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How to Sue an Apartment Complex

Claudia Diaz - Security Deposit - January 20, 2023

Start by sending your apartment complex a free demand letter.

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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. Keep in mind, if you sue an apartment complex in small claims court, the judge can only award you money damages, so consider suing in another court if you are seeking a different type of relief. 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. 

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. 

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. If you want to sue the apartment complex or towing company to force them to return your car, small claims court may not be the appropriate court. Most small claims courts only award money damages if you win your case; they won’t force someone to do something. 

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. 

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. 

Disclaimer: 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.

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.

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!).  

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

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.  

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. 

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. 

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.

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

These organizations will be able to investigate your complaint and help you resolve your dispute.  

Learn how to file a complaint against an apartment complex with our article here. 

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.

Author

Claudia Diaz

Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia holds a J.D. degree and is a certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts.

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