How to handle a lawsuit threat?

9 Replies

Hi there! New landlord here and looking for some advice!

Details: Louisiana property. I inherited a tenant when I bought the property. I did not renew a lease with the tenant. She immediately began threatening to sue if I did not give her back her full deposit. I kept out about $500 of $1700 for the maintenance she was required to do in the lease and did not. A few weeks after receiving her itemized deduction and remainder of deposit, she sent an email to dispute charges and threaten lawsuit again. I did not respond since the disputes weren't legitimate. About a month after that initial email (last week), she called and emailed again disputing charges, threatening to sue, and asking for our energy bills to audit us (one meter was split between two units and payments based on percentage agreed upon by past landlord). There is also a clause in her lease that all expenses from any legal action she takes against us would be her responsibility.

Questions

1. Should I respond or wait for communication from an actual lawyer? 

2. Do I have to give her those energy bills without some kind of court order (to be clear the bills were split according to the agreement, nothing to hide)? 

3. Is the clause in that lease requiring her to pay our expenses resulting from a suit legal? If so, should I be seeking a lawyer to handle this/possibly prepare a countersuit?

Thanks so much for any advice you have!

$500 is going to be small claims court. There won't be any attorneys involved. 

Was the money for the electric bills withheld from the security deposit or just billed to her monthly? If withheld, I'd provide those to her. If billed monthly, you can tell her the time to review them passed. However, if truly nothing to hide you may want to give them to her. After all, if it gets to court it shows that you were working with her to resolve the dispute. That's bonus points with the judge!

The clause that she pay for your legal expenses may or may not be legal. It could be viewed as a way to discourage her from seeking justice as even if she wins, your clause says she pays your costs. Generally "losing party pays winners reasonable costs" is allowed. 

Generally speaking states have laws about how SD disputes are to be handled. Tenant has to do X in Y days and landlord has to do A in B days and so on.  And things have to be done in a certain way.  Meaning, somethings have to be done in writing and delivered by first class mail etc.  Lots of steps, dates and procedures to follow.

First, I would get up to date on what this tenant did right and wrong.  I would just get a full idea of what your legal standing is before you do anything.  Also, make sure that you are responding according to the laws.  Meaning, if she followed all the rules to the letter and you didn't because you didn't respond to a complaint in time, you may just want to give her the 500 back and call it a lesson.

If you are (in your opinion) 100% right you can decide.  Can keep it, can give it back or try and make the drama go away and split it.  But you can comfortably be in the drivers seat.

A lot of people threaten to sue, most don't.  Generally a good idea not to worry over threats of a suit.  

What maintenance did she not do that you need $500 for your damages? Like furnace filters? Never heard of $500 for neglected maintenance.

Thanks for all your help! 

During her tenancy, I consistently worked with her on disputed bills and sent her screenshots of the bill breakdown as well as followed up with the energy company to request reviews in case there was a meter or other problem. I am not super comfortable sending the entire bill since it has personal account information. The prior landlords refused to provide any bill breakdown and she renewed her lease with them.Thoughts?

As far as the $500 -- that is approximate. It was a little over $500 including a lot of small things like a partial utility bill unpaid, lawn care, trash and debris, filter, etc. 

I would stop responding to her and wait to hear from the lawyer (which as others stated is rather unlikely as she would have to pay him/her).

If she does in fact sue you you can bring the energy bills to court along with all leases/agreements that show what she's responsible to for paying. 

I'm not local to LA so I don't know the answer to number three. 

I would recommend always providing an additional breakdown when a tenant disputes charges.  You don't have to go crazy just enough to justify the charges.  Most won't do anything and just want to be heard.  I'll tolerate it to a point before letting them know we've provided justification for each charge and will be unable to answer any more questions.  Some will ask for before and after photos.  I simply refer them to the condition catalog and provide after photos only as needed.

Lastly, don't ever waste your time arguing over deposits on the phone.  You can get sucked into hours of back and forth trying to find everything if the tenants is determined enough.  I ask them to send an email with all items they wish to dispute and why before providing any response.

Property required a full cleaning?  Include 20 or so photos clearly demonstrating it wasn't done.  

Yard cleanup?  Include a few photos showing the condition of the property at move out.

Utilities? Include date breakdowns for each statement outstanding.