Last week, I Defended a Landlord in a trial that was sued by their landlord for three times their security deposit. Maryland law allows for tenants to ask for up to three times the amount of their security deposit if the landlord wrongfully withheld the security deposit. In this case, the security deposit was almost $2000.00, so my client was being sued for slightly less than $6000.00.
The reason my client withheld the security deposit was because the house caught on fire due the furnace being poorly maintained The landlord claimed it was the tenant’s responsibility. The tenant claimed the furnace was the landlord’s responsibility. The Judge agreed with me that it was the tenant’s responsibility. Here’s why.
Because the lease said so. The smoking gun was the tenant maintenance clause.
Yes, it was that simple. The tenant presented evidence that the furnace filters were filthy. There was a lot of gunk in the filters. Indeed they were disgusting. They were so dirty that the tenant made the case that it must have been years of build up and negligence on behalf of the landlord for the filters to get to that point. The tenant didn’t know that at that time she was making the case for me.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the tenant was right that the gunk accumulated on the landlords watch (which there’s really no way of knowing). It doesn’t matter. The lease had a clause that explicitly outlined that it was the tenant’s responsibility to replace the furnace filters. Which she didn’t.
The disgusting furnace filters were the best evidence of why the furnace caught on fire, so the case was decided in our favor.
I’m writing this blog to illustrate the importance of not just furnace filter clauses, but tenant maintenance or even landlord maintenance clauses in general.
- This case would have been decided differently if:
- The lease said the replacement of furnace filters were the landlord’s responsibility.
- There was an oral lease agreement (thus no tenant maintenance clause).
- The lease agreement was poorly written and didn’t have a maintenance clause at all.
It’s the third scenario that I want to focus on because it’s the main take away here. And yes, I write lease agreements but I’m not writing this to sell that service of mine. I won my case with a lease agreement that wasn’t written by me. (Side note: it irritates me when I write about what I know to help others and I get accused of “self-promotion”. I’ll do an article on self-promotion one day. End rant).
Back on subject, I’ve had many landlords and investors forward me leases that they configured themselves that fall into category 3. Don’t be that landlord.
I’ve noticed, in my time as an attorney that most cases are “won” before I even get into Court. (Side note: Hopefully someone accuses me of self-demotion here).
If the facts are on my side (i.e. a tenant maintenance clause that requires the tenant to maintain the filters and the furnace explodes before the filters). Than my job is going to be easy.
If they aren’t (i.e. same case but no lease agreement), if I’m lucky I’ll be fortunate to have an uphill battle, if not then I might get my @$$ handed to me.