Renter's Rights: Understanding Constructive Eviction

Renter's Rights: Understanding Constructive Eviction

by Edward A. Haman, Esq., June 2020

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Has your landlord cut off the water, failed to fix a broken appliance, or tried to block access to the building? Sometimes landlords take such actions to force a tenant out in order to short-circuit the legal eviction process or because there are no legal grounds for eviction. Whether you are renting residential or commercial property, if your landlord is interfering with your use of the premises in an attempt to force you to move out, you need to understand your rights relating to constructive eviction.

 Understanding Constructive Eviction

What Is Constructive Eviction

Legally evicting a tenant can be both expensive and time-consuming for a landlord, who must pay court, service, and attorney fees. The process can take even more time and money if the tenant does not voluntarily move out. Some landlords are tempted to try to shorten the time and lower the cost by using other means to get a tenant to vacate. However, this can be even more costly in the long run if the tenant sues for constructive eviction.

Constructive eviction is an unlawful way to try to get a tenant to vacate. For example, a landlord might make it very difficult, or impossible, for the tenant to continue to use the property. Legal phrases used to describe a constructive eviction include "depriving the tenant of the quiet enjoyment of the premises" and "rendering the premises uninhabitable."

Such actions often involve the landlord shutting off utilities, changing door locks, refusing to make essential repairs, or blocking the entrance to the property. Constructive eviction can also consist of harassing the tenant through actions such as entering the premises without notice, repeatedly showing up under the guise of "checking on the premises," repeatedly calling the tenant, or shouting at the tenant or using abusive language.

Constructive eviction does not necessarily require that the landlord actually intend to make the tenant leave. A failure to fulfill the obligations imposed on a landlord by law or by the terms of the lease can also be considered constructive eviction. This can include such matters as failing to fix a leaking roof or tending to a broken appliance. If other tenants of the landlord engage in activities that interfere with the tenant's enjoyment of the property, such as by having frequent noisy parties, the landlord has a duty to control the other tenants. The landlord's failure to do so after being notified of the problem can also constitute constructive eviction.

What Is Partial Constructive Eviction

In many states, the entire premises don't need to be uninhabitable. Partial constructive eviction can occur if a tenant is deprived of the use of a portion of the property.

For example, if there is roof damage that is causing a major water leak in one of an apartment's three bedrooms, only that one bedroom is uninhabitable. This does not require the tenant to move out of the house but may still allow the tenant to reduce or suspend the payment of rent.

Recourse for Constructive Eviction

A tenant who is the subject of constructive eviction can file a lawsuit against the landlord. In court, the tenant must prove certain facts, referred to as the elements of constructive eviction. These elements are:

  1. That conditions existed that made the property uninhabitable
  2. That those conditions were due to the action or inaction of the landlord
  3. That the landlord was notified of those conditions
  4. That the landlord failed to remedy the problem within a reasonable time
  5. That the tenant vacated the premises within a reasonable time after the property became uninhabitable, although this last point is not required in a case of partial constructive eviction

For the last two elements, what is considered a reasonable time will vary depending upon the nature of the situation that made the premises uninhabitable. For example, a reasonable time for repairing a broken heating system in Minneapolis in January will be less than for repairing a broken oven. Health and safety issues require quicker remediation than issues that just create inconvenience.

In addition to the elements mentioned above, the tenant also needs to establish what damages were suffered, such as the cost of moving, any additional costs incurred in securing temporary housing and a new rental property, and any medical costs for injuries or illnesses that result from the constructive eviction. In a case of partial eviction, damages typically take the form of reducing or totally eliminating rent charges for the time the property was partially uninhabitable.

Constructive eviction may allow you to terminate your lease early and seek damages from the landlord. However, since the law of constructive eviction varies by jurisdiction, it is advisable to consult an attorney as soon as a problem arises.