Most people have rented a place to live. The relationship with the landlord or management company typically extends beyond one month, sometimes for many years or decades. With good credit, it’s usually easy to enter into a residential rental or lease agreement, with both parties typically signing an agreement to rent the residence for a set term or month-to-month.
Terminating the landlord-tenant relationship is more challenging and sometimes results in future credit and financial problems for the tenant. This blog explains several rights that tenants have under Federal law, which may reduce the harm from a dispute with a former landlord. This blog does not discuss rights that tenants have under local and state law. Tenants should consult with a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates (http://naca.net/find-attorney) in the consumer’s city or state of residence for further information.
The laws that will be discussed in this blog are the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
Consumer credit reporting agencies must comply with the FCRA. Not only must the big three credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union) follow the FCRA, also nation-wide tenant screening companies must comply. This includes CoreLogic SafeRent, formerly First American Registry and First Advantage SafeRent, which prepares a special credit report for landlords and management companies about a person applying to rent. If the tenant has been evicted from a residence by a court order (sometimes known as an unlawful detainer, summary possession, summary dispossess, summary process, forcible detainer, ejectment, and repossession), this legal judgment likely would appear on the tenant’s credit report.
Landlords get a copy of the applicant’s credit report to avoid tenants with a credit history of not paying their rent and being evicted. This is known as tenant screening and the landlord may order a “tenant screening report,” which is a special form of credit report.
The FCRA has four key tools to help consumers correct false information on their credit reports: (1) the right to a copy of their credit report either for free or a charge up to $11 per report; (2) the right to dispute errors and have the credit report updated if the credit reporting agency agrees with the dispute or cannot reasonably verify the information in the report; (3) the right to receive the results of the investigation, following a dispute by the consumer of any errors to the credit reporting agency; and (4) the right to be notified if any landlord uses their credit report in connection with an application which is denied because of information from the report.
Former tenants should learn and closely follow any case filed against them in the local courthouse. Many courts now have online case information or allow calls to the clerk during normal business hours. Preventing the case from becoming a judgment of eviction or a judgment to pay money to the former landlord is the first step in managing a dispute with a former landlord.
Incorrect judgments should be corrected by the court, often by a party or their attorney filing a “motion” to advise the court of an error. If a judgment is correct, the tenant should try to settle quickly or discharge it (and other debts) in bankruptcy. Eviction judgments or bad payment history on the consumer’s credit report, can cause future landlords to deny a tenant application.
Thus, the consumer should regularly obtain all credit reports that may contain such information and dispute errors directly with the credit reporting agency, either in writing or by phone. One of my websites, www.StopCollectionHarassment.com, has free sample letters that can be used to dispute credit report errors and has a phone log to track calls.
The FDCPA applies to attorneys and debt collection agencies who regularly collect consumer debts, including unpaid rent from a residence. (See Dickman v. Kimball, Tirey, & St. John, LLP, Case No. 13-cv-01999 JM (DHB) (S.D. Cal., Nov. 6, 2013) (tenant represented by Daniel Lickel, San Diego, CA.) When a landlord’s attorney misrepresents the amount that is due or makes false threats, harasses the consumer by phone, humiliates the consumer with calls to family or friends, or attempts to collect more than is permitted by the agreement or under the laws that apply to the agreement, the attorney may be violating the FDCPA. Thus, it is important to keep a file of the lease or rental agreement, any correspondence involving the agreement or the residence, and all complaints, judgments and notices to vacate the premises, so that they can be reviewed by an attorney with experience in tenants rights or the FDCPA. Sending a written dispute letter or a request for verification to the landlord’s attorney is also a right that consumers should promptly exercise for a claim of unpaid rent.
The FDCPA and FCRA provide for the consumer to recover his or her actual damages (which can include emotional distress and the value of any lost opportunities), court costs, and attorney’s fees. The FDCPA allows an additional $1,000 as a statutory penalty. The FCRA allows an award of punitive damages to punish the defendants under certain circumstances.
Former tenants have several rights under federal law, which are best protected by monitoring closely any cases filed in court, obtaining and reviewing their credit reports, saving correspondence with the landlord and the landlord’s attorney, and consulting with an experienced consumer or tenant rights attorney promptly.
Written by Robert Stempler, California Consumer Attorney and President of Consumer Law Office of Robert Stempler, APC. The firm has published several short videos, articles, and a blog for consumers on debt collection lawsuits at www.stopcollectionlawsuits.com.