I recently received a security deposit back (much lighter than I'd hoped!) and when I had called to question some of the charges (all of which, though scammy, were legitimate), the property manager informed me they had sent an amended claim, seeking another $490.
She claimed that the double paned glass doors, which were brand new, had been scratched by pets. She claimed that we must have therefore owned a pet and would be charged full replacement fees.
Here's the issue: We didn't own any pets. There are a number of feral cats around the neighborhood, but we neither owned them nor took care of them. In fact, we regularly shooed them from the premises.
I plan to dispute this ridiculous charge but, in the event that such an action fails, I plan to take it to small claims court.
My question is this: Do I have a case? If so, how do I go about proving that I am in no way responsible for any pet-related damages because I never, at any time, owned or took care of a pet? Basically, how do I prepare for this case?
2 Answers from Attorneys
First, if you are challenging the offset already taken, you will have no choice but to file the small claims action. It is the landlord's burden to prove damages related to your usage above normal wear and tear. It is your responsibility to respond to that proof. The proof would seem dependent on whether the scratches are beyond normal wear and tear and whether they are inside the doors rather than outside. Second, if you are only challenging their additional offset and they have already paid you the security deposit, it is up to them to file the case.
There is no such thing as a "claim" for an additional damage that is enforceable- without more. And my comments here assume that your landlord has already taken all of your security deposit.
The landlord would have to bring a small claims court case (5K or below). Watch out for the deadlines in such an event. There are countless defaults entered against current or prior tenants because they don't read the summons that accompanies the small claims petition (complaint) and miss critical deadlines.
Your former landlord also has to show more than normal wear and tear (which might require expert testimony).
They also have to provide estimates for the judge or jury, but the person or company that does an estimate has to be in the court room. Otherwise testimony about a written estimate is inadmissible hearsay.
Further, on your side of the calculus, is the fact that you really are the only one who can testify about pets or feral animals. How would the landlord know? (as you said)
However- and this is always very important in any law suit. You run a risk if you elect to fight and might have to pay the landlord's attorney's fees and court costs if you loose. And, sometimes even when the facts are 100% in your favor and the law is, as well, a judge or jury might rule against you. And don't overlook the hassle of a lawsuit and the fact you might even have to take time off from work, which your boss will not appreciate (unless of course you are your own boss).
I would write the prior landlord, say you disagree, ask for a written estimate, ask for a statement by a service company that full replacement is the only option, then I would offer say $50.00 to settle the matter- letting them know you will not pay any more than that (of course, and it is up to you, you could offer $75.00 or $100.00 to be done with the matter). Litigation provides little certainty. That is why almost every dispute is settled. If you settle you will want a general release. Nothing fancy. Signed by everyone and saying all disputes between former tenant(s) and former landlord are settled and the parties release all current and future claims against the other.
This is not a legal opinion. To obtain a legal opinion you should formally engage an attorney or talk to your local Legal Services attorneys. In summary, all the lofty academic aspects of the law are wonderful- but the law and facts often do not carry the day.
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