You need to know (1) who you are suing and (2) their address. You need to make sure you are suing the correct apartment complex because if you win your case, you are only able to collect the judgment (your money) from the right entity. 

    We often see people get confused when suing for issues relating to housing. Make sure you are suing the right company. For example, if your dispute is over a security deposit, sue whoever has your security deposit. This may not be the apartment complex, it may be an individual landlord that owns the specific apartment you are renting. If you need to sue a landlord instead, check out our article here.  

    Here are some ways to find the correct apartment complex and their information: 

    • Check the lease. Most leases say who owns your apartment.  

    • Reach out to tenant rights organizations, as they may have tools to help you figure out who owns your apartment complex. As discussed previously, one such organization is  JustFix. Click on the link provided to be directed to their NYC search tool.   

    • Oftentimes, apartment complexes are owned by LLCs or big corporations. If an LLC or corporation owns your apartment complex, search your state’s Secretary of State website for their correct legal entity name. Their legal entity name should be listed there, along with an address. 

    We also see clients get confused between a property manager and a landlord. Learn more about when to sue a property manager, instead of a landlord or apartment complex in our article here

    You will also need to know how much you are suing the apartment complex for before filing your lawsuit: 

    • Small Claims Limit. Each state has a maximum amount you can sue in small claims for.  This is known as the "small claims court limits." For example, across California you can sue your tenant for $12,500, while in New York City, you can sue your tenant for $10,000. 

    • Calculate. You will need to write down a specific dollar amount you are suing for. For example, the apartment complex illegally evicted you and threw out your belongings, damaging them in the process. Calculate how much your damaged property is worth and sue for that amount. 

    Filing Your Small Claims Lawsuit 

    Once you have prepared the information you will need to fill out the small claims lawsuit, you will need to file the required form(s) with your local small claims court. 

    Generally, these are the options you have to file your small claims lawsuit: 

    • In person at the small claims court.

    • By mail.

    • Online. This is known as e-filing or electronic filing and is typically not an option as not all small claims courts have an online system where individuals can e-file their lawsuits. 

    • By fax. 

    Contact your local small claims court to find out which options are available to you, or check out our state-by-state guide to small claims court.

    When to file your lawsuit: 

    • If you are unable to resolve an issue outside of court with your apartment complex, you should file a lawsuit against them as soon as possible.

    • Waiting to file a lawsuit may not be a good idea because you run the risk of missing the deadline to file (statute of limitations), and you begin to lose evidence and credibility. 

    Serving Your Small Claims Lawsuit 

    The next step after filing your small claims court is to notify the apartment complex that they have been sued. This is called “service of process” or “serving.” 

    Important: you cannot serve the lawsuit on your own behalf! Generally, these are the people that can serve your small claims lawsuit:  

    • Court Clerk. The court clerk may be able to serve the lawsuit by mail. 

    • Process Server. A process server may be able to serve your lawsuit. A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits. This is what they do for a living, so they are pretty good at it. 

    • Sheriff. Not all sheriffs serve small claims lawsuits. 

    • Friend or Family member. You can have an adult friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. Make sure they are not part of the lawsuit or aren't involved with what happened with the lawsuit.

    How to Prepare for Your Small Claims Hearing 

    The most important thing you need to do to win your small claims case is to be prepared and have your evidence ready and organized. People Clerk can help you organize your evidence in a judge-friendly evidence packet.

    • Research the law surrounding your claims. Depending on what claims you are bringing to court, you may need to understand state, city, or even federal laws. For example, if you are claiming your apartment was uninhabitable or unsafe, you need to verify this with your state’s implied warranty of habitability laws. You can conduct your own research or consult with an attorney in preparation for your small claims hearing. 

    • Prepare your evidence. Your evidence should show the judge why the apartment complex was wrong and that you were right. Unfortunately, we have observed small claims hearings where the party has a seemingly good claim but can’t comb through the evidence they brought to support the claim. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. For example, if your claim is that the apartment complex breached your lease terms, bring the appropriate excerpts from your lease to the hearing so you can easily reference the terms that were broken. People Clerk can help you organize your evidence in a judge-friendly evidence packet.

    • Prepare your statement for the hearing. At the hearing, the judge will ask you questions about your case, mainly why you are suing the apartment complex, and how you calculated the amount you are suing them for. The judge will then turn to the apartment complex, and ask for their side of the story. Always start by addressing the judge as “your honor,” and from there, explain in a clear and concise manner what the dispute is about. For example, “Your honor, I am suing the apartment complex because I had to fix a leak in my bathroom for $1000 when it states in the lease they are responsible for these types of repairs.” 

    • Print enough copies of all your evidence. Make sure you have enough copies for yourself, the apartment complex, and the judge. 

    Alternatives to Suing in Small Claims Court

    Filing a Complaint Against the Apartment Complex

    Besides filing a small claims lawsuit against an apartment complex, you can also file a complaint against them with the appropriate federal, state, or local government entity

    For example, the Better Business Bureau (“BBB”) is a non-profit organization that helps consumers file complaints against businesses regarding issues such as poor service, false advertising, and product defects. Please note, you will not find an individual landlord on the BBB. The larger the apartment complex or landlord you rented from, the more likely they are to be found on the BBB. Learn how to file a complaint with the BBB here

    Another organization you may be able to file a complaint with is your state’s Attorney General. Each state in the US has an Attorney General who serves as the chief legal officer for that state and has different responsibilities. One of the main responsibilities of the Attorney General is to protect citizens within their state from deceptive business practices.

    Mediation

    You can also try to resolve your dispute against an apartment complex by participating in a mediation. Mediation is a meeting between you, the apartment complex, and a neutral third person called a mediator. Mediation is an effort to see if you and the apartment complex can come to a mutually agreeable solution or settlement. Mediation has a higher chance of being successful if the parties have a prior relationship. This tends to be the case for tenants and apartment complexes.

    If you reach an agreement during mediation, you can close your lawsuit. Don’t worry if you are unable to reach an agreement during mediation. In that case, you can continue to pursue your lawsuit in front of a judge. 

    Here are some ways you can try to mediate your dispute: 

    • Some small claims courts provide mediation as part of the small claims process. In those instances, you may only need to let the court know you want to participate in a mediation. 

    • Alternatively, most states have organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation run by volunteer mediators. Run a Google search for "mediation near me," and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. 

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to an apartment complex? Check out our demand letter tool.

    Author

    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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